The Pastoral Provision in reverse! - RG
by Klas Stolpe
Petersburg Pilot (AK)
February 12, 2009.
Petersburg’s former Catholic Priest ‘Father Mike’ continues his service to God as the new pastor at Petersburg Lutheran Church.
“We’re all on the same team,” Pastor Mike Schwarte stated. “I’m just changing uniforms. It’s God’s stadium. I’m just moving from left to right field or center field, if you will. In the Psalms it’s all about God’s vineyards… all I am doing is cultivating another vineyard.”
While Pastor Schwarte has changed uniforms recently, ending a two-year employment last Friday as a Petersburg City police officer to minister full-time at the Lutheran Church, he was referring to his religious uniform change. It was a decision that, if we keep it in sports lingo, was not about the dollars but about the love of the game.
Schwarte first came to Alaska in 1980 at the age of 18 and fell in love with it. Born in Illinois he went to junior college as a hard-playing baseball athlete and lived that lifestyle, even earning a tryout with the Baltimore Orioles. He needed a break from that life though and kept coming to Alaska to work.
When his father passed in 1986 he began to question life and what the higher purpose is and his first thoughts of full time work for the Lord. He volunteered with a Jesuit Priest on the border of Juarez, Mexico. He then went on a year of Catholic Youth Ministries. In the fall of 1988 he went back to college. He obtained a Masters of Divinity from Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon, a 4 year program after obtaining 3-year bachelors in Philosophy in 1995. He became a Catholic priest in Centennial Hall in Juneau and spent ten years in full time ministry as a Catholic priest in Alaska, the last five at Petersburg’s St. Catherine’s Church, before he had to resign because of an impending marriage. While a Catholic priest he flew a Cessna 182 between parishes and youth retreats in Kake, Ketchikan, Yakutat, Skagway, Hoonah, Petersburg, and Wrangell. After the priesthood he flew for Pac Wing for nine months before taking a position as a police officer in October 2006.
“That was a wonderful experience there,” Schwarte commented. “I absolutely loved being a priest in a full-time ministry… but I love being married even more. I love my wife and kids and I can’t thank God enough for the direction he has moved my life.”
Whether one believes in God or not, it was a series of twists and turns that put Mike Schwarte in the Little Norway community and standing on a pulpit. Most recently was the gentle hand grasping his arm at the post office a year ago in a firm commanding way and the voice of Joy Janssen saying, ‘Father Mike, the Lutheran Church needs a pastor…I think you would be a great pastor, you ought to think about it.’ And the seed was planted in his heart to return to preaching.
“I’ve been talking to Father Pat Casey about trying to do this as respectfully as possible,” Schwarte said of the change. “With respect to their needs, I still love the folks at St. Catherine’s. I love this town, and I didn’t pursue this (gesturing to his Pastor’s office at the Lutheran Church). I just completely turned it over to God.”
Schwarte and wife Ying had been worshipping at the Lutheran Church since his stepping down from the Catholic Church. Lutheranism founder Martin Luther was a 16th century Catholic priest and the similarities between the two denominations is close.
“I feel almost a kindred spirit to Martin Luther, in that I understand some of the struggles he faced with the hierarchal system of the Catholic Church and the reason they do things,” Schwarte commented. “It was a perfect fit. The understanding of the Lord’s supper here at the Lutheran Church is very similar at the Catholic Church, and I was very blessed by that.”
Ying was baptized at the church October 19. Born and raised in communist China, Ying has a degree in English from China’s Jilin University. Her professor there was also a Marian priest - Father Brian Barons - so she learned of Christianity. She would be one of Mike’s twists and turns.
When Schwarte was at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church he left on Sabbatical in January 2005 to study Spanish in Bolivia at a language school taught by Barons. Ying also attended. The first day of class at the chapel, only one seat remained in the large class and it was next to Schwarte. Ying, arriving late, sat there. It was an immediate attraction.
“But as a Catholic priest I ran from it,” Schwarte said. “I just got tired of running. I thought maybe this is God’s will. I went down there to learn Spanish; the last thing I thought was that I would get married.”
The whole orientation week, a group of educators gave the group tests and oral exams on compatibility learning styles to decide which pairs of students would work best together. The educators then gave each student a place card and they were to find the matching card among their peers. Schwarte’s card showed an apple with a bite out of it. His partner for the next six months would have the same card; it was Ying. The first day of classes Ying and a friend arrived terrified. A local gang had followed them. Schwarte was appointed by Father Steve at the language school to walk them to school each day. He startled the hoods away. They would take a new route to school; one which passed a Judo school and the three took lessons. On the walks Schwarte learned the Chinese culture. The two studied together four hours a day, five days a week and volunteered at orphanages on the weekend. Schwarte made no advances, concentrated on his studies, and continued to council with local Catholic brothers.
“The whole time we were down there we just grew closer,” Schwarte commented.
On a trip to see Peru’s Machu Picchu, Schwarte proposed and returned to Petersburg in September of 2005 engaged. He sought counsel from the Catholic Bishop Mike Warfel in Juneau who thought he had lost his faith.
“I just wanted to do what I was doing, but with a wife,” Schwarte commented. “I told him if anything, my faith has increased. I had turned to God more in this relationship with Ying.”
Personally Bishop Warfel thought a priest should be allowed to marry but he could do nothing, it would have to be decided in Rome. While many Bishops feel the same way in the Catholic Church, the archaic tradition still exists although the reason it was first implemented does not. It was originally a property problem from before the 12th century; married priests with children would will their land to the children who would liquidate the property, take the money and leave, and the parishioners would be left with nothing.
Today, 20% of Catholic priests are married. Most belong to Eastern Bloc Catholic churches. In America, Catholic priests who are married did so while priests in other Christian denominations and then became Catholics (an exception to the celibacy rule was created on July 22, 1980). Many Popes in history have been married. Six of the seven changes Martin Luther tried to make in the Catholic Church have been changed; the last remaining is that of Catholic priests being allowed to marry.
“He’s a young fellow who has a broad range of connection to a broad range of folks in town and he enjoys being here,” 30-year Petersburg Lutheran parishioner Dave Riemer commented. “I absolutely enjoy his sermons. He’s really prepared and grounded in the scriptures, he brings the scriptures to your daily life. He’ll do a fine job and we are excited to have him with us; the exciting thing is that he was right on our door step.”
“Lutherans are pretty much Catholic but without the Pope,” parishioner James Martinsen commented.
Michael Schwarte will become the official Lutheran pastor in a ceremony on February 29.
“We miss him a lot,” Catholic Church attendee Kris Kissinger commented. “It was hard at first but I think most of the parish is happy for him. Others are a little upset but most have moved on.”
The Schwarte’s have two children: Joy Elizabeth, 2 years old, and Olivia Michael Lynn, 9 months. Joy is a popular Chinese name and also reminds them of the now deceased Ms. Janssen and Olivia was named because the two met in Bolivia.
“We are so blessed to be received so well here at the church,” Schwarte commented. “Blessed beyond words and our wildest dreams.”