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Lake Country Faces: Priest new to lakes area Catholic churches lets his faith lead the way

This latest priest is the youngest to serve his parish in recent years.

Father Matthew Miller
Father Matthew Miller, shown at St. Christopher's Catholic Church in Nisswa, joined the Our Lady of the Lakes parish in July 2022, serving the churches in Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Pine River.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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NISSWA — For Father Matthew Miller, sacramental minister of the Our Lady of the Lakes parish, indecision was once a life directing sign.

"I was looking at studying something in the medical field," Miller said. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to do pre-physical therapy and was kind of thinking about pre-med and things of that nature. Then I was thinking maybe I just like science and I could do chemical engineering or something of that nature. I wasn't sure what I wanted. it was that realization that I couldn't actually decide for myself what I wanted. I didn't know what was going to make me happy."

Miller said he knew that God knew what would make him happy, so he joined the seminary. In July, he began serving at the Catholic churches in Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Pine River, succeeding Father Mike Patullo.

Seminary had long been a possibility for Miller. He grew up in Hinckley with one sister. His parents were both teachers. As a result, they often had more time for summer getaways.

"I remember it was very often we would do trips to Duluth," Miller said. "We had our same little routines, but we absolutely loved going to Duluth."

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With a mother teaching elementary school and his father teaching gym, Miller and his sister were both very involved with sports. Oftentimes children of teachers become teachers, and Miller, in a way, followed suit.

"It did certainly cross my mind when I was kind of early on in high school, and that's probably in some way fulfilled in the priesthood because one of the main jobs of being a priest is to teach the faithful," Miller said. "So there's certainly a kind of a continuation of what my parents did that I've certainly embodied. And I'm grateful for that, for sure."

During his high school years, Miller grew up involved in the Catholic church. That life likely also helped him consider the seminary.

"I was deeply impacted by the good religious education program we had in our parish in Hinckley," Miller said, "as well as the friends I made there."

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Among the parish activities were retreats to Camp Revive in McGregor and various youth events. Miller said Father Mike Schmitz was responsible for setting up these retreats and events. Schmitz showed Miller the joy that can be had in the priesthood.

"He's a very good preacher and loves his life as a priest," Miller said. "Just seeing that gave me the confidence that if God called me to be a priest I could be happy doing that too. He was very impactful to me."

When he graduated from high school the priesthood wasn't yet in the plans, though he said it was a consideration. Miller was doing well in his first year at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth when God's plan finally reached him. He then switched to St. John Vianney Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

The seminary was just the first step toward priesthood. Not everyone who joins will continue down that path, but the experience simply confirmed Miller's determination.

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"A lot of people think that once you're in seminary, they just brainwash you so much that you can only think in that way, which is not absolutely the case," Miller said. "Guys are discerning and leaving - that happens regularly. Guys will discern at the end of this seminar, at the end of the semester, end of the year. Guys will leave seminary formation and then pursue other vocations."

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Miller was determined to continue in that life so long as he felt it led to joy and peace. The longer he was in seminary, the more he felt that same peace. He continued his education in Rome at Pontifical North American College near the Vatican. That experience was only more of an affirmation, and once again it was the people he met who made him feel more confident in his choice.

"When I was in seminary you get to the friendships. You get to develop with the priests that are helping there," Miller said. "People like Father Michael Becker and Father Evan Cooper - two priests in seminary that were formative to me. And then also, when I got to Rome, a man named Father Joseph Carolla was also very formative to me and my time in seminary to form what it was to be a priest and that I was very, very grateful for, for sure."

He was ordained in 2020 at the Cathedral in Duluth. He spent a year at the cathedral there and at Star of the Sea Catholic Church, also in Duluth. In the summer of 2021, he was transferred to St. Francis Church in Brainerd to serve as associate pastor. This summer, he continued at St. Francis but also became the sacramental minister of Our Lady of the Lakes in Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Pine River.

Miller said he's beginning to find his place, but the first years were a unique experience.

"I would say your first year of priesthood, I found was really just learning what it is to be a priest because you're acclimating a new identity," he said. "And that's no small thing. It's not just picking up a new profession. It's putting on a person, the person of Christ, and doing that is no small thing."

Miller said in circumstances where others might feel confidence issues, he found himself realizing how he was not depending on his own qualifications or skills to do his duties.

"In a real way, you're participating not in your own priesthood, but in the priesthood of Jesus Christ Himself," Miller said. "So you're not supplying your own sacramental power that's given to you through the church by the person of Jesus Christ Himself. So in that way, you get to those moments, and this happens in confessions and preaching, where you'll say something, something will come to your mind and say, and then you'll reflect on it afterwards and be like, 'OK, that was not coming from me. There was certainly some divine intervention.' And that happens all the time when you're a priest."

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Miller said he has most enjoyed encouraging people toward a deep life in prayer. He's beginning to learn the different personalities of the congregations he serves, especially when comparing Brainerd to those who gather in Nisswa. He said in Brainerd the attendees are mostly year-round members of the parish. In Nisswa, many of those who attend Mass will return to a different parish at the end of the summer.

Miller said he is part of the growing wave of younger priests, with 60% of the Duluth Diocese being served by priests in their 20s and 30s. He said he jokes about his age all the time during sermons and when he is mingling with his parishioners. They don't seem to mind. Miller said he's been well received.

"It's been so far, so good," Miller said. "I've been humbled by the warm welcome that I've had from the people here. So they've all been very, very good, too. And there's just a bunch of really holy families that are here that desire to know our Lord. And as a priest, that's what you want. You want people that are interested in knowing Christ in His Church, and I've certainly found that here. I've greatly enjoyed it."

Travis Grimler, staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com . Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.

Related Topics: PEOPLELAKE COUNTRY FACESPINE RIVERNISSWAPEQUOT LAKESFAITH
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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