Year of the Priest: Father Michael Tierney celebrates 40 years as a priest
By John Heuertz
Special to the Catholic Key
LEE’S SUMMIT — A Catholic priest is ordained a priest of God forever, which implies that a priestly vocation is also forever.
Father Michael Tierney
But the vocational seed can come from anywhere in time - from a pastor’s example, from reading lives of the saints, or even from a profound personal experience.
“How did I get interested in the priesthood? There’s no one simple answer,” says Father Michael Tierney, pastor of Holy Spirit parish in Lee’s Summit. “The best I can do is that my dad died just when I turned 12 and somehow or other I think that planted the seed.”
Home parish ordination was a common practice in those years, and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan ordained Father Tierney a priest in 1969 at St. Peter’s on Meyer Boulevard.
Bishop Joseph Sullivan’s superior, Bishop Charles Helmsing — “a very dignified man,” Father Tierney recalls — attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. “He was tremendously excited by that experience and was very focused on implementing all the changes the council called for.”
“When I was ordained most of my theology was literally hot off the press from Rome,” Father Tierney continues, “so I’ve always thought we had the academic background and were pretty much up to speed on what Vatican II was saying.”
The young priest became an associate pastor, going first to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City for about two and a half years. He then spent five years at St. Elizabeth’s in Waldo, and another four and a half years at St. Patrick’s north of the river.
“In all three of those assignments there were at least three other priests in the rectory. But it was another era,” he says.
In February 1981, Father Tierney became pastor of St. Mary’s parish in St. Joseph, where he tackled some unforeseen challenges to his priestly life.
“For the first time ever, I had to learn how to shop for groceries and cook for myself,” he says. “Someone gave me a copy of something called the ‘I Hate To Cook Book’ which basically said take the can off the shelf, turn on the stove, and heat.”
After helping St. Charles Borromeo parish in Gladstone with a complicated pastoral situation - “the issue of liberals vs. conservatives was an oversimplification,” he said — Father Tierney moved to Coronation of Our Lady parish in Grandview in 1986, where he stayed for the next 12 years.
He came to Holy Spirit parish in Lee’s Summit on June 16, 1998 as its second pastor — arriving in a period of explosive growth for the area.
At the time, Lee’s Summit had been either Missouri’s fastest-growing or second fastest-growing city for several years in a row. Holy Spirit’s growth - from 300 families then to 1600 families today and still growing - reflected the area’s larger realities.
“The old church had just been built in 1993 and that had been a tremendous accomplishment, but we had to add a third Sunday Mass just to accommodate people,” Father Tierney says. “It became apparent that we needed a larger church.”
“Financially, it’s been tricky for the parish to accommodate all this growth,” said long-time business manager Cary McIntosh. “He’s had to manage population growth and the space problems we’ve had. But he knows his stuff.”
“When we built the church it was all consultation,” says pastoral associate Ann Hayles. “He wasn’t making the decisions only, and I think a lot of people appreciate the fact that he respects the laity.”
“He’s good with people,” says Father James Healy, pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine parish in Blue Springs. “And he’s always been committed to creating small communities within larger communities.”
“The concern that people can get lost in a big parish makes neighborhood communities important,” Father Tierney says. “I like the idea of focusing on a smaller area where people are ‘called by name’.”
The Lee’s Summit Ministerial Alliance is a smaller community serving a larger one. Half a century ago, it was a traveler’s aid service in a sleepy country town of about 2,000 souls. Now Lee’s Summit’s population may reach 90,000 in the 2010 Census.
The growth has come with growth pains, which the alliance has shared.
“Father Tierney got involved at a time when the ministerial alliance had perhaps lost its sense of who it was,” says Rev. Ron Galvin, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lee’s Summit. “But he provided the leadership.”
“He shepherded us through several very scary conversations in a non-scary way. I think he is the calmest person I have ever met.”
“He’s a wonderful man and a wonderful priest, and I think all the pastors in the ministerial alliance would consider him that.”
“He’s very community oriented,” Hayles says. “He encourages us to do community work. He figures it’s part of our parish ministry.”
Father Tierney is also noted for the personal touch, several parishioners noted.
He’s been very effective in reaching those of different faiths and making them feel comfortable and welcome, whether it is at Mass, funerals, weddings, or community services where he is very active,” says parishioner and long-time parish liturgist Geri Watts. “Living the liturgy is his calling.”
“When we celebrate First Reconciliation a lot of the children will want to stand in his line and talk to him. He puts them at ease and makes them feel comfortable,” says parish member and director of religious education Mary Kay Ryan.
After ten and a half years at Holy Spirit, Father Tierney will become pastor of Christ the King parish in Kansas City, effective next month. What challenges come with this new assignment?
“In very general terms the biggest challenge of being a pastor is that you have so many people with their own life circumstances, their own challenges,” he says. “You have to be a pastor for everyone, and sometimes that’s extremely difficult.”
“But one of the terms of Jesus is ‘mediator’ and that’s one of the roles in which the pastor is to model Jesus. A pastor is to be a mediator, and be a pastor for everyone.”
“He loves the church,” says Hayles. “I think the main thing is, he is a good man and a holy priest.”