By John Heuertz
Special to the Catholic Key
KANSAS CITY—Here’s the joke of the day, as told by a 90-year-old Catholic priest: “I sell insurance. Fire insurance.”
This priest pastors a large and growing Midtown parish that draws members from four counties in two states. He says Mass for his flock every day, eight times a week. He also hears Confessions for over an hour a day. They aren’t assembly line Confessions, either. He takes his time with each penitent.
His church building is beautiful inside and out. The taggers seem to leave it alone. That’s not always the fate of the church across the street. But his building is 105 years old, and so is the roof.
The parish recently spent $200,000 to raze an old school building, fill the resulting hole with 1,000 tons of rock, and build a parking lot over it. He’s the spearhead for all such things.
Recently, a caller found him paying bills. When he’s asked about the parish business manager, he just laughs.
He has a little backup. But his description of a typical day off sounds suspiciously like a full workday. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like a full workday for a man half his age.
The church is also the diocesan shrine of Divine Mercy, and he’s the shrine’s rector. He recently beat a fatal illness that his doctor had gently suggested he probably wouldn’t beat. He attributes this victory entirely to God’s answering the prayers of others.
Did we mention six decades of working with the marriage tribunal?
He’s French by ancestry, and the joie de vivre is real. Monsignor William Blacet is having a fine time with his life, one-liners and all!
“December has always been a very special month in my life and a time of reflection for me,” he writes. And no wonder: he was born in December, ordained a priest in December, invested as a Monsignor on December 8, 1957—and celebrated his 65th anniversary as a priest this past Sunday, December 11 by saying Mass for hundreds of well-wishers, including his bishop.
“I’ve been a priest for exactly 32 and a half years,” Bishop Robert W. Finn said, “so I’ll have to speak twice as long to be as effective.”
The bishop thanked Msgr. Blacet for the friendship he has shown to so many, and praised his fidelity and obedience to Christ and to the seven bishops he has served.
“For 65 years he himself has been an apostle of Divine Mercy in his faithful priestly ministry to God’s people,” the bishop said. He also exhorted those present to live their own vocations with similar fidelity to Christ.
William J. Blacet—“some call it blessed, some call it blasted” — was born on December 6, 1921 in St. Joseph’s Cathedral parish, the third youngest of two brothers and six sisters.
William’s pious father was a newspaper engraver with a sense of humor, and his mother was devoted to Mary. “She’d iron and starch his shirts and put five buttons to one side of the ironing board,” the Monsignor said. “When she was done with them she’d move them to the other side of his shirt. When she was done with that she had a decade of the Rosary. She never stopped saying the Rosary.”
Benedictine sisters from Atchison ran the Cathedral grade school, and every year they asked fourth graders what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“I said I wanted to be a tramp. I could go south in the winter when it was cold and north in the summer when it was hot. I would have no expenses, no responsibilities. What more would you want? Sister’s face kind of fell.”
He went to the Christian Brothers high school, played basketball and clarinet, and learned debate. He never thought much about the priesthood. But he always loved to serve Mass, and took every opportunity — even substituting at Benediction or serving for Bishop Charles J. LeBlond in his private chapel as needed.
At Christian Brothers “I was told ahead of time that if I were a good boy and behaved myself I would be valedictorian of the class. That meant a scholarship to the local junior college. But what would I be going to?”
A chance conversation with a Cathedral priest persuaded him to try seminary life at Conception Abbey for his first two years of college.
Summers were at home, working part time at the Big Chief tablet factory for $40 a week, or in a Felix Street women’s shoe store for $1 a day and 50 cents commission per sale.
Bishop LeBlond sent him on to Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis for a BA and four years of Theology. War came in the mean time, and William stayed in school year-round to avoid giving scandal back home because he wasn’t in the military.
William Blacet was ordained a priest with three other men on December 21, 1946, the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle. It was a year early for him, and no diocesan priest has longer tenure today. (Fr. Hugh Mullin was ordained the very same day in Kansas City and retired in Florida from full-time priestly ministry in 1977. Msgr. Blacet maintains that Fr. Mullin and not himself is the senior priest of the diocese.)
Fr. Blacet was assigned to work part time at the Chancery in St. Joseph, where he shared an office with the Chancellor and with Bishop LeBlond himself. His salary was $500 a year.
He also worked part time at St. Joseph’s poorest parish, Holy Rosary on the far south side – whose legendary pastor, Monsignor Maximilian Rupp, taught his young assistant how to hop a moving rail car safely.
Apparently the railroaders were used to the Monsignor. But it was the most practical way to visit the Mexican packinghouse workers and section hands who lived with their families in old boxcars in the weed-infested lots west of the yards.
“You had poor people but they were rich in faith,” Msgr. Blacet says. “They depend on God more.”
In 1950 Fr. Blacet earned a licentiate in canon law, eventually working in marriage tribunals both in St. Joseph and in the consolidated diocese after 1956.
“It was only part time because in those days you didn’t hear of a Catholic couple getting divorced,” he said.
“There was a commitment in those days. But the idea of commitment is not there today.” Which is why he still advises brother priests on a pastor’s role in an annulment petition.
In 1959 he was temporarily assigned to pastor St. James parish in Liberty — “Nine years later they found out I was still there,” as he puts it — and then served as pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes (1968), St. Thomas More (1975), the Co-Cathedral (1983), and Our Lady of Good Counsel (1992), where he is today.
There were perhaps 40 regular Mass goers when he arrived at Good Counsel “and I think you had to be 70 years old to belong. But in the seminary they didn’t teach me how to close a parish or how to retire.”
His assignment was perhaps intended as a kind of semi-retirement. But a funny thing happened: the parish started to grow.
“We had some young families, and then we found home schoolers because they got on the Internet and said they thought they had found a place with good liturgy and good sermons.”
“It’s an unusual, unique parish. They’re the reason we can afford to replace the roof. If I had to do it over again, I’d do it over again.”
In 1996 Pope John Paul II invited all the Catholic priests of the world to Rome for four days to celebrate their shared 50th anniversary of priestly ordination—an event Msgr. Blacet calls “the highlight of my life so far.”
“Over 1,500 priests attended. I thought, spaghetti, wine, we’ll have a ball! They gave us a retreat for three days.”
“But there was a fraternity there, a bond there. You could tell. Whether you saw someone from Germany, from Spain, or wherever. You were a priest and you could feel that bond with other priests. I’ll never forget my 50th anniversary.”
“As a priest I have to give myself to the people completely,” he continues. “But don’t I have any time for myself?”
“I ask God about it. Then God says, ‘Hey, Blacet, where did you get your time? Answer the phone, dummy. You’re working for me.’”
“What is love without sacrifice? Christ showed us love with his Cross.”
“The last thing Pope John Paul said to us was, ‘Love your priesthood and remain faithful to it.’ I pray every day that I can be a holy priest that is faithful to the priesthood and faithful to God.”
“I bought stock in Kleenex because I’m trying to keep my nose clean,” he says. “I don’t want Purgatory when I die.”
“I want to hear ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”