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Dispelling any myth that might exist about where priests come from, Fr. Jim Hartwell exclaimed, “I came from a Catholic family, I didn’t fall out of the ‘priest tree.’ I came from a family!”

That family began in Erie, PA. Father Jim grew up in the large parish of St. George in the Diocese of Erie. It was the largest parish, with a large school housing three classes of each grade level with thirty students per class. They also had three priests assigned to the parish. Father Jim recalled that when he was younger he thought all Catholic parishes were big and bustling and bursting at the seams with life and activity. By the time he was ten years old, his father had tired of driving to Buffalo for work each day so the family moved to Amherst. He spent two years at St. Leo the Great School. He, his younger brother and their parents then moved to Grand Island.

The first time he considered the priesthood was when he was in second grade. Of course, back then he wanted to be lots of things like a fire fighter, astronaut, etc. Thoughts of the priesthood returned when he was in the seventh grade.  He recalls that these thoughts occurred during pivotal moments in his life. He made his First Reconciliation in the fall of second grade and his First Communion in the spring. Entering into new Sacraments can trigger thoughts of religious life. When his family made the move from Amherst to Grand Island, he started to attend public school for the first time in his life and he missed that Catholic connection. He considered priesthood again when he made his Confirmation.

After graduating from high school, he went to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY. There he found a group of faith-filled friends. He studied Pre-Med and Gerontology with a focus on Business Administration. He worked during those years as a Certified Nurses’ Assistant. Within his group of friends, 7 of the 14 went on to become priests and 7 got married and had families. He assessed, “It all came down to helping each other try to find out where God is calling them.” He added that, “God works through our faults and failures as well as our strengths and weaknesses.” He decided after his third year at St. John Fisher to leave and enter Wadhams Hall Seminary in Ogdensburg, NY in order to finally give more serious thought to becoming a priest.

He went on to study at Christ the King Seminary and was ordained in 2002. Having no other classmates that year, he truly was “in a class by himself!” Father Jim was first assigned to Infant of Prague Parish for three years. After that, he took a short leave of absence to deal with a few questions he had. As he put it, “Discernment is an ongoing process.” He returned to ministry at Nativity of Our Lord Parish for two and a half years. It was then that St. Michael in Warsaw was looking for a pastor and Fr. Jim applied. He was assigned to St. Michael and has been there for nine years.

Father Jim’s hobbies depend on the season. In the warmer months he likes to golf and in the fall and winter he enjoys archery and shotgun hunting. He appreciates living in Warsaw where there are lots of places to hike and hunt. He likes being out in nature and away from phones and technology for a while. Getting together with friends and brother priests is something he enjoys year round.

He delights in being with the people and believes that instead of having a family of his own, he is a part of everyone’s family. Father Jim also enjoys working with wedding couples. It is fulfilling to journey with them through dating, engagement, marriage and eventually to see them raise families of their own.  He noted that, “The relationship between celibate priest and married couple is complementary because we show each other what the ideal is in each other’s ministry. The lived reality of marriage is that it can be very difficult and challenging at times. A priest can hold up the ideal that marriage should be a complementary self-sacrificial love between husband and wife. As a married couple they don’t understand what it’s like to be a celibate priest. Not even so much the absence of a partner in life but more the constant expectation that the priest should be available all the time for the needs of the parishioners. The married couple through their faithful love of each other inspires the priest to realize what his well-lived priesthood does for them.” Father Jim believes that there is a correlation between the divorce rates increasing causing the break-up of families and the number of vocations to the priesthood declining. He added, “The idea of ‘life-long vocation’ deteriorates as people fail to stay together in marriage.

Keeping a good balance is something Fr. Jim struggles with from time to time. He lamented, “It’s so easy to see all there is to do and get discouraged.” He attends meetings at the parish as well as in the community where he serves on several local boards and committees. He is also on the Presbyteral Council for the Diocese of Buffalo and Vicar Forane for the Genesee-Wyoming Vicariate. He sometimes thinks to himself, “When can I just be a normal parish priest again?” He sees the temptation to skip his day off but knows that would not be a good idea in the long run. He believes that priests who slack in their prayer lives and don’t take quiet time or proper time for meals or exercise can wind up suffering some mental, physical, emotional and spiritual burn out.

In advising those considering the priesthood, Fr. Jim counsels, “Remember that a calling from God is also on God’s time, not your time. If God is calling you to a religious vocation, be it priesthood, religious or diaconate; keep an open mind and an open heart. There could be experiences God is calling you to before you get to the point of actually entering formation for religious life.” He went on to advise that once you are serving in your ministry, you may recall the experiences you had before that are now helping you deal with current issues. He values every experience he had that led up to his ordination and he believes, “It will be evident what God is calling you to if you keep that open mind and heart.”

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