New Gesu pastor learning parish’s ‘flavor’

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The Rev. Karl Voelker is Gesu Parish's new pastor.

The Rev. Karl Voelker is Gesu Parish's new pastor.

Imagine 12th Street continuing through the front doors of Gesu Church and following the aisle to the altar.

This is the image the church’s new pastor, the Rev. Karl Voelker, uses to describe his vision for the Gesu Parish as God’s presence united with the city.

“A lot of people might pass by, and that’s okay,” Voelker said. “But we are here as a sign that says, if you need a pit stop, if you have a hunger, we are here to fill that and lift your spirit.”

This summer, after former pastor the Rev. Peter Etzel left to work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Voelker was installed as Gesu Parish’s 20th pastor on July 12.

The Rev. Luis Rodriguez, assistant provincial for the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, said the church needed an experienced pastor after Etzel left, and Voelker was able and fit the church’s need.

Raised in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis, Voelker, 67, graduated from Marquette University High School and attended Jesuit College in St. Bonifacius, Minn. From there, he studied philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo. and pursued theological studies at Regis College in Ontario, Canada. In 1972, Voelker was ordained at Gesu Church.

Most recently, Voelker served as pastor of St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Mankato, Minn., where he was described by his peers as committed to social justice in the community.

Christopher Walchuk, parish administrator at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, said Voelker turned an unused convent on the church’s property into a women and children’s shelter that served the homeless and housed offices for local non-profits.

Walchuk said Voelker will have many opportunities to serve the people on the margins and reach out to the poor in Milwaukee.

While Gesu Church already has meals and services available to the poor, Walchuk said he was sure Voelker will insist that those efforts continue and be strengthened.

Although parishioners in Mankato will miss Voelker, Rodriguez said he was great for the job at Gesu.

“He’s very concerned about little people, very generous, a good listener and he wants to meet and know as many parishioners as he can,” Rodriguez said.

Less than two months into his tenure as pastor, Voelker said that although he understands his role as a pastor, he is still learning his way around the church.

“I feel like a graduate student and freshman simultaneously,” he said. “I’m trying to make an effort to be at every liturgy I can to learn the flavor of the people who come.”

Once he gets over the newness of his surroundings, Voelker said he will have a better idea of how to lead the parishioners.

Voelker said he wants staff, council members and parishioners to ask what it means to be the face of Christ to the city.

“If I can get people involved, then this is wonderful,” Voelker said.

With the church situated in the heart of the Marquette University neighborhood, Voelker said Gesu can assist in every dimension of student life, especially with worship, spiritual challenges, and providing service opportunities for students.

“We would just like to be that big brother in spiritual and human growth at Marquette,” Voelker said.

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