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Father Jim Sauer is the outgoing, friendly pastor at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Mount Vernon, and last month, he celebrated 40 years in the priesthood.
It’s a journey that has taken the man of the cloth across the state and beyond, but Sauer remains lighthearted and humble about the special milestone.
“Some days it feels like yesterday, and other times it feels like 100 years,” he said. “It’s like a marriage in that way.”
Father Sauer said he always knew he wanted to become a priest. The Evansville native grew up in a Catholic home, and recalled fond memories of his parents welcoming priests and other church clergy over to the house when Sauer was growing up.
He tried his hand at a few other trades before making the decision to give his life to the church.
“I knew when I was taking physics class and I had a 1,000-percent error on my circuitry experiment that I wasn’t going to be an electrician,” he said. “One summer, my job was repaving parking lots with tar, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not doing to do that.’ So by default, I became a priest.”
He attended St. Meinrad, a Catholic seminary school, and was officially ordained March 25, 1977. Since then, Sauer has served at numerous parishes. He crisscrossed the Evansville diocese, which is comprised of churches from 12 Southwest Indiana counties. He has served in some capacity at over 10 different churches over the years, from the large,
well-funded parish of Holy Rosary in Evansville to the small, working-class congregation of St. Clement in Boonville.
Each church came with its own unique members, but Sauer said he has discovered similarities that run through nearly all of them.
“Rich or poor, small or large, all of those congregations needed God’s love,” he said.
Sauer has served in other roles, including giving council and guidance to young priests, and serving on a board comprised of leaders from several religious denominations.
Sauer has seen many changes within his own denomination of Catholicism since he became a priest, and he said he thinks there are still more major changes on the horizon.
The number of men entering the priesthood has plummeted in recent years, causing parishes to close, downsize and merge with nearby congregations. In 2014, 49,153 parishes in the world had no resident priest pastor, and from 1980 to 2012, the ratio of practicing Catholics per priest went from 1,895 to 3,126.
It is an alarming trend for a man who has committed his life to the cause. Sauer believes there is a simple solution to the problem though, one he said he believes he will see in his lifetime – the Catholic Church allowing priests to marry.
“It will happen; it has to,” he said. “It is a big change, but it’s actually a part of our tradition…There is no contradiction in being married and being a priest.”
Sauer added that allowing more men with families to wear the white collar will allow the Catholic Church to continue helping people by growing membership rolls and continuing community programs that help all residents, not just church members.
Sauer – who began his 40-year career at St. Wendel, a Posey County parish – returned to the county again in 2011 to lead the congregation at St. Matthew in Mount Vernon. He has encouraged his congregation to reach out to others in the community and to continue doing service work long after he is gone.
“People say they enjoy coming here since I became pastor, but I always tell them, ‘You need to make this church a place you want to attend even after I’m gone,’” Sauer said. “I’m flattered they feel that way, but I won’t be around forever.”
Sauer said he has enjoyed his six years at St. Matthew, and described its members as generous. He is proud to see enrollment at the Catholic school increase in recent years, and he is a supporter of the parish’s Food for the Poor program and other service outreach efforts.
Now 67 years old, the Father said he intends to make St. Matthew his final church. He was unsure exactly when retirement may come, noting that he believes there are still several years of his life he has left to give.
“I will know when it is time, but I don’t believe that time is here yet,” he said. “I think there is still much work I have left to do.”