Archdiocesan priests enjoy some regular — and not so regular — hobbies

Fr. Steve Wertanen, pastor of St. Anastasia Parish in Troy, poses with some of his graphic design creations at the parish last summer during the “Pokemon GO” smartphone game craze. Fr. Wertanen says his background in advertising has translated to his role as pastor, allowing him to be creative in his approach to ministry.
Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

Detroit — So what do priests do in their free time?

Officially, a priest’s job never stops, but even priests need a chance to get away every now and then and enjoy some “regular guy” hobbies.

For the Archdiocese of Detroit’s priests, favorite pastimes are as diverse as the priests themselves — from ice hockey to hunting, woodworking to sailing. But they all have one thing in common: their hobbies are very much a part of who they are as people, and in turn, who they are as priests.

Sailing in the silence

When not at St. Matthew Parish on Detroit’s east side, Fr. Duane Novelly likes to  be out on Lake St. Clair on his 31-footer.

Fr. Novelly came from a boating family, but didn’t get into sailing until a friend’s family invited him out on their sailboat in Lake St. Clair.

An avid sailor of 37 years, Fr. Novelly likes to get out on the water at least once every couple weeks, when he’s not managing the day-to-day ministry of the parish.

“A friend of mine’s dad had a sailboat, another friend had a sailboat, so I learned to sail and I love it,” Fr. Novelly said. “I have three Mackinac races under my belt, crewing on other boats. I used to race the circuit on Lake St. Clair in my own boat, Dom Savio, which means ‘Our Savior,’ and on vacation I’ve sailed to Tobermory in Canada by the Georgian Bay.”

Fr. Novelly also has sailed in Lake Erie and even rented a boat to sail the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.

“My biggest enjoyment when I go out there is to get in the middle of the water — no engine, no noise; it’s just quiet,” Fr. Novelly said. “It’s just you, the wind and the sea, and the ability to direct or play against the wind. I love sail trimming, setting a course over and against the wind to get the maximum out of the boat.”

In addition to the serenity of being on the lake, Fr. Novelly says there are many allegories to being a pastor and a sailor.

“You see the image of the Church as the bark of the boat,” Fr. Novelly said. “Being part of it, you go out there and have to prepare for what the Lord gives you. I have a little tag, a brass plate: ‘Oh God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.’”

Fr. Novelly said most of his sailing trips are a chance to relax, recharge and get caught up in God’s creation. But there are a few times when he had to rely on the Lord’s good graces during a sailing adventure.

“Often when you’re out there, you’re praying for wind or praying for the Lord to calm a storm,” Fr. Novelly said. “There was one time I was with my mom, my sister and my brother and we were in a storm on Lake St. Clair. I was out steering the ship, and they were down below, praying the rosary for our safety. So there are times when being a sailor makes you closer the Lord.”

Advertising for the Lord

Fr. Duane Novelly, pastor of St. Matthew Parish on Detroit’s east side, is pictured at the helm of his vessel, “Dom Savio,” which means, “Our Savior.” Fr. Novelly is an avid sailor who has captained boats in the Caribbean, Great Lakes and in Canada.
Courtesy of Fr. Duane Novelly

Fr. Steve Wertanen at St. Anastasia Parish in Troy worked in advertising for six years before becoming a priest.

The former art director for advertisements graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in fine arts and designed ads for television and newspapers.

“When I was in advertising, I’d spend a lot of late hours coming up with ideas,” Fr. Wertanen said. “Even when you thought you had a good idea, you didn’t stop because you thought you could come up with a better idea.”
Fr. Wertanen got into advertising because it allowed him to express his creative side, coming up with a new idea for a product and getting across a message in a clear, direct way.

“It taught me how to be creative about sending a message to other people in a product,” Fr. Wertanen said. “How can I best introduce a message to other people? Advertising has certainly made me creative in what I can do in presenting the Gospel as a priest.”

Most of the graphic design industry has switched from markers and T-squares to computer programs, but Fr. Wertanen says he still keeps up his advertising chops by making promotional materials for the parish.

“I used to think, ‘Lord, why did you take me out of advertising?’ But now I use it in ministry, as I’m my own parish ad agency.”

Whether it’s making posters or a life-size “Pokémon GO” sign welcoming players to the Troy parish, Fr. Wertanen’s former profession has turned into a hobby that he says makes him a better priest.

“Now each weekend I look at Scripture and think, ‘What am I going to say about this?’” Fr. Wertanen said. “It’s the same when coming up with homilies. It’s all about taking a message or idea and coming up with a way to communicate it in a way that’s captivating and memorable.”

The depths of God’s creation

Fr. Joseph Gembala of St. Malachy Parish in Sterling Heights has dived with sharks, swam with giant sea turtles and experienced the serenity of the Peruvian mountains — all the while living by the wisdom of a famed Brazilian bishop.

Fr. Gembala began scuba diving in 1998 and still tries to go every winter.

“Over the years, I’ve taken many scuba diving trips,” Fr. Gembala said. “There was this one time I did a night dive in Belize and saw all kinds of gorgeous fish. For a moment, when you have the sun rising and you’re underwater, you see the sunlight coming through the top of the water, and you see a thousand fish. You think of Genesis and God creating all the creatures of the sea.”

Fr. Gembala took diving lessons in Utica, and has dived in the St. Thomas and St. Croix islands, and Baha in Mexico.

“Diving with reef sharks is something you never forget,” Fr. Gembala said. “I’m a certified shark diver, and that is one of the scariest things. You see all the sharks in the background that I didn’t see, but you see in the pictures.”

Fr. Gembala is also an avid mountain climber, scaling mountains in Maine with his family and even taking a trip to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro. But his trip to the “Gate of the Sun” in Machu Picchu, Peru stands out.

“We began at 3:30 in the morning so we’d reach the summit at sunrise,” Fr. Gembala recalled. “When we reached the summit, I pulled out my prayer book, thinking this was perfect. Then these tours were loud and just yapping. My guide saw I was disappointed, and led me further down the Inca Trail, and it was just serene.”

The guide, whose sister had died years ago, asked Fr. Gembala if the two could pray the rosary.

“We prayed the rosary, and then a hummingbird appeared. She explained to me that in Incan culture, hummingbirds are messengers from God, and she told me she now knows her sister is in heaven.”

Fr. Joseph Gembala sits atop a mountain perch at the famous Machu Picchu Inca ruins in Peru in January 2009.
Courtesy of Fr. Joseph Gembala

Fr. Gembala said every moment he spends diving or hiking is a reminder of a lesson he learned from Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, the famed bishop who resisted the Brazilian military dictatorship.

“Archbishop Camara once told me, ‘You have a choice, do you want to be a creator or not?” Fr. Gembala said. “Are you going to build something or tear it down? Are you going to build your parish to a welcoming and growing place?

“Being in God’s creation opens myself to the glory of God’s creation,” Fr. Gembala added. “God is the great Creator, and we in the image of God can choose whether to be creators or not. To be a creator as a priest is to unleash the Gospel, as Archbishop Vigneron is calling us to do. That’s the best way for me or any parish priest to continue the call to create God’s kingdom.”

Getting away through building

Sometimes, though, a priest doesn’t need to travel far and wide to get in touch with creation. Sometimes a cabin in the woods will do.

Fr. Lawrence Delonnay, the recently retired pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish in Waterford, learned woodworking from his father, a master carpenter — something he says now helps to clear his mind.

“I do everything from rough carpentry to furniture and boats; I even did a house,” Fr. Delonnay said. “My father was a master carpenter; I’m nowhere near his proficiency, but that love of working with wood I learned from him.”

In an abandoned North Branch cottage he purchased in 1999, Fr. Delonnay has built cabinets, altar rails, a couple of toy boxes for his goddaughter’s children and some cooler boxes for his friends and family.

“When I was a kid, I would be the carpenter’s helper for my dad, and I learned a lot by watching him,” Fr. Delonnay said. “What I really love is the design aspect. Coming up with an idea and executing it is really enjoyable. Making sure the joints are tight, making sure the stains look good. I really enjoy it; it’s the best.”

Aside from the obvious Jesus and St. Joseph comparisons to a priest in carpentry, Fr. Delonnay has had many of his works sold at parish auctions and fundraisers. But most of the woodworking he does is just a way to do something different from the day-to-day work of parish ministry.

“Woodworking gives me an opportunity to get away, in a sense,” Fr. Delonnay said. “To get away from the day-in and day-out of being a pastor for more than 20 years. It refreshes me. Some guys play golf, or go fishing, but anything that steps back from the day-to-day is a good thing. Everybody needs time to refresh, recharge.”