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When a Priest Retires

“I enjoyed it very much!” That was Fr. Dennis Dettenwanger’s quick and enthusiastic reply when asked what he thought of his first ride in a helicopter. Not even a mediocre cell phone connection could dampen the excitement that Fr. Dennis radiated as he told his story. The blades chopped through the air whipping the wind all about. The technological marvel in which he found himself made quick work of the short distance between the town of Hamilton and the landing pad atop University Hospital in Clifton.


It was in a cozy home on Grace Avenue that Fr. Dennis was born to parents Jean and George Dettenwanger in St. Louis, MO, 1937. World War II was gearing up and so, too, was anti-German sentiment in the United States. George Dettenwanger, employed in the war-production industry, followed the work where it took him. And, in efforts to shield the family from anti-German ire resultant from the war, they moved numerous times during Fr. Dennis’ early childhood finally landing in New Carlisle, OH.

Fr. Dennis first heard the call to the priesthood as a young boy. Though it started soft, it gradually grew louder and louder until it was so loud, even others could hear it.  Sr. Jerome, his 8th grade teacher, cornered him in the coatroom and flatly informed him, “Look—you should be a priest.” Following high school graduation in 1955, he listened and entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary then located in Norwood, OH.

The cardiac team was waiting for Fr. Dennis that Sunday in 2007 and was poised for quick action when AirCare landed on the roof of the hospital. Within moments they had him safely out of the helicopter, on a gurney, and speeding off towards surgery. That Fr. Dennis remained conscious for the helicopter transport was incredibly surprising considering the severity of his condition. Also shocking was that he was able to complete Mass that morning before seeking care. Even then, he didn’t call an ambulance. He called his brother, George, who picked him up in his car and drove him to the local hospital. But they were not equipped to handle a heart episode this severe. AirCare was called right away.

Nine years after entering seminary, in 1964, Fr. Dennis and 30 other men were graduated and ordained by the Archbishop. Vatican II Council had just concluded a year prior, and within months of ordination, Fr. Dennis would be among the first priests to begin praying the Mass in a language other than Latin. It was to be a gradual transition. First, the readings were read in English, followed by the prayers of the Mass until, eventually, the entire Mass was spoken in English. Fr. Dennis would be there forging the path during this dynamic, and sometimes unsettled, slice of history.

His first assigned parish following ordination was Annunciation located in Clifton, right down the street from the University of Cincinnati and the helicopter’s landing. Some of these parishioners were unable to read. Some had PhDs. Some lived in bare and poorly heated apartments, others lived in grand homes complete with domestic staff. The university neighborhood was abuzz with the cultural tumult that made the 1960s what they were. Fr. Dennis’ 10-year tenure at Annunciation Church witnessed the bulk of the Vietnam War, the rise and fall of the “hippy” culture and Roe v/s Wade all while Vatican II was being implemented and unpacked. Fr. Dennis was right in the middle of it all.

In 1974, Fr. Dennis moved from Annunciation to St. Matthew in Norwood located quite near to where he had attended seminary. Though now, he’d be on the other side of the desk teaching five years at Marian High School (since closed). From there, he was assigned to St. Aloysius on the Ohio, and that would then be his home parish during a 13-year teaching assignment at Seton High School in Price Hill.

After a teaching career that lasted nearly two decades, Fr. Dennis received his last formal parish assignment in 1992. A 2-parish community, consisting of St. Joseph and St. Ann in Hamilton, needed a priest.  More than that even, St. Ann needed a pastor.  Fr. Dennis served these souls entrusted to him with happiness, grace and love just as he had all the others who had come before them. So many baptisms, weddings, last rites, anointings, confessions, absolutions— soul upon soul being carefully shepherded toward God. He loved being their pastor but the helicopter would not be bringing him back to St. Ann nor to his role as pastor. He would have a new assignment, now. Retired.

There are no long golfing vacations or fishing trips here. Retirement has a different meaning. For Fr. Dennis, retirement means officiating Mass at least once a day for the Sisters of Charity, at Mary Margaret Hall, for the Little Sisters of the Poor, or others. But there are no more weddings. Fr. Dennis hears confession 3 times a week and fills in around town as needed but no parish meetings, no parent-teacher conferences.

He goes to his heart doctor twice a month, prays the Liturgy of the Hours, and visits his friends who live in the same apartment building downtown like Fr. George and Fr. Bramlage. He quietly and joyfully continues to serve God, serve the Archdiocese and administer the sacraments as they come. He visits his family, goes to the movies, fixes computers for his neighbors, tinkers with electronics and continues his lifelong commitment to give himself for others. Though his pension from the Archdiocese is modest, it is given in faith, and with hope, with love, and definitely with gratitude. Many thanks to you, Father Dennis, and all our retired priests.

Written by: Rebecca Sontag


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