Taking a Reality Check
Father Dennis Voss has been living, loving priesthood through good and tough times for more than 40 years.
Story and photo by LIZ QUIRIN Messenger editor
He leaned back in his chair and smiled as he began to reminisce about his more than 42 years as a priest for the Diocese of Belleville.
“It hasn’t all been easy,” Father Dennis Voss, pastor of St. Liborius in St. Libory and St. Anthony in Lively Grove, said.
Retracing his early years that led him to seminaries at St. Henry’s Prep in Belleville and then to St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., Father
Voss said his early days were filled with a romantic idea of what priesthood would be — more to be found in a seminarian’s imagination than in a parish setting.
One of six children born and raised in Germantown, Dennis was nurtured in his vocation by then pastor, Father John Boomkens.
Dennis and his brother, now Msgr. Bernard Voss at St. Henry Parish in Belleville, were “reliable servers” for Father Boomkens.
“He liked to go to St. Louis to a bookstore,” Father Voss said, and he would take the two Voss servers with him. The outing included lunch, which generally would make an impression on young boys who might be considering priesthood.
Besides Father Boomkens’ example, Father Voss said his family’s faithfulness also encouraged him.
“My parents were very faithful,” he said, and the family often prayed the rosary at home.
If a storm threatened the town or their home, “we would pray the rosary,” and “mom always lit a candle.”
In addition, Father Voss said he had “an attraction to the priesthood, an attraction to something greater than this world. I knew there was more.”
Father Voss said a priest gave him a book while he was in grade school called “Everybody Calls Me Father,” which he read. While it gave a “correct” snapshot of the priesthood, looking back, Father Voss said it was “a little romanticized.”
He also remembers telling his parents that he wanted to go to the seminary at age 14.
“I overheard them say ‘we have to give him a chance, let him try it.’”
Father Voss not only “tried it,” he “really enjoyed it” after the first month of homesickness passed.
“It was a good place; the Oblates did a good job.”
Dennis Voss became Father Voss May 16, 1964 when he was ordained at St. Boniface Church in Germantown.
Since he was the only man ordained a priest for the diocese in 1964 he asked then Bishop Albert Zuroweste if he could be ordained at his home parish. It would be easier for the local community to attend the ordination if it were held in Germantown, he told Bishop Zuroweste. The bishop complied with his request.
After ordination, he was assigned to the cathedral as an associate.
In the beginning, he “romanticized” his role as priest. “Then I hit the mountain, and I had to deal with reality.”
He was eventually made pastor at SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish in East St. Louis. When he was sent there, Bishop Zuroweste told him he would eventually have to close the parish. “It was a great parish,” he said. “The people were fantastic. I gave it my best shot.”
When the time came to close the parish, Father Voss said he was “hurt.”
He was sent to St. Mary Parish in Centralia where, he said, “depression set in.”
His next assignment was St. Stephen’s in Flora where he decided he needed to take a leave of absence. It lasted for about three months.
“I went through a tough time; I was questioning my priesthood; I was confused,” Father Voss said.
Part of his leave was spent on an extended retreat at a Benedictine monastery in Pevely, Mo., that was suggested by then Bishop William Cosgrove.
During the retreat, “I had a religious experience that turned my life around,” he said. “The experience gave me peace, and I experienced God’s love in a remarkable way.”
Spiritually renewed and in his early 40s, he returned to the diocese. Father Voss was again sent to the cathedral as an associate. It was at that time he received a call from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital inquiring if he would be interested in a chaplaincy at the hospital.
He took a series of courses in clinical pastoral education and signed on as a hospital chaplain. He stayed at St. Elizabeth’s for 18 years.
During that time, he asked to work on a ward with people with psychological disabilities.
“I have a special place in my heart for those people,” he said, many of whom were not psychologically disabled but depressed and suffering from other emotional problems.
Eventually the hospital opened a unit to treat people with drug and alcohol dependencies. He enjoyed working with them too.
Soon he saw the “damage grief does to people.” He suggested support groups for people negotiating the painful process of dealing with grief from the loss of a family member or friend.
Groups were developed for teenagers who suffered a loss, and classes at the two Belleville high schools were started as well as classes at the hospital called “Kids Time” for children.
Father Voss was also named to the hospital’s ethics committee and “enjoyed working as head of the ethics committee,” he said.
In the early 1990s, understanding living wills and durable powers of attorney became important, and Father Voss gave talks about those two directives many times.
In 2000, realizing he would be needed in a parish, Father Voss once more became a pastor at St. Liborius and St. Anthony. While it was an adjustment, it has been a joy as well.
“The best part of being a priest is to see how God works in people’s lives, how God is always there and how you can help people come to the Lord.
“And some people certainly bring God to me,” he added.