In Two Michigan Villages, a Higher Calling Is Often Heard

FOWLER, Mich. — Aside for the mole grazing his right eyebrow, it is difficult to distinguish Gary Koenigsknecht from his identical twin, Todd, four minutes the elder.

Growing up, the twins, now 26, milked cows side by side on the family farm. They both graduated at the top of their high school class. And with their ordination on Saturday, they have begun careers as Roman Catholic priests, two of 477 men in the United States expected to be ordained this year.

They demonstrate that priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography: they are among six priests in their extended family, and among 22 from their hometown, Fowler, Mich., population 1,224. They officially tie up the leader board with the neighboring village of Westphalia, population 938, which has also produced 22 priests, making for a robust rivalry in both football and Roman collars.

In an era when the number of priests in the United States continues to dwindle — declining by 11 percent in the past decade and crippling the Catholic Church’s ability to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population — this rural patch of Clinton County offers a case study in the science and mystery of the call to priesthood.

With the older generation of priests dying off, it would take three times as many priestly ordinations as is occurring nationwide to maintain the population of 38,600 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

But the communities of Fowler and Westphalia, where it is not hard to find an altar boy who is considering priesthood, are doing more than their part. For the Rev. Todd Koenigsknecht and the Rev. Gary Koenigsknecht, encouragement arrived in many forms, from messages scribbled in crayon by grade-school children to $20 checks scrawled in shaky cursive, gifts from older parishioners to defray seminary costs.

Their home parish, Most Holy Trinity, hosts a weekly prayer hour dedicated to religious vocations and an annual fund-raiser to help cover tuition; it contributed more than $10,000 to each Koenigsknecht twin.

The houses in these two villages eight miles apart in Central Michigan are orderly, with Virgin Mary statues in front yards, American flags on front porches and unlocked front doors. Faith is the center of life, those who live here say: Everyone is Catholic, everyone is related and everyone shows up at Mass. The youth groups are active. Nearly all the students attending the prom in the villages begin the festivities by attending a regularly scheduled 4:30 p.m. Mass, dressed in their party attire.

The only grade school in Westphalia is a Catholic one, and the only place of worship is a Catholic church, St. Mary’s, pictured in the city logo alongside the water tower.

“It seems like culture takes a little longer to catch up out here in the sticks,” said Vernon Thelen, who serves as president of Fowler, the equivalent of a mayor, and attends morning Mass several times a week. “When I say culture, I mean some of the bad culture you see on sitcoms and TV.”

The Koenigsknecht twins grew up without a TV, playing cribbage and praying the rosary instead. Their community naturally fosters priestly vocations, Father Todd said. “It’s in the air.”

Logan Trierweiler, a 12-year-old from Westphalia, said he was surprised by the attraction to priesthood he experienced last month while watching his parish priest, the Rev. Mathias Thelen, pastor of St. Mary’s. “I was observing how close he gets to God, and I thought it would be so cool if I could become that close to God.”

Logan, who is an altar boy, readily shared the prospect with friends. “They said that sounds cool,” he said. One friend responded that he, too, was contemplating becoming a priest.

When Father Mathias polled Logan’s sixth-grade class a few weeks ago, asking how many of the 43 students would consider life as a priest, brother or sister, at least a dozen raised their hands, he said.

He, too, is from Fowler and speaks freely about his path to the priesthood, including a breakup with “the girl of my dreams.”

“My heart was not made for a woman,” he tells parishioners. “My heart was made for God.”

Logan has already imagined the sacrifices that would be required by vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience. “It would be a little sad to not have a family and to live far away from home, depending on where I go,” he said.

Some parents do hesitate to give up their sons to the priesthood, Father Mathias said, campaigning for a more conventional — and seemingly less lonely — married life.

That never occurred to Agnes Koenigsknecht, an organic dairy farmer and a mother of 10. “They’re not ours to keep,” she said of her twins. “How can you hold them back?”

The elevation of religious life here has also had an effect on young women: Westphalia has produced 37 Catholic nuns over the decades, according to diocesan data, while Fowler claims 43. Marita Wohlfert, who is 20, is in the running to make it 44, having professed her first vows last year with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará and taking the name Sister Mary of the Holy Family.

She is the fifth of nine children for Jerry Wohlfert, who runs the millwork shop in town and went through four years of seminary himself before getting married. His oldest son attended a year of seminary, then ruled out the priesthood; his 18- and 14-year-old sons say they are considering it. “If the families are open to God’s calling,” Mr. Wohlfert said, “then the seminarians will come.”

Meanwhile, farmers joke about who will break the tie in Fowler-Westphalia’s priest count.

The answer may have been in the sanctuary during the Saturday ordination Mass, sitting behind the bishop’s wooden throne and holding his foot-tall miter: Lee Koenigsknecht, the twins’ 19-year-old brother, who just finished his first year of seminary.