When Frank Stempfle was born prematurely in a rural Alberta farmhouse on a winter day in 1926, he weighed just 2 ½ pounds. His father placed him in a shoebox near the oven to keep him warm, and the neighbours didn’t think he’d live.
But against the odds, Frank not only survived; he grew into a healthy young man with a love for sports and the outdoors, a fierce competitive streak, and a self-deprecating sense of humour. He also went on to become what is believed to be the longest-serving parish priest in Canada.
Priests in the Archdiocese of Edmonton are expected to serve in active ministry to age 75, as long their health and personal circumstances allow. But that was way too early for Father Frank.
At 91, after 66 years of serving as a pastor in the archdiocese, he has decided to retire on Sept. 30. The date will be a bittersweet one, because it also means the closure of St. Patrick Parish in central Edmonton, where he has served two terms as pastor, 1970-77 and 1986 to present.
The parish has been slated to close for some time, but Archbishop Richard Smith agreed that it could remain open as long as Father Frank would serve as pastor. So he’s making plans to move to an apartment where he’ll be able enjoy visits with friends and family, and he might get in a few more games of golf, but beyond that, he’s not sure what retirement will hold.
“I don’t know quite what to expect, since my whole life has been with the church beside me and serving people as a priest,” he said. “And of course they were of service to me, by being so kind and good to me. That’s why I stayed, because … of their support and their love. So it wasn’t a hardship; it was a joy and a privilege to be here.”
It’s clear that the feelings are mutual. Last year, his parishioners arranged for the street in front of the church to be named Father Frank Stempfle Way.
“Even though I’ve long admired the man for his commitment, his gentleness, his love for the people, it was all confirmed on the Sunday when I visited the parish to announce his retirement,” Archbishop Smith recalled. “The love of the people at that parish for Father Frank was palpable.
“We were coming in the entrance procession, for example, and I don’t know how many little children were reaching out their hands for a high-five, and here was this priest in his 90s giving them the high-five back. The grins of sheer delight on the faces of the children told me a great deal about how people of all ages really have a genuine love for this priest and for the commitment that he’s made to them over the years.”