St. Margaret pastor says farewell after 20 years in Harford
(MATT BUTTON AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Monsignor G. Michael Schleupner, ordained as a priest in 1972, is about to say his last Mass at St. Margaret Church, the parish he has led for the last 10 years.

The Baltimore-born priest has been in Harford County for 20 years – before being pastor at St. Margaret, he was pastor at St. Frances de Sales in Abingdon - and has grown to call it home.

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"I think I do. I feel at home here now. I don't envision myself going far," Schleupner, who's known to parishioners as "Father Mike," said during a recent interview.

Not far at all. Once Schleupner retires July 1, while he won't be living in Harford County – he's moving to neighboring York County, Pa. – he will still be saying Mass regularly in Harford County and will continue counseling parish members.

Schleupner will say his last Masses this weekend. He will say the 4 p.m. Mass Saturday, followed by a farewell dinner at the Callahan Center at St. Mary Magdalen Mission.

He will also say the 10 a.m. Mass Sunday and will be in the gallery after the other morning Masses at St. Margaret so parishioners can say farewell.

Deciding to retire

Schleupner will be 70 on Aug. 23. His birthday was one factor in his retirement; his health – mental and physical – was another.

In the last three years, he said, he has become less able to deal with stress.

"I was not managing the stress that comes with this role, with pastoring this parish. I was not managing it anywhere near the way I used to" he said. "I knew within myself what I was feeling, and I was feeling less able to respond to all the demands and requests and responsibilities that are involved. I was less able, less resilient in dealing with it."

The stress also started interfering with Schleupner's sleep, which he felt was significant. He saw some doctors, who, after looking at his age and responsibilities, "recommended I pull back."

His 70th birthday is a "magic time," he said, and it's also the first year, according to archdiocesan policy, a priest is eligible for retirement.

"I wanted to hang in there until [70], but I felt it was wise that I not go beyond," he said.

He's known for about 18 months he would be retiring this summer, but was very private about it until he announced it this spring. And while it was not an easy decision, he's happy with it.

'Sensed it as a kid'

Schleupner, who has spent his life in Maryland, grew up in the Northwood section of Baltimore, attending church and school at St. Matthew Parish.

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"I'm a Catholic school boy all the way through," he said.

After St. Matthew, Schleupner went to the former St. Charles High School in Catonsville.

"At that time, it was the practice of the church if boys said they might want to be a priest, that's where they went to high school," he said. "We called it a minor seminary."

From there, he went to Mount St. Mary's University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and later a master's degree in theology. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1972.

Schleupner isn't exactly sure when he knew he wanted to be a priest.

"I sensed it as a kid, sixth, seventh grade. That would be neat to do. The priests in my parish, there were a couple I admired and respected a great deal," he said. "Of course, my parents, wonderful people, also persons of real faith. Church was central for us."

Schleupner is the younger of George and Blanche Schleupner's two sons. His father was an accountant for Monumental Life Insurance Company in Baltimore while his mother stayed home with Father Mike and his brother, Charles, who's a doctor in Roanoke, Va.

The G in G. Michael Schleupner stands for George, after his father, but his parents chose to call him by his middle name, "so there weren't two people by the same name in the household, that's what I remember them telling me," Schleupner said.

Schleupner's parents are deceased, but his brother will attend his farewell Mass this weekend.

Schleupner said he made up his mind while at St. Mary's.

"It was really clear to me, this was it, this was what I wanted to do, what I felt God calling me to do," Schleupner said.

The calling is hard to explain, he said.

"Put it this way. Faith, and practicing faith, was important. It had become central to me, even as a young man," he said. "And the second piece, I wanted to be, and felt like I was being called to be, a leader in that. I was trying to lead people, lead the community, whatever it would be, in our faith and our relationship with God."

He had reservations, that his calling would be very focused in terms of the world and he would be giving up some things.

"But it was the positive things that attracted me, the positive things that attracted me to the church and serving the community," Schleupner said.

He questioned his decision at one point, about four years after being ordained.

"I went through a really tough time at one point 30 years ago. It was a very difficult time for me. I was beginning to question my vocation," he said.

He felt good about what he had already done and had already gotten a certain amount of "acclaim" within the Archdiocese of Baltimore, "but the bottom fell out for me."

"I questioned if I really wanted to do this for the rest of my life," he said.

He prayed, sought counseling, spiritual guidance and "began seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

"I made it through and never turned back since. I've never gone through that since," he said.

Besides realizing his chosen vocation was right for him, Schleupner said it was also a learning experience.

"That when I'm at a low point in life, it's important to live out the commitment I made and until it's absolutely clear it's not what I should be doing or what God wants me to do," he said.

Before coming to Harford County, Schleupner spent 20 years in Baltimore City in administrative roles for the archdiocese. He enjoyed the roles, he said, but he really wanted to get back to ministry.

"I thought, 'gosh, I have done this for 20 years.' I really wanted to get back to a full-time ministry. And if I don't do that soon, it's going to be very, very difficult to do," he said.

That's when he became pastor at St. Francis de Sales.

Pastor responsibilities

First and foremost, Schleupner's primary responsibility as pastor of St. Margaret is to celebrate Mass.

"I see it as so central to our identity as Catholics as who we are," he said. "To be able to celebrate that was to me just a great privilege and a very positive thing."

Preaching at each Mass is his way of sharing his faith with others.

"It's how I own the faith personally. My faith, Michael Schleupner, I own that faith," he said.

He says two to three Masses each weekend and on some Saturdays hears confessions before the 4 p.m. Mass.

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Preparing for the homily takes a good portion of a priest's week, he said.

"It takes work, if you're going to do it right," he said.

The general rule, Schleupner said, is one hour of preparation for every minute of the homily. He encourages the priests of St. Margaret to keep their homilies to eight minutes. Using that rule, that's eight hours of preparation for Sunday's homily – an entire work day.

"It's praying over readings, reading them, reading the background. What is Jesus really saying?" he said. "It's praying again about them, and how they relate to Harford County, Bel Air, today."

The weekend Masses are the most effective for communicating his thoughts. The smallest Mass is 6 p.m. Saturday, which draws about 250 people. The larger Masses draw 700 people

He also says a couple weekday Masses, which are much shorter and the homilies much simpler.

He performs weddings, funerals and other sacraments. He also recruits parishioners for many of the church's committees.

A few weeks ago, he was at an honors assembly for St. Margaret School, the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school that is supported by the church.

"I have a presence at those events. It really affirms those kids," he said. "I like to do that.

He also provides guidance to church members, meeting with them periodically to review where they are spiritually.

"We all have our own personal relationship with God. We may have that through prayer and certain types of prayer," he said. "We see how they're doing in they're prayers, meditating on prayer. I try to guide them over time in growing their own relationship with the Lord."

All of those things have taken a toll on him, Schleupner said, despite having a large staff of people who report to him.

'We, not I'

His years at St. Margaret and St. Frances have been collaborative ministries, he said.

"My outlook on the people of this parish, this community, is they are very talented. There are multiple, varied talents throughout the community," he said.

He points to the pastoral council at St. Margaret, the 12-member advisory group to Schleupner.

"They're terrific. They have really charged a real director for this parish and they've done it in a very collaborative way," he said. "We've created a vision and sense of direction for St. Margaret. That's been my style here – the accomplishments are we, not I."

The church's business manager, Mary Ellen Bates, said she calls Schleupner "pastor, friend, Michael."

"He's just a wonderful, wonderful individual and has been for 10 years," Bates, who joined the staff at St. Margaret five months after Schleupner arrived, said.

Schleupner, as a person, is welcoming and inclusive, she said.

"He welcomes my ideas, he collaborates not dictates," she said. "In church, he's welcoming of the broader community. Very frequently in his homilies, he points out that yes, we have a lot of diversity in our culture, and that it can be richness and not problematic."

Schleupner is present. If Bates is talking to him, he's listening, not multi-tasking or being distracted.

"He absorbs and focuses and is just a good listener," she said. "He's also a good discerner in that process, and that comes from listening."

In any given meeting, she said, Schleupner will be looking for the thread that will help the group figure out what is going on and how to address it.

"That presence is so pervasive. I feel listened to," she said. "It's been a wonderful working relationship. That comes through with the parishioner as well."

Schleupner also sets a great example, Bates, who worships at St. John the Evangelist in Hydes, said.

"Consistently over the last several years, he works on what we can do to help nourish people in their relationship with God. It boils down to do people know how to pray, what are their resources," she said.

Schleupner has set up St. Margaret "very well" for the future to remain vibrant and financially healthy and is turning over "a staff and facility and parish base to the new pastor that is in a very good place," Bates said.

The people of St. Margaret

St. Margaret as a parish has 10,000 to 11,000 members, 4,300 families. It's the second largest parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

When asked to describe the parishioners, he used several words.

Faithful.

"They're people of faith," he said.

Generous.

The average weekly collection is $48,000 to $49,000, he said.

"It takes a lot to make this all work," he said, spreading his arms. Between St. Margaret in Bel Air and St. Mary Magdalene, there are 12 buildings, all of which need to be maintained.

Wanting community.

"My experience is people want some sense of community here, at church and through church," he said. "They will talk together before Mass. They gather and talk after Masses."

Giving of time.

The church has 950 approved volunteers, the school has another 700, he said.

"That's pretty significant. Volunteering is there," Schleupner said.

Busy, and stressed.

"I see the people of St. Margaret and beyond, in the county, certainly the town, these are busy people. I see young people, they come to Mass, or an evening event for their kids, and they're exhausted. They're tired. I can see it all over their faces," he said. "So when I ask them to do something, I better make sure we're providing a worthwhile experience."

He pointed out an introductory session for confirmation students and their parents, who were split into groups of adults and youth. During the parent segment, Schleupner asked the parents what questions they had about their faith, or the church, that they had never asked, or if they had, did not get a good answer.

"There was loads to talk about. It was excellent interaction, not all of it easy. They were candid, good questions, good comments. At the end, when I thanked them for coming, they applauded me. That said to me, maybe they were expressing their gratitude to me, but I think really, the gratitude was, this was worthwhile," Schleupner said. "That really makes it for me. That people who are so busy as parents, with their jobs, house, as parents, shuttling kids, they come here and they appreciate it. I think, 'Wow, that's terrific.'"

Source of peace

With much less responsibility, Schleupner will have more time for the things he enjoys, personally and professionally.

Schleupner will no longer have the stress of leading a parish, the second largest in the archdiocese, but he will still be able to continue his priestly ministry.

"And that's wonderful for me," he said.

Saying Mass is the central role in the life of a priest, and Schleupner is "delighted" he'll be able to continue in that capacity. He will say Mass two weekends a month at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Pylesville and the church he grew up in, St. Matthew in Baltimore.

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Schleupner will continue to provide spiritual direction and mentoring, which he started with some members of St. Margaret.

He has a contract with a Catholic counseling center in Towson, which wants to broaden what it offers to individuals there, a spiritual component, he said.

"I'm very excited about that," he said.

He will also continue his weekly electronic messages, "Inbox Inspirations." They're a Wednesday morning "shout out," a midweek spiritual reflection on a variety of topics, he said.

"They relate to something that's happening in life right now," he said.

"The big, big difference is I won't have as much responsibility. I really loved it here. But the role, being a pastor, means in the whole organization, in addition to the priestly things, the buck stops in this office on a ton of stuff," Schleupner said. "That kind of stress will be off my shoulders. That's what I'll be free of."

Personally, he enjoys exercise, and tries to keep physically fit, he said. He also likes to eat – a wide range of foods.

"Italian, Chinese, crab cakes, seafood," he said.

He likes to cook, but three nights a week someone in the parish prepares dinner for Schleupner and the three other priests assigned there. Other nights, he said, they fend for themselves.

Schleupner also really enjoys plays and movies. He subscribes to Center Stage in Baltimore, where he sees five plays a year.

"They do really good, creative things in drama," he said.

He likes music – not much rock, but anything from opera to spa music.

"It's my mellow time," he said.

And books. His favorites are intrigue, spy novels, or detective stories.

"They're mindless, you need that. It's how I relax late at night. Frankly, it's how I fall asleep," he said. "I'll get 10 pages done and the book is on my chest."

Schleupner is looking forward to all those things and more come July 1 – when Monsignor Kevin Schenning becomes St. Margaret's new pastor, coming from St. Joseph in Fullerton – and there's no looking back.

"Basically, I feel very at peace. That's the closest I can come," he said. "This is the right decision and I feel that this is really what God's calling me to do now."

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