Father Gregory Abbott has been actively ministering to the two local parishes since July in place of Father Martin Shallbetter, who has retired, but will ceremonially assume the role of pastor at the local parishes this week with an 8 a.m. service at Ascension and a 10:30 a.m. service at St. Bernard’s.
Abbott, who is based at St. Bernard’s, will share some duties with partially retired Father Paul Ardolf at Ascension. The two have been conducting Saturday and Sunday Masses and rotating churches on a monthly basis, and that arrangement will continue.
“[Ardolf] does a wonderful job and we get along well together. He’s a good mentor for me,” said Abbott, who was ordained in 2007 and previously ministered for three years at St. Michael and then for two years at Church of the Epiphany in Coon Rapids — one of the largest Catholic churches in the Minnesota/Dakota area.
Needless to say, the move from Epiphany and its large congregation served by three priests to the local area has been a significant change for Abbott, but one that suites him well.
“I’m not much of a huge [church] person. I have a smaller [church] mentality, so this fits me a little better,” Abbott said. “I loved it at Epiphany, but it was challenging because there were so many things you wanted to be involved with, and you had to discern was God was calling you to.
“The people here are beautiful. There are hard workers here, generous volunteers. I’ve found that here and in St. Michael, the outer suburbs, people are a little more down to earth. And I’m more of a down to earth kind of person. In the cities people tend to be preoccupied with 101 different things as you’re talking to them. Out here people are just more down to earth and present. That’s really nice.”
Though Abbott is relatively new to the ministry, he has arrived at this point in his journey through a lifelong pursuit of faith and God’s calling. Abbott said he came to an awareness of God early in life, at just five years of age, when his father passed away.
“That got me looking for answers in life,” he said. “My family wasn’t overly religious but we prayed together and went to Masses, so I knew God was out there. God must have the answer about why my dad died young. I figured God must have an answer, so I’ll go to him.”
Abbott attended Catholic grade school and high school before earning a business degree at the University of Minnesota. Rather than pursue a business career, however, Abbott acted on a desire to help others and earned a nursing assistant certificate after college and began working in nursing homes and hospitals. During that time, partially spent at Wilder Health Care Center in St. Paul near his own neighborhood and Regions Hospital, he prayed with patients over his breaks and lunch hours.
“That was good preparation for me,” he said, adding that he spent significant time as a patient himself due to a heart condition that has already resulted in three open heart surgeries. “I’ve been in the hospital many times and that helped me think about the larger perspective of life. It made me realize that life is kind of fragile.”
Abbott began considering the priesthood following a retreat during college, and after college he joined a Carmelite religious community and served as a sacristan at a local parish.
“Living in that Carmelite community, I found that what God had placed in me is what they were living there, and the two coincided. So I realized that this is what I was called to. I’m called to prayer. I’m not a big organizational guy or fundraiser, not much of a public person in some ways, but prayer for me is so important. I pray a lot. All good things begin in prayer, continue in prayer, and reach their conclusion in prayer. I firmly believe that,” said Abbott.
Eventually he entered the St. Paul Seminary through the University of St. Thomas, graduating in 2007. Now established at St. Bernards and Ascension, Abbott said his top objective is to do God’s will and spur others on toward love for Christ and one another.
“If we keep God as the center of our life, priority number one, other things are going to fall in line. That doesn’t mean we stick our heads in the sand and don’t worry about the problems around us. Quite the opposite,” he said. “When one is connected with God and his love, then you are concerned about your brothers and sisters.”
In terms of his duties, Abbott said that performing sacraments such as the Eucharist — which he called “the source and summit of our faith” — are the most important and fulfilling of his tasks.
“For us as Catholics, sacraments are outward signs that convey God’s grace,” he said. “They are not a dead end in and of themselves. At the end of Mass we say to go and announce the gospel of the Lord. We come here to be fed so that we can go out.”