DETROIT — His title, combined with parenthood, can lead to repetition.
On Father’s Day, some parishioners have a message for the Rev. William (Bill) Spencer III: “Happy Father’s Day, father.”
He became a Catholic priest in 2007 – three years after Margaret Mary Spencer, his wife of 44 years, died – and is dad to three adult children and grandpa to six.
“I have to get used to calling him ,’Father father,’ ” Spencer recalled one of his kids saying soon after he was ordained.
Spencer, 81, is pastor of Holy Name of Mary Parish, which is composed of two churches that recently merged — Our Lady of Lake Huron in Harbor Beach and St. Anthony of Padua in Helena, both in the Thumb of Michigan. He also oversees Our Lady of Lake Huron Catholic School, which teaches kindergarten through eighth grade.
“I’m going to keep working as long as I can,” he told the Free Press.
On Monday, which he calls “a day away, not a day off,” he often celebrates mass at Christ the King Catholic Church, his home parish in Ann Arbor.
“I can’t believe for someone his age the hours he keeps,” said parishioner Debbie Oglenski, 61, of Harbor Beach. “I don’t know where he finds the energy because I can’t keep up with him.”
Sometimes he will be in and out of the church until midnight and up again for 8 a.m. mass, and if he gets a late-night knock on his door or is called to the hospital in middle of the night, he’ll go, people who know him said.
Spencer, who moved to Ann Arbor from Pennsylvania in 1981 and retired from his job at Detroit Edison, has officiated 66 weddings and 123 funerals and performed 155 baptisms since becoming a priest, according to church records.
“It sometimes amazes me that I am here where I am with kids and grandkids and having been married,” he said.
While rare, his situation is not unheard of in the state.
Of approximately 900 active Catholic priests in the state, there are about six currently working in Michigan who were married, then widowed prior to becoming a priest, according to church officials across the state.
Spencer’s decision to join the priesthood after his wife died didn’t surprise those who know him the best. They say he’s always been active in the church.
“We’ve seen for ourselves growing up how he’s close with the church and close with God,” said his youngest daughter, Elizabeth Gava. “He’s not one to be idle. … He’s happiest when he’s guiding people and helping people.”
Margaret Logan, his oldest daughter, said attending church as kids was a priority, even while on vacation.
On one trip, family members — including extended family — were traveling in two cars when there was a dead deer in the road in Snow Shoe, Pa.
It was winter, her dad hit it and the car became disabled, Logan recalled.
“The problem was this was on a Saturday night,” she said. “Sunday morning, we have to go to church.”
Missing mass, she said, was not an option, so nine family members piled in the single working car.
“We got to church,” she said, laughing.
Her two sons, Spencer’s oldest grandchildren, said they know there aren’t many people who have a grandpa as a priest.
It often raised questions like “They can’t do that, can they?” and requires a story — one grandchildren Matt Logan, 21, and his brother, Sean Logan, 25, have told before — with details of how it came to be.
Spencer attended a Catholic grade and high school in Philadelphia and went into the seminary in 1950, where he spent seven years.
“I had questions about myself,” he said of that time in his life. “Not about anything else. Just whether I could do, should do, would do this.”
He left the seminary in 1957 and was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after. While on leave over Christmas, he waited to get on a plane, noticed a woman, and went over to say hello.
The two were married in 1959 and shared the same love for God. Spencer’s wife, who went by Peg, battled breast cancer, which came back years later and then spread to the bone. Even when she was sick, the two attended services together.
She died in July 2004, and Spencer’s prayers, he said, led him to the priesthood.
“His retirement is working for the Lord for the rest of his life,” Deacon Larry Randolph said.
Spencer had the support of his family, but it took persistence to get into the priesthood in his 70s. He said he was told he would not be accepted as a seminarian by officials with the Diocese of Lansing and talked to a priest who asked him what he would do next.
“I said, ‘I’ll try two more dioceses. If two others say ‘no,’ then three strikes, I’m out. I won’t pursue it anymore.’ ”
St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, who was previously Bishop of Saginaw, said yes, but it came with a stipulation about his education.
“I told him given his age, I really couldn’t use the resources of the diocese to prepare him, so he paid his own way,” said Carlson, who noted Spencer was in excellent health. “The more and more I got to know him, I realized he was a man of great faith and deep prayer and really a wonderful human being.”
Carlson called Spencer’s path to the priesthood “very rare” but noted several strengths he brings: People relate to him well, he helps men who are going to be priests learn to be pastoral, and he’s good with young people, a benefit when his parish has a school.
In the Archdiocese of Detroit, one priest shares a similar background.
The Rev. Joseph Lang, 78, met his wife in 1961 — the first day on the job at Thurston High School in Redford Township, where he was an English teacher, basketball and baseball coach. She was a history teacher.
He was married to Mary Lang for 31 years until her death in 1996; they had three children, and Lang is now grandpa to four grandchildren.
Lang, an associate pastor at National Shrine of the Little Flower Parish in Royal Oak, said he wasn’t ready to sit poolside after retiring.
“My son said, ‘Dad what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you go to Florida and sit in the sun?’ ” he recalled. “But he supports it.”
Lang was ordained May 14, 2005, two days before he turned 70. The decision to become a priest was one he said his wife helped him make.
“I had a wonderful married life,” he said. “I remember my wife saying a number of times, ‘If anything ever happens to me, Joe will become a priest.’ ”
Lang, like Spencer, plans to work as long as he can and also attended seminary decades before being ordained.
At the time, Lang said he didn’t think God was calling him, so he left.
“The real blessing in my life was that I was able to pick up in my priesthood preparation where I left off in 1958 when I left the seminary.”
Some parishioners said the experiences priests who have been married bring to the job are beneficial, especially with family counseling and marriage preparation, because they’ve been in situations that other priests have not.
While there are people within the church who want to see married men as priests, there isn’t a strong, singular movement for that within the church right now, Archdiocese of Detroit spokesman Joe Kohn said.
Sometimes, Spencer includes stories in church about his wife or kids, which parishioners respond to well.
Barb Brown of Ann Arbor has known Spencer for about 30 years and said he loves the Lord and the church, and has a real desire to serve both, so becoming a priest seemed like a natural move for him to continue to serve.
“He’s a priest in the true sense of the word,” said Spencer’s son, William (Bill) Spencer IV. “He genuinely wants to help people. There’s no ulterior motive, and he’ll go out of his way to help anybody with no thought about himself.”