Father Palmer set to retire from Our Lady of Fatima

If there is one thing Father Michael Palmer will always remember about his 50 years as a Roman Catholic priest, it will be his opportunity to share in countless personal religious celebrations he oversaw for his parish.

“I’ll always remember the family celebrations at church, and the sacraments — like First Communions and baptisms,” he said. “They all involve the grand learning of faith in our Lord as the sacraments advance. It continues on through confirmation, as we help pass along the faith to the next generation. At each step, I’ve seen happy and rewarded young men and women.”

Father Palmer will retire from the priesthood on May 26, at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church in Wilton, after serving the parish for 36 years. He was first ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Bridgeport on May 25, 1963, after he felt a calling to the post.

He described the call to the priesthood as a “gradual one.”

“I was once thinking about writing,” he said. “My uncle was John Hersam, the founder of the New Canaan Advertiser. But as I ended high school, I felt I was being called to study for the priesthood.” (The Advertiser is a sister publication of The Wilton Bulletin.)

Father Palmer began an eight-year preparation at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield in 1955, right after high school. He completed his last six years of studying at St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, N.Y.

The clergyman said making the commitment to the priesthood was no easy task.

“There were tough times, but they were never unfulfilling,” he said. “No two years have ever been the same. The seminary is always a testing period. The commitment is either made and strengthened, or some chose to move on.”

Between his ordination in 1963 and 1971, Father Palmer was a faculty member and counselor at Christ the King Preparatory Seminary in Southport, and pursued graduate studies at Georgetown, Catholic, and Fairfield universities, earning a master of arts degree from the latter.

In 1977, he was appointed as the fourth pastor of Our Lady of Fatima. He would continue to serve the Wilton parish for the next 36 years, an unusually long time, he said.

“In the older days, six years [of service to a parish] was normal, but they haven’t thrown me out yet,” he added with a laugh.

Over the years, Father Palmer said he always felt “a desire to share the faith of Jesus — the very high goals and values. There’s an element of the press that is always looking for the ‘edge,’ and for controversies, but those involved see the broader support of our Catholic faith. Especially in God’s call to reach out to one another.”

Father Palmer hopes the multi-faceted growth of Our Lady of Fatima during his tenure remains his most important legacy.

“We’ve grown from a parish of 650 when I began in 1977 to a parish of 1,800,” he said. By the 1990s, “growth made us bulge the church,” he said.

In 1995, Father Palmer oversaw the renovation of the old church — circa 1953 — into a gathering place large enough to accommodate all of Wilton’s faithful. In addition, he said, the growth of the parish also required new school facilities to be built.

“The school needed further development. We converted the basement into classrooms for school and religious education, and a computer room to help our facilities keep up with the needs of the parish.”

Parish ministries, he added, have also grown during his time with Our Lady of Fatima, including ministries for “men, women, youth, religious education, the elderly, and the disabled,” he said. The priest is specifically proud of the Ministry for the Elderly and Homebound, run by Sister Julie Horvath.

“I always give credit to the citizens of Wilton for taking care of the needs of their elderly citizens,” he said, and this ministry was Our Lady of Fatima’s way to supplement that support. The ministry serves Ogden House, Wilton Meadows, The Greens, Brookdale Place of Wilton, and Meadow Ridge in Redding.

In addition, Father Palmer said, youth group activities and annual mission trips always supported his own and other parishioners’ growth and spiritual enrichment.

However, Father Palmer’s days at the parish were not always filled with positive growth.

“September 11 was one of the darker days of my time at Our Lady of Fatima,” he said, noting that all five of those from Wilton killed in the attack were members of his parish.

“The parish and town really rallied around those people affected,” he said. In the time since, the parish has erected a memorial to those lost in the terrorist attacks, one that Father Palmer holds close to his heart.

He also spoke about his continuing concern for those of his parish who have entered military service.

“I had a brother involved in the first Gulf War, and when he came back the parish really worked to welcome him back,” he said. “We always kept a prayer request for our young people in the military.”

After his retirement, Father Palmer will live at the Queen of the Clergy, a Stamford retirement home for priests.

In retirement, Father Palmer says, he will have the chance to move on from Our Lady of Fatima with extra time to “go out and help parishes where there is a need.” But, he said, “there’s no doubt that I will slow down a bit.”

“I’m very blessed with an active and supportive community of priests and parishioners. I couldn’t have accomplished much without them.”

Father Palmer is also excited to see which path his religion’s newest pope takes.

“Pope Francis is very welcome,” he said. “He is a priest and a man of real concern for the needy, and for the growth of people’s spiritual life and values. The influence he is having on the world is very good.”

In recent years, there has been a influx of older men into the Roman Catholic priesthood. Father Palmer believes that is very healthy for the religion.

“I remember growing up, watching people go off to work or jobs rather than go to higher education,” he said. “There was a certain maturity in facing life’s challenges exhibited by those folks. The people coming in now, though, have thought and prayed about it more.”

One of Father Palmer’s favorite memories is a trip overseas, where he learned about the history of his family. He fondly remembers his chance to travel to Ireland and Germany.

“I went to Ireland and Germany, where my family was originally from. I was able to trace the Palmer name to the early 1600s in America.” His distant relative William Palmer landed at Plymouth Rock, and was a lieutenant under Capt. Miles Standish.