It’s 10:17 on a Sunday morning and that means the Rev. Tony Grossenburg has just 13 minutes before he’s late for Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, just 20 miles away in Morristown.
“Sorry, this priest may have to speed,” Grossenburg apologizes as he aims his 2010 KIA sedan east out of Lemmon and down S.D. Highway 20 toward Morristown.
With that small sin against state traffic laws confessed, the Catholic priest is on his way to his fourth Mass in less than 18 hours at the three parishes that he serves in this far northwestern edge of South Dakota. For the past two years, the 42-year-old Winner native has been the resident priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lemmon, while also serving parishes in Morristown and Bison.
It’s just 40 miles to Morristown and back, but Bison is a 90-mile round trip that Grossenburg navigates more than once many weeks for parish council meetings, pastoral visits, funerals, weddings and more. Still, the long distances between the towns he serves is nothing compared to the 400-plus mile round trip that he travels regularly to visit his diocesan headquarters in Rapid City.
“You spend so many miles on the road out here,” he said. “It’s pretty country, but it is a lot of time by yourself behind the wheel.”
For Grossenburg, the road home to the far northwest border of South Dakota is a rolling ribbon of asphalt that stretches north out of Rapid City. S.D. Highway 79 takes him past Bear Butte and beyond Newell into the big skies and sweeping prairies of places that most South Dakotans have never been to: Hoover and Reva, Slim Buttes and Prairie City. The views are mostly sagebrush and stock dams, but the road also crosses two branches of the small but scenic Moreau River and affords a quick passage through the pine-covered bluffs at the eastern end of the Custer National Forest. Before Grossenburg parks his car in the garage of the large, brick parsonage of St. Mary’s -- optimistically built in 1949 to accommodate five resident priests -- he’ll pass through Bison and Meadow and past Shadehill Reservoir, a popular water recreation spot 12 miles from Lemmon.
Every Saturday evening, Grossenburg drives south past Shadehill again, on his way from the 4:45 p.m. Mass in Lemmon to 7:15 p.m. services in Bison.
Blessed Sacrament is a spacious, modern church that swarms with young families and preschool age children. During a recent children’s offertory, one little girl came forward to hand “Father Tony” her donation, then stopped, mid-Mass, to tell him all the finer fashion points of her new dress.
“It was just so cute,” he said. “I love little kids, and we’ve got a ton of them in Bison. You get mobbed when you’re sitting there.”
The church membership is about half ranchers, like the Carmichaels, and half townspeople, like the Kvales. Grand Electric Rural Cooperative has expanded its workforce in recent years and many of the new employees just happened to be young Catholic families, according to longtime church member Bernice Kari.
Grossenburg is a natural comedian who often uses humor to relate to his parishioners. He teases everyone, but he also turns the self-deprecating humor on himself.
Even in the Z-coil shoes that help alleviate his chronic back pain, Grossenburg stands maybe 5 feet tall. He’s quick to joke about his short stature and his rapidly receding hairline.
“I tell people that the reason my hair fell out and I shrunk two feet is because of the wind blowing across the border from North Dakota,” he said.
Coping with the stress and isolation that are inherent to life as a single, solo pastor in a small, remote town requires a little humor, Grossenburg said.
He cracks jokes about everything from his vow of celibacy to the culture of clericalism in the Catholic Church to dealing with demanding parishioners. He refers to the uniform of the Roman collar and the all-black shirt and pants as “Garanimals for priests.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m kind of a smart aleck,” he said.
While he waits after Saturday Mass for Kari and Brad Hendrickson to count the collection plate money, he kids the 6-foot, 4-inch tall Hendrickson that they are really identical twins, separated at birth.
“Or I tell people we’re movie twins -- he’s Danny DeVito and I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Grossenburg said.
By the time he finishes visiting with Bison parishioners like Dan and Stacy Kvale or Jess and Susan Carmichael, it's usually dark for the drive home. Back in Lemmon by 10 p.m., Grossenburg unwinds with a smoke on his pipe, a glass of Cabernet and his breviary -- a daily reading of Psalms and other prayers that he views on his iPad. He’ll be up again at 6 a.m. for coffee, morning prayer and two more Masses to celebrate.
In less than 18 hours, he’ll drive 150 miles and preach four sermons; he prays for more rain and more vocations to the priesthood four times; he offers the same blessings for mothers, or new graduates or fathers sitting in the pews four different times; and he consecrates four eucharists.
It’s a schedule that's familiar to many priests in rural western South Dakota, because the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City covers a vast area that is bordered by the Missouri River and the surrounding states of Wyoming, North Dakota and Nebraska. The diocese has far more churches than it has priests, as vocations to the priesthood fall nationwide. In 1965, there were nearly 59,000 U.S. Catholic priests. In 2011, there were 39,466, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
There are 88 Catholic parishes, many of them mission churches without a resident priest, that are still open west of the Missouri River, according to the Rapid City Diocese. They are served by 42 active ordained priests. Of those, 30 are diocesan priests and another 12 belong to religious orders. Like Grossenburg, many of them drive long distances to say Mass for some of the 25,000 Catholics who are scattered across 43,000 square miles.
“It’s a calling, yes, but it’s a job, too, and sometimes your feet hurt and your back is killing you,” Grossenburg said. “But even then, there isn’t anything else I’d rather do.”
As a diocesan priest, Grossenburg took a vow to live simply but not, as many people mistakenly assume, a vow of poverty. He owns his own car, vacations with his family in places like Baja California, Mexico, and Maui, Hawaii, and is a photography buff who admits to coveting a number of expensive cameras and lenses.
But there’s already more than 40,000 miles on his car that’s only a year and a half old, and it is covered in the dings and dents that come with long miles on lonely stretches of highway. He has hit deer and plenty of birds, too. “Those pheasants seem to have a suicide complex,” jokes Grossenburg, who does a hilarious pantomime of a deer that insisted on crashing into the rear of his car one night, despite his best efforts to outrun it.
But the crumple currently marring his front fender came not from a deer, but from a collision with the handrail in front of the Bison church. He was so engrossed in listening to a spiritual retreat speaker’s remarks on CD when he pulled into the church parking lot one day, he forgot to put his car into park and it rolled into the front steps of the church, Grossenburg admits sheepishly. “Believe me, I heard about that after church.”
His mother, Patsy Grossenburg, worries about all those miles driven in bad weather, poor cell phone reception and late nights.
“He’s already been in one bad accident, driving too fast on a gravel road," she said. "He made a promise to me that he wouldn’t ever speed again.”
She has her doubts about that promise, but no doubts that her son is in the right profession and the right place.
“He loves being a parish priest. He has his frustrations, they all do. But it’s rewarding work,” she said. “The one thing I would like people to understand is how priests are spread so thin ... and how long their days are. All the priests in rural areas have mission parishes. It’s very time consuming.”
Each of Grossenburg’s three parishes has its own feel and flavor, and Grossenburg reflects those differences in his Sunday sermons. No two are exactly the same, because the people sitting in the pews aren’t, either. The one thing they all share is Grossenburg.
“We’re used to it, I guess,” said Jess Carmichael of being a mission parish. Bison hasn’t had a residence priest in about 15 years, but the thriving congregation built a new church in 1991 and is able to support itself, thanks in part to a generous endowment from the estate of a deceased parishioner. Dan Kvale, the physician’s assistant at the Bison Medical Clinic, moved his family to Bison, his grandparents’ hometown, eight years ago because of the quality of life it provided.
“We tried to leave once, and we were back within three months,” he said. “We love it here.”
While it would be an “added perk” if the parish priest lived in town and could attend more school events and community activities, Kvale is happy to be part of a healthy parish in Bison.
St. Mary’s in Lemmon, with perhaps 150 families, is about twice as large as Blessed Sacrament in Bison, but it is a much older parish demographic. Lemmon High School’s 2012 graduating class of 31 included eight students from St. Mary’s.
“I’m really going to miss this group of seniors. They’re a faithful bunch. I mean, they’re kids, of course, but they’ve been very faithful,” Grossenburg said.
Unless the parish grows because of a recent influx of North Dakota oil boom workers, some future First Communion classes at St. Mary’s promise to contain just one child.
“That’s not very good news for a parish this size,” he said.
Cattleman Ed Lemmon had bigger dreams for the town he founded just across the North Dakota border in 1907. Lemmon’s population peaked at nearly 3,000 people in the 1950s, the decade after St. Mary’s was built to serve about 350 families. The parish also included a small Catholic elementary school staffed by Benedictine sisters. The town was building lots of big churches back then. The Lutherans built Calvary Lutheran in 1950, an impressive Gothic church of white stone just down the street from St. Mary’s.
That growth would not continue. The Catholic school closed in the 1960s and today Lemmon has about 1,200 residents and Grossenburg is the sole occupant of a five-bedroom rectory.
But it is Morristown, located midway between Lemmon and McLaughlin, that may be the parish most threatened by the possibility of closure if the diocese is forced to consolidate more parishes in the future.
“You’re just glad you’ve got a priest at all,” said Ron Tomac, a Morristown rancher who doesn’t let long distances or bad weather keep him from Sunday Mass. If Sacred Heart Church closed, Tomac would be forced to add another 20 miles to either McLaughlin or Lemmon to his weekly trip.
He has made it to town for Mass when the snow was so deep, plows couldn’t clear the road to the church, so Mass was held in the local bar, instead. One other winter Sunday, when the temperature was well below zero and a church furnace went out, Grossenburg said Mass in his parka and waved the chalice in front of a propane heater to thaw just enough sacramental wine for communion.
Brenda Even, a lector at Sacred Heart, says it’s important for parishioners to keep in mind that one priest can only do so much. Grossenburg covers hospital visits in Hettinger, N.D., another 30 miles north of Lemmon, and if he needs to make a home pastoral visit, some of his parishioners live 75 miles away.
“He’s only one, and he’s only human,” Even said.
Tomac and Even’s daughter, Moriah, were among the small group of Morristown parishioners who stayed to chat with Grossenburg after Mass on Mother’s Day.
“I like him,” said Moriah, 15. “He’s more welcoming than some strait-laced priests.”
Grossenburg’s calling to the priesthood came as something of a surprise to him.
It certainly surprised his parents and his two younger brothers, Patsy Grossenburg said.
“It did surprise us. We got a call from him when he was doing a seminary visitation,” she recalled.
Grossenburg graduated from Creighton University, with degrees in political science and philosophy, fully expecting to go to law school and become an attorney like his father, Mick Grossenburg. He dabbled in Catholic retreats and ministries while at Creighton, but the priesthood wasn’t really on his radar screen until Winner resident Vickie Covey submitted his name to Archbishop Charles Chaput for the Rapid City diocese’s “Called by Name” priest recruitment campaign. Chaput is a former bishop of Rapid City.
“I’ve known his parents since we were in high school. I knew that Tony has great values. His family was always involved in the church, and his mother, particularly, was unselfish in her volunteerism in the church and in the community,” Covey said. “I just knew his family would support a vocation.”
Mick Grossenburg didn’t convert to the Catholic Church until about a year after his oldest son became a priest, but Tony also was influenced by the strong Catholic faith of his maternal grandparents, Emil and Myrtle Cahoy, who created their signature Cahoy pottery from the iron-rich soil of their Colome farm.
“I remember visiting them at the farm as a young child and falling asleep to the sound of them praying the rosary together in their bedroom,” he said.
So did the example of longtime Winner parish priest, the Rev. Joe Zeller.
“It was something about the man. He wasn’t the most dynamic preacher. He wasn’t even all that friendly. But it was super evident that he loved what he did. That made a huge impression on me,” Grossenburg said.
So did his first visit to the seminary.
“I called Mom from the seminary and told her where I was and all she said was, “Really?” he recalled. “I liked it. I really did,” he said. His first summer internship while in the seminary was in Lemmon.
He was ordained to the priesthood 13 years ago, along with his seminary classmate, the Rev. Brian Christensen, another diocesan priest who puts in plenty of windshield time serving parishes in Timber Lake, Isabel and Trail City. In addition to Lemmon, Grossenburg has also served in Rapid City, Philip and McLauglin.
“Growing up in Winner, I’m a small town kid, anyway. I love the quiet, I love the peacefulness. I love the beauty of the prairie,” he said.
He also knows that, like the spiritual life, there is both beauty and tedium to be found there.
“Sometimes, I’ll say a rosary, or I’ll listen to spiritual talks on CD while I drive. But there are other times when I’m just tired,” he said.
Standing for long periods while saying Mass aggravates his fragile health and his back pain, as does extended periods of driving, so he stops often to walk, hike or shoot photographs.
“The driving kills my back. I always have my camera with me," Grossenburg said. "I’ll stop and do some pictures.”
But life as a rural clergyman has its advantages, too -- like churches that are left unlocked 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“That’s the way a Catholic church should be – open 24 hours a day. You can come in any time of the day or night and pray. I love that,” he said. “You want to come in and be with Jesus? This place is unlocked. I love that.”
Among his other loves: finding a spiritual connection through gardening and saying Mass at the Lemmon nursing home, even when it is interrupted by a confused resident looking for the daily bingo game.
“I love my nursing home Mass,” Grossenburg said, even – maybe especially -- when it is interrupted by residents looking for the daily bingo game. “There’s Jesus, coming right there, on a card table covered with a white cloth. That’s incredible.”
He admits to missing some cultural and entertainment opportunities available in Rapid City, but that comes with the job, he said.
“Part of being a priest is that you go where you’re needed, where God wants you,” Grossenburg said.