Priest Retirement Center looking ahead for the clergy leaving their work lives behind

Fr. Michael Baldwin is helping to oversee renovations at the Priest Retirement Center, including some changes made to the center’s St. John Vianney Chapel. (Advance photos)

The Priest Retirement Center is undergoing a fine-tuning that will help residents live more comfortably and nurture growth in love of God and each other.

Fr. Michael Baldwin, the director of the Priest Retirement Center, said last week that when the center was built about 30 years ago the diocese didn’t have a model to work from and designed it as best they could.

Keeping up with the times

Three decades later adjustments are being made.

“I helped a little bit with this chapel area, which has received more attention through the years than most of the rest of the facility,” he said while being interviewed next to the new altar in the center’s St. John Vianney Chapel.

The previous altar was too high for priests who may need to sit to preside, he said, adding that it also wasn’t as substantial and as dominant as an altar should be.

Fr. Baldwin, who also serves as the assistant vicar for Retired Priests, said after a donor came forward who wanted to assist with chapel renovations, planning began.

Work started two Lents ago

The work began two Lents ago, he said, soon after he began his new assignment at the retirement center.

“We ordered these stations from the Ukraine. At that time, the Ukraine was a peaceful place doing well.
When we started talking about having the chapel more fully renovated, there was talk about the furnishings. I worked on some designs, kind of capturing some of the feel of the elements in this room.”

Bishop inspired by his altar

Bishop Carl A. Kemme also made suggestions based on the altar in the chapel at the bishop’s residence which he said leads him into prayer.

Fr. Baldwin once again turned to his source in Ukraine and found an image of The Last Supper to use on the front of the altar. “By God’s grace, it fits perfectly into the design we’ve been working on.”

Bishop Kemme also wanted more of a focus on the tabernacle, he said. “I kind of did a little mock-up for him of what it might be like if we used the dark blue that was in the tabernacle as sort of a background.”

The dark background helps draw the eye to the silver tabernacle and up to the mosaic of the chapel’s namesake, St. John Vianney, whose life is depicted in the chapel’s windows.

More changes planned

Other planned chapel improvements include a more substantial presider’s chair and a silver trim for the edge of the dark blue background that will match the Celtic design of the tabernacle.

After three decades of use and experience to build upon, the retirement center’s community kitchen was also redesigned and renovated.

“Many people are not aware that our priests are served lunch here that comes from the Catholic Care Center kitchen. But other meals are done on your own,” he said.

Small kitchens not conducive to camaraderie

The first sixteen of our apartments for retired priests only had a kitchenette with two burners and a microwave oven. That wasn’t conducive for several priests to cook together for camaraderie and a meal, Fr. Baldwin said, adding that the retirement center’s central kitchen also didn’t function well for such meals and needed rehabilitation.

Fr. Baldwin said after Bishop Kemme told him to set the priorities for the renovations, he focused on the kitchen and the other public spaces because those are the areas a visitor sees first. “So we did some rearranging in there, closed up a door that wasn’t functional – wasn’t even being used – which opened up counter space.”

New kitchen designed for group service

The kitchen is more open and is designed not only for the priests to cook together but for situations such as when the Knights of Columbus or members of the Vietnamese community bring in evening meals for the priests.

There are five retired priests in residence, he said. “Right now we’re at the low ebb, but eventually we will have more priests in here. So my work is to get this place ready for an influx of retirees.”

The dining room area and the community rooms will be renovated next, Fr. Baldwin said. Phase three involves a renovation of the apartments, beginning with the oldest apartments, the ones closest to the Catholic Care Center, and moving out.

“We learned a lot from that first stab at a Priest Retirement Center,” he said. “And as we’ve added two pods of four apartments each, we’ve learned that there’s a community space in the middle that we originally planned – that sounded like such a good idea – that really hasn’t functioned well.”

The community areas in the four-apartment pods have no windows, have uncomfortable furniture, and are without a television, something priests would be able to watch together. We will take some of that space to enlarge the individual apartments as each pod is renovated, he said.

“The other issue that has come up that we didn’t anticipate…is we have priests who have disabilities in their older age and the showers don’t accommodate them. The arrangement of the bathroom doesn’t even accommodate using a walker. So we have work to do there.”

Fr. Baldwin said the retired priests have been blessed by the ministry of two nurses on staff at the care center. “They help us keep our priests here in the Priest Retirement Center rather than having them move to assisted living or continuous care. They can provide enough help to keep them in here much longer.”

This isn’t the first renovation Fr. Baldwin has been involved in. He’s been a part of the renovations at St. Anne Church in Wichita, St. Vincent de Paul in Andover, Our Lady of Lourdes in Pittsburg, and the St. Joseph House of Formation in Wichita, in addition to advising other priests overseeing renovations.

“To me there is a stewardship involved in a building and taking care of it and keeping it useful for the present time is very important,” he said.

The Priest Retirement Center is the result of the vision of Bishop Eugene J. Gerber, he said. “And Bishop Kemme is really dedicated to making this place a space that people will be proud of and where our priests will be comfortable in their retirement.”

Fr. Baldwin’s expertise is the result of a late vocation.

Fr. Baldwin: A late bloomer

“Before I became a priest I was a carpenter. My dad was a contractor in Coffeyville, Kansas. He had a small business. And before I went to the seminary, I worked for him. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t go to the seminary till 26. So I had quite a bit of experience in the building and renovation trade,” he said.

“I guess that’s my gift. Call it what you will. God had a plan and I have used that gift over and over in my priesthood.”