Father Joe Vetter: Saying thank you for 30 years

A lot can happen in 30 years. Father Joe Vetter, director of the Newman Catholic Student Center, will be the first to agree with this, explaining that change has been the one constant he has known in his life. But there is one thing that has not changed for the past 30 years - Father Joe has served Catholic communities since the day he was ordained, March 26, 1973.

A mass held yesterday celebrated Father Joe's 30th anniversary to the day as an ordained priest. Vetter, who attended the Josephine Pontifical Seminary in Worthington, Ohio, was born in Greensboro, N.C. and grew up in Burlington, N.C. He was ordained in the Diocese of Raleigh at Annunciation Catholic Church in Havelock, N.C. when he was 26. He has been at Duke for the past 5 years.

Colleagues praised Father Joe's innovative approach to ministry. "His creative way of approaching ministry in the church is great," said Father Michael Shagrue, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Raleigh. "He has a very creative spirit and always a fresh and new approach."

Amidst students, family and friends, Father Joe led a Wednesday evening Mass. While mid-week Mass is nothing new for the Newman Center, Wednesday Mass was special because it was held in the Chapel along with six visiting priests. "Wednesday Mass is normally about 20 people and is held downstairs in the crypt," Father Joe, who did not want any fanfare for his special day and was surprised by his co-workers just a few days earlier, said with a smile.

"I don't really like being the center of attention," Father Joe said one day before his anniversary. "But I guess I find it in my job something I have to do."

Jessica Chitester, business manager for the Newman Center, explained that Vetter has had such an impact on the community that a celebration seemed only fitting. "There's been a huge swell of support for Father Joe, and it's neat to see so many people come out to support him," she said.

Over the past thirty years, Father Joe has been the leader of a variety of Catholic communities ranging from Southport, N.C.-where he was Gov. Mike Easley's wife Mary's priest - to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Change has been the biggest constant over the past 30 years," he said. "I was a Tar Heel, and now I'm a Blue Devil. That's not just change, that's a transformation."

Being ordained just after the Second Vatican Council, Father Joe knew his service would not be stagnant. "The Church was looking outward more than it had in a while," he said in his homily. "The challenge of my priesthood would not be to maintain the status quo. My contemporaries and me were called to be pioneers."

And it must have been some trail that Father Joe blazed as was evidenced by the crowd of people that followed him to a reception in the Bryan Center after Mass. "I came because I love Joe Vetter," said Barbara Pegg of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, who has known Vetter for 16 years. "I think he's been a friend to me and almost all of the women I know who struggle in the church."

Mary Easley explained that Father Joe has been connected to she and the governor's lives for years, serving the governor while he was a student at UNC and then serving the couple when they lived in Southport. "He thinks beyond the clutter of normal life," she said. "He's brilliant because he is able to convey complex ideas so quickly. He's simple and profound simultaneously."

In Father Joe, Duke students have an admirer and supporter. Although he originally questioned his bishop's decision to send him to Duke, since arriving, he has never looked back. "I really feel privileged to be with this group of good people who are talented," he said. "I think it's a gifted group of people who deserve my support."

While Father Joe admitted that he is no longer as idealistic or energetic as he was 30 years ago, he said has more wisdom, experience and reason to hope - a good thing for his Duke community.


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