Fr. Harry Speckman Signing off from Diocese of Gaylord
The Rev. Harry Speckman, OFM, retires to Wisconsin in March; yet even in his absence his work to bring people to God will continue across Northern Michigan through Baraga Broadcasting (BB).
The gentle Franciscan priest assigned to Indian River’s Cross in the Woods National Shrine and Parish 14 years ago helped to found the Catholic radio network. Offering Catholics and non-Catholics a network with 24/7 programming he said is “informational, inspirational, and formational” seemed in tune with what he envisaged his vocation’s mission to be upon ordination nearly 53 years ago.
“I envisioned serving people, bringing the word of God to them in a loving manner. I tried.”
His parishioners, colleagues and BB listeners would say Fr. Harry, as he is fondly known, has succeeded.
“He’s an extraordinary, extraordinary man,” said Tom McMahon, friend and BB cofounder. “He could talk to a volcano and calm it down. If you could write a description of the perfect priest with Franciscan attributes, he would have that. He’s never judgmental. He is kind to a fault. He has a great love for what he does, and people have great love for him.”
Sister Chris Herald, OP, Pastoral Administrator at St. Anthony’s in Mackinaw City, agrees. “He cares deeply about people,” she said of the humble man who served as her sacramental minister for nearly eight years. She called the 83-year-old “gentle, down-to-earth, and a brilliant brain.
“I will most miss his affirmation and his support,” she said. “He knew he was the weekend priest, and never did he try to take my role.” Sr. Chris has served as the leader of the parish for 14 years.
Fr. Harry called his ministry at St. Anthony’s “a particular grace ... I met a lot of fine people.”
He has encountered people from around the world at Cross in the Woods. “As a shrine, we have a wonderful worship place year around and visitors from around the world. People come here may be a bit shy of speaking to their pastors about the most intimate parts of their lives,” he said, and they avail themselves of the all-day, every day Sacrament of Reconciliation here.
A first-time pastor at age 69 (the aged friars welcomed him saying “Thank God they sent us a young man,” he laughed), assignment to a small parish that was home to a national shrine offered a unique experience. “It opens up things to do a lot of good. A lot of that good is just listening,” he said.
Parishioner and BB volunteer Bob Frasier knows Fr. Harry to be a good listener and “real guiding light.” As Knights of Columbus chaplain, “he was always open-minded, always there with advice and good religious guidance.”
“He makes you feel at home,” said Rocky Stammer, longtime parishioner from Cheboygan. “I can describe Fr. Harry as being a family member… I’m an orphan and he is just such a beautiful father image to everybody and anybody. What I marvel most about him is that he is so humble. His humility is second to none.
“He always says there is a resolve in God’s way. He had a way of convincing people they could get through this and live with it,” Stammer added.
Current pastor Fr. Mike Haney, OFM, said his elder is “extremely patient. No matter how messy the situation might be, he always has a kind word. That’s a gift, a blessing, and one thing I admire about him.”
Fr. Harry says his vocation was rich in opportunities to meet people in a variety of situations and ministries.
“With hindsight, God has certainly (bestowed) many graces to me and opportunities to open myself up.” He sees now where his experiences, guided by God’s hands, led him here, and to Baraga Broadcasting.
With knowledge garnered from an assortment of assignments across the Midwest — Sacred Heart Parish, St. Paul; Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House, Nebraska; Our Lady of Angels Seminary Quincy, Ill.; Catholic Theological Union, Chicago — he was elected vicar provincial of the St. Francis Province of the Sacred Heart, St. Louis. Nearing the end of that tenure and convinced “media was passing us by,” he sought and received permission to study broadcast, with no idea what would come of it.
Eventually Quincy College’s president invited him to transform the 110-watt student radio station into a 28,000-watt NPR affiliate. He did, and nine years later when he was ready for change, he found himself in Indian River where a confluence of his background, Tom McMahon’s acumen and passion, and Bishop Patrick Cooney’s support flowed into what is now Baraga Broadcasting.
Their efforts began in earnest in 2003. WTCK hit the air in 2007. Now with stations in Gaylord, Traverse City, Charlevoix, Alpena, Tawas and St. Ignace, BB covers most of the Diocese of Gaylord and part of the Marquette Diocese. Much like its heavenly patron, the Venerable Bishop Frederic Baraga, the network is evangelizing Catholics and non-Catholics, though on a much larger scale, the priest noted.
“It’s been a delight being here in the Diocese of Gaylord. “Bishops Cooney and Hebda were accommodating, respectful and accepting of us as Franciscans. Without the help of Bishop Cooney, we never would’ve gotten Catholic radio going,” he said. “He extended us some credit saying, ‘I want you to be successful’.”
Now, decades after a Joliet Catholic High School boy initially resisted the his call to the priesthood, and 53 years after his ordination at St. Francis Cathedral in Teutopolis, Illinois, Fr. Harry is contemplating retirement. Perhaps he’ll do some writing at the Felician Village in Manitowoc, Wisconsin; certainly he’ll do some “reading, praying, and praying for a happy death, I guess.
“I’ve been very happy in this life, very graced by God,” he said. “It was never boring.”
Scroll down to learn about Fr. Harry and his ministry.
—By Chris Grosser. Chris is a former newspaper editor and writer based in Gaylord. She writes on a freelance basis for the Diocese of Gaylord and is a member of St. Mary Cathedral Parish. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
More About Fr. Harry
Here’s a spattering of other noteworthy things about Fr. Harry Speckman, OFM, who is retiring from Cross in the Woods Shrine and parish in Indian River to the Felician Village in Manitowoc, Wisc. in March:
• Friend and Baraga Broadcasting (BB) cofounder Tom McMahon said Fr. Harry is to the Northern Michigan Catholic radio network what Col. Harland Sanders is to KFC — the face of the institution.
Further, said McMahon, “The people who came and got involved with (BB) came from varied backgrounds (and were) successful, strong personalities, and we were all right about everything, but Fr. Harry was this great moderating force, the eye-of-the-storm sort of calm.”
• Drafted into the Army during the Korean Conflict, Fr. Harry says he was “probably the most unschooled artillery mechanic they ever had.” The “cushy job,” he said, gave him a lot of time to reflect about the call to God’s service that he’d been ignoring. Upon his discharge in 1954, he wrote his Franciscan pastor back home at St. John the Baptist about entering the seminary. The Rev. Fr. Phillip Koehler provided him the necessary forms and guidance. Two weeks later the Franciscan reported, “You’re in.”
• He studied at St. Joseph Seminary, Teutopolis, Ill., and was ordained June 13, 1961 at St. Francis Cathedral, Teutopolis.
• His first assignment was to Sacred Heart Parish, St. Paul, Minn. as associate pastor for two years; then to Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House, Waverly, Neb. where he promoted retreats and worked with seminarians for four years; on to Our Lady of Angels, Quincy, Ill. working three years with seminarians.
• “Academia was never anything I thought I’d be involved with,” Fr. Harry said, “but man proposes, and God disposes.” He spent more than 21 years in academia, six with the Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago, and another dozen years with Quincy College. In between, he served nine years as vicar provincial of the St. Francis Province of the Sacred Heart, St. Louis.
• A lifetime student, Fr. Harry said one of his greatest lessons came with the emergence of laity’s role in the Church under Vatican II. “I worked with laity assuming they were responsible for what was given them and let them know that. People I worked with appreciated that.”
• “He is a tremendous loss to the diocese,” said Sr. Chris Herald, OP, pastoral administrator at Mackinaw City, who appreciated “his empathy in terms of injustices done to women in the church.
“He’s a very sensitive man and he can be moved to tears. When he speaks about past events or people who have touched his life, he can hardly do that without having to stop and catch himself. His last day with us, in his final homily he thanked the people and said ‘I’m going to stop now before I start crying’.”
• Fr. Harry said his work with Cursillo, Serra Club and Teens Encountering Christ over the years was “enriching.”
• “I find it interesting, the pastoral tone the new Pope has shown,” said Fr. Harry, noting that like the Franciscan order, Pope Francis embraces peace, justice and concern for the environment.
• In his vocation, the gentle priest said one of his greatest challenges was when his job working with seminarians or staff required he be confrontational. “It’s always difficult when there are hard things to say.”
• “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Fr. Harry paraphrased as being among his favorite Bible passages. “I was an economics major in college, and that (verse) always struck me.” Knowing the volatility of business and the toughness such a career demanded, he soon realized “that wasn’t me,” and chose another path.
• Asked to describe himself, Fr. Harry said he is a “laid back, gentle person.”
• “I think in general people today are looking for something. Radio is an intimate medium; you can listen to it by yourself without distractions from anyone else,” said the cofounder of BB.
• The soft-spoken Franciscan has been known to wear a baseball cap emblazoned with “Geezers for Jesus.”
• At a farewell dinner with her parish, Sister Chris Herald said, “One man commented, ‘I have come to know you (Fr. Harry) as a humble man. Only a humble man would be able to let Sister Chris have the last word.” He is, indeed, a humble man, said the pastoral administrator.
• “I used to tease him that he’s his own worst enemy because he could never get mad at anybody,” said longtime parishioner Rocky Stammer of Cheboygan. “He’d say, ‘I’ll take it to prayer.’ … He has such a beautiful sense about him … that demeanor. What’s not to love?” he added of the priest who has developed friendships with people from around the world.
• “He’s a friend, a counselor, about everything you could say good about a man,” said BB volunteer and Cross in the Woods parishioner Bob Frasier.
• Of the people he has served in Mackinaw City, in Onaway and Indian River, Fr. Harry said, “They’ve been very gracious and generous.”
• Fr. Harry’s parting prayer for Cross in the Woods: “Certainly I pray for vocations to religious life and the priesthood and as far as the shrine, I pray they continue to develop and grow and mature in its role as a shrine and its capacity to reach out to people who have left the church or have no affiliation.” He prays, too, that in ministering, the Church devise ways to reach younger generations. “One parent told me her grown children said the church has no meaning for them.”