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‘Opening our arms and our hearts’

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“When he gets out here, he’s about the same age they all are,” Deacon Milton Van Cleave, left, says of the Rev. Jim Koenigsfeld of St. Columba Catholic Church as the two gear up for a rafting trip with the young people of the parish. The two, knowing they’d be targets in water fights, brought a couple of small buckets to defend themselves against attack.

By Ann Butler Herald staff writer

After more than 10 years at the helm of St. Columba Catholic Church, the Rev. Jim Koenigsfeld is leaving to become rector at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Pueblo. After celebrating his final Mass in Durango on July 8, he will leave behind a parish that has flourished under his care.

“I’m a lifelong cradle Catholic, and I’ve known many priests,” said Dr. Matt Clark, whose three daughters attend St. Columba School. “He is without a doubt the best pastor I’ve ever had. What most impresses me is his spiritual maturity.”

Koenigsfeld is finishing his 45th year in the priesthood as he approaches his 71st birthday in August. He has served at parishes throughout Colorado, including Trinidad, La Junta, Monte Vista, Grand Junction, Montrose and Gunnison. He had previous stints in Pueblo at St. Leander and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic churches, so he knows the territory.

But this is the first time the monsignor, an honor he was granted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, will be presiding over a cathedral, the cathedral of the Diocese of Pueblo.

“I won’t be doing anything different than in any other parish,” said the man known affectionately around town as “Father Jim.” “It’s 1,100 households, a little less than St. Columba. It’s helping people, praying with them, being present with them, celebrating life with them.”

He said he’ll take lessons learned at St. Columba to Pueblo, including working closely with the teachers and staff members at the school, understanding finances in a bigger parish and collaborating more with parish staff.

He has given Diocese Bishop Fernando Isern a three-year commitment, he said, because the previous priest retired.

“We can say we’re retiring at 70,” Koenigsfeld said. “But with the shortage of priests, it’s good to keep serving if we can. I can, I just find myself becoming tired more easily by the end of a Sunday.”

That fatigue wasn’t visible Sunday at the parish picnic and farewell. After greeting hundreds of people who had come to wish him well, Koenigsfeld grabbed a burger before changing clothes to have a water fight with the parish children.

“That’s typical,” said Larry Pederson, who served on the church’s Parish Council for seven years during Koenigsfeld’s tenure. “His ministry was never a matter of him just enhancing or targeting a certain age group. He has spent his time and energy the same way with all of us, whether people are the age of 3 or age of 93 or even 103.”

An active priest

One reason he’s able to keep serving is that he’s kept active. Koenigsfeld leads weekly hikes, takes parishioners on camping trips as auction items for the school and even keeps the flowers looking good in front of the church.

“He was the inspiration for a tradition I have with my oldest daughter, Laura,” Clark said. “We decided to hike one of our local Fourteeners, Handies Peak. That’s a decent hike for a 7-year-old, but she was interested in part the first year because she wanted to come back and give him a trip report.”

Koenigsfeld’s commitments in Durango have been daunting – 10 Masses a week, including one each at the Fort Lewis College and Mercy Regional Medical Center chapels; serving as the official chaplain for the Catholic Daughters of the Americas; visits with nursing home and hospital-bound parishioners; helping with faith formation for adults and children; a continuous circle of baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals; and countless other tasks that keep the parish running. When he first arrived, he also found himself serving Bayfield and Ignacio after the sudden death of the priest there.

“They say that priests, attorneys and doctors are always on call,” Clark said. “I look at what Father Jim does, and say, ‘No way.’ He handles it all with significant grace, and I think it’s an indication of how deep his faith is.”

‘It’s all about the attitude’

Pretty much everyone agrees Koenigsfeld brought something special to a parish that had gone through upheaval after the Rev. Mike McCleary announced he was leaving the priesthood after many years at St. Columba.

“He has a sense of welcoming just by being who he is,” said Larry Pederson. “He has shown us what true love and giving are all about by his example.”

Myriam Palmer, who worked with Koenigsfeld when the Catholic Church adopted a new liturgy recently, agreed.

“It’s all about the attitude,” she said. “He’s just so positive about everything.”

For Bill and Jerri Morris, that attitude encouraged them to become Catholic in their early 70s, in part because of her struggle with cancer.

“I just went with her to the formation classes,” said Bill Morris, who was raised Episcopalian. “And after that, he was so inspiring, I knew I wanted to join, too.”

Pederson said Koenigsfeld has also helped St. Columba reach out more to the community.

“By his nature, he inspired us to always do more,” he said. “His philosophy of opening our arms and our hearts has caused us to be more connected to our community.”

St. Columba’s next chapter

“The bishop needed to share this resource with different folks,” Clark said. “We just need to be grateful for the time we’ve had him here.”

Pederson said there’s no doubt the parish will go through some adjustments as church members get to know their new priest, the Rev. Kevin Novack.

“He’s a youngster,” Koenigsfeld said with a grin about the 58-year-old who’s coming to Durango from Cañon City. “I’m sure he’ll bring his own kind of energy to the parish.”

Pederson agrees.

“People say Father Jim’s shoes are going to be difficult to fill,” he said. “This is not a matter of filling his shoes. His shoes are going to Pueblo. This is more about the parish itself and its journey.”

abutler@durangoherald.com

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