Ernest Russell Mower never thought he’d grow up to be a Catholic priest, but a funny thing happened on the way to his retirement
Born in Augusta Maine, he grew up in New England and attended Waterford High School where he played several sports. After breaking his leg in football, he began running to rehab it and discovered he enjoyed that more. He ended his high school career as a Cross Country runner and member of the track team. He went on to college and after two years wasn’t sure what to major in, so joined the Air Force.
After seven years, he left the Air Force to become a firefighter, and finished a degree in Fire Protection Engineering. This lead him to a job in the Wichita Fire Department and a fire service career of thirty years. He was a Fire Captain in Wichita before coming to work in Plano as the Fire Marshal.
A life-long fan of the New England Patriots, “Called the ‘Boston Patriots’ back when I was living up north,” he got to meet Hall of Famer Troy Aikman on his worst day, when Aikman’s new house was on fire. “He drove up as we were putting the fire out,” Russ explains, “and he was so nice. He knew nobody was in the house, but he asked if anyone had been hurt putting out the fire, and asked me, ‘are you sure no firefighter was hurt?’ He was very concerned that the fire didn’t harm anyone.” Since that encounter, Russ has been slowly warming to the Cowboys. “I’ll cheer for them if they’re not playing my Patriots,” he says with a laugh.
After eight years, he retired as Fire Marshal to work as the Chief Building Official for six years, during the 1990’s when Plano was booming in size. He’d met his wife, Vickie, at work, and later at a college campus where she worked and he was a student obtaining a Masters’ degree. The two became friends, married, and Russ inherited three daughters: Tina, now 45, Lisa, 43 and 38-year-old Diana. Vickie was raised Catholic, and so were the girls, so Russ felt a certain pull to convert. He and his wife also spent a lot of time volunteering in the church, working with the youth and going on mission trips, so it seemed a natural progression for him to officially join the Catholic Church.
“I was drawn to the faith by my wife and kids,” he says now, looking back. “It just felt right.” Raised Episcopalian, often joked to be “Catholic Lite,” he said the transition was a smooth one.
Life was running along smoothly for him too, as he travelled all over the world in his job as a building engineer. He even had an office at AT&T Cowboys Stadium during the two years it was being built. Mission trips with his wife and church took him to Phoenix, San Antonio, and eventually Mexico, including two mission trips he went on by himself to help the Brothers and Sisters of Charity supporting an orphanage in Nicaragua. He kept feeling a tug to help others, to do more, pray more.
Life was good for the Mower family. And then his wife died unexpectedly.
It wasn’t long before Russ began to re-evaluate his legacy. He started talking to the pastor at his church, Father Tim Church, who was a late convert to the Catholic priesthood, converting from the Episcopal priesthood. Like Russ, he’d been married and has grown children. “I asked him to please tell me it was a bad idea for me to become a priest,” Father Russ said, “And he sort of said the opposite. He told me to think about it, pray about it, and not be afraid to follow that pull I was feeling to get closer to God.”
Russ applied to be a seminarian and went to Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Boston, a seminary for older seminarians like him who already have lived life in the secular world and are discerning whether to give up their careers earning a paycheck to gain heavenly rewards instead. “I was with other engineers and attorneys, all feeling a need to follow their desire to enter the priesthood and begin working in the church full time, not just as a volunteer.” He gave up his four-bedroom house with a swimming pool for a 10-by-12-foot dorm room, and felt like he was back in college again—which, he admits, he basically was.
During his Summers, he was sent to internships at various parishes. On his final Summer, he asked for a shorter internship so he could hike the Camino de Santiago, backpacking 480 miles over 32 days. This was his last internship before his deaconate ordination, and the time alone on the trail was spent communing in nature—and prayer. A well-known pilgrimage route for thousands, Russ found his answer along the way. Next stop: The Catholic priesthood.
Ordained on May 30, 2015 and sent to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as Parochial Vicar, Father Russ said this first appointment was basically a “trial” year, where he, like any new employee, learns the ropes.
Fortunately, he’s a fast learner. When he met with Bishop Kelly a year later for his first Annual Evaluation, it was a good one. “I left his office and he asked my Pastor to come in next.” Very quickly, Father Russ was asked to return to Bishop Kelly’s office. “I thought—uh-oh. This can’t be good.” But it was better.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Oak Cliff needed a pastor. Would Father Russ consider leading the church and school? “I had no idea about what to do with a school,” he said, “so I called up my priest friend back in New England and asked him. He said, ‘A school? That’s great! Whenever you’re having a bad day, just walk on over to the first-grade classroom and sit with those kids a while. You’ll soak up their excitement and energy and will be back to work in no time.’” Father Russ took the assignment. He arrived in Oak Cliff in August. And, he couldn’t be happier.
Meeting Principal Rachel Dzurilla made the transition even easier when he discovered they had a lot in common. “She’s a former Police officer, and I’m a former firefighter,” he explains, “We are kindred spirits, trained to help others, calm in a crisis.”
Father Russ knows that being calm comes with experience, and he’s had lots more than the average new priest. Twice he’s used CPR to save someone. Once, after his shift at the fire station, he was eating breakfast in a diner when a customer appeared to be choking and fell to the floor. Russ leaped in to help and realized the man was having a heart attack, so did CPR until the paramedics came and took over. The man survived.
Another time Russ was walking in the parking lot of the old Cowboys stadium in Irving, heading into a Promise Keeper’s rally, when the man walking in front of him fell flat on his face. “I though he tripped,” Russ recalls. But it was a massive heart attack. Fortunately, right behind Russ was another CPR expert. “We both were CPR trainers, so together we worked in tandem to keep this guy alive.” The paramedics came and rushed the man off to the ER. Russ visited the man in the hospital the next day. “It was a happy ending.”
Father Russ’s happy ending is just beginning. At 65 he’s in a new career as the pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church and school. He can trace his family back to the pilgrims on the Mayflower, and will soon be surrounded by the flowers in the traditional May Crowning, the annual Marian devotion honoring the Virgin Mary as “the Queen of May.”
He hopes to stay at St. Elizabeth’s for a long time. Priests are often given six year assignments, but it can be renewed and extended for an additional six years if everyone agrees. Older pastors can ask to stay on in a parish until retirement. Father Russ likes that idea.
After all, he has a class room full of first graders he’d like to see graduate in seven years. It took him almost ten times that to find his true calling, and he plans to make the best of it. His career of saving lives has now become a career of saving souls. Ernest Russell Mower has come home.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church and School is located at 4019 South Hampton Road, Dallas, TX 75224 next door to the Walgreens on the corner of Loop 12 Ledbetter and Hampton. The school offers grades pre-k 3 through 8th grade. For more information see the school’s website: http://saintspride.com/
Real Estate Agents are invited to a brunch and tour Wednesday, February 22nd 8:30 to 9:30.
The public is invited to come tour the school and meet the exceptional faculty and staff. For more information contact Sandy Walkley firstname.lastname@example.org
(214) 331-5139 x21
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Judy Porter writes about local heroes and businesses. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org