We invite readers to send short stories about the ways in which their lives have been personally blessed by the life and work of priests and religious in our diocese.
By Karina Fabian
Father John Miller grew up in Nebraska, in a very Catholic community where the priest was the most important person in town. As a child, he looked up to his priest; as an adult, he can sympathize with the challenging role he had.
After having graduated from the same high school his mother and grandparents attended, then college at his father’s alma mater, Father Miller pursued a teaching career. That career took him to Lewis and Clark Junior High in Billings. He loved teaching, but the thoughts of a priestly vocation continued to pull at him. Finally, while working a summer for the National Parks Service in western Montana, he spoke to Bishop Raymond G. Hunthausen.
“I was feeling this calling, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave teaching. Bishop Hunthausen suggested I try the seminary for a year.” The bishop even offered to send him anywhere within the United States. He chose St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colo., and loved it. In 1978, he was ordained, with Bishop Elden F. Curtiss even going to Billings to ordain him.
His first assignment was at St. Patrick’s in Butte with Father John Hunthausen, brother of Archbishop Hunthausen. In 1980, Bishop Curtiss asked him to get an advanced degree to work in administration in the Catholic school system. He earned his administrator’s certificate and did some doctoral work at Montana State University, then went back to Butte as a principal and superintendent of schools for the diocese from 1981 to 1983.
In 1983, he was pulled from that to work on a very special project – the celebration of the diocese’s centennial. He helped organize the celebration, from making arrangements for special visitors to coordinating local celebrations. In the meantime, he also traveled around the diocese to speak to parishes about Carroll College.
After the centennial celebration in August 1984, he went to Frenchtown to serve as pastor. “It was a terrific experience – a small parish in a small town close to Missoula. I loved it,” he said.
In 1990, he took a six-month sabbatical to attend North American College in Rome, after which he was assigned to St. Anthony’s in Missoula, where he remained for over 14 years. He still has a special place in his heart for the people of the parish and for the community and city. “I thought I’d be there forever,” he said.
In 2006, however, he was sent to St. Richard Parish in Columbia Falls. He admits the adjustment has been tough – after nearly 20 years in the Missoula area, he’s been challenged to create new networks and make new friends. Even after a year and half, he still feels the effort. “I’m slowly getting to know people. I must say, however, the people (of St. Richard’s) have been very good to me and the parish itself is a good place.”
Father Miller is very frank about his calling: “Vocations are not fluff. Some days you say, ‘This is the greatest thing that happened to me,’ and some days it’s a challenge. In many ways it’s like parenting. It’s total immersion into a way of life. It’d be an injustice to say it’s just wonderful.”
Nonetheless, there’s something appropriate in recognizing those challenges. “What happened to Jesus is what we (all people) go through. The Easter season is about us as we go through the passion and death, hoping for the resurrection. You can’t have a resurrection without the suffering and death,” he said.
Nor can you have the fruits of being an important man without the burden of that responsibility.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 23, No. 6, June 15, 2007.