Fifteen years ago, Luke Willenberg thought he knew exactly where his life was headed.
As a junior in high school he had spent eight months sailing half-way across the world. He had visited new lands and experienced different cultures, and easily pictured himself spending the rest of his days as a sailor. The sea was calling him and he would answer.
But then things changed. Before long, the young Polish man heard a new voice speaking to him and felt himself pulled in a different direction. After finishing college, he entered the seminary and began training to be a priest. He arrived at St. Luke’s in Barrington in 2006 for his summer assignment.
“You know, they say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” said Father Luke in his still-thick Polish accent.
He remembered that short adage when he began thinking about the next step in his life. About three years ago, Father Luke began praying to God for guidance, for a direction in his next assignment. He asked “What do You want for me?”
The answer, he said, grew clearer and clearer over time: serve as a military chaplain.
Father Luke, 31, said he had been working with some military families in the parish, families who had family members who had served in foreign lands and who were struggling to return to the lives they once knew. Father Luke tried to offer spiritual assistance to the families, and began recognizing the unique calling. At about that same time, he met another priest in Rhode Island who had been deployed with the military as a chaplain.
“I started asking him some questions,” Father Luke said, adding that he found the other priest’s ministry to be powerful and heartfelt. He said the other priest later returned after a deployment and began a new role as a recruiter for military chaplains. He called Father Luke.
“I really love this place,” said Father Luke, about St. Luke’s. “This is my home. This will always be my home. But the life of priest, you know you don’t stay in one place.”
So, about two years ago, the young priest began discussing with Bishop Tobin and others the possibility of serving as military chaplain. The response was not always entirely supportive — some others in the diocese felt that Father Luke had talents that could fill other roles for the church. “But after seeing that it is in my heart, he (Bishop Tobin) gave me his blessing and permission.”
Father Luke began preparing for his next calling in relative secrecy, and last fall officially earned the title of first lieutenant military chaplain in the Army. He shared the information with St. Luke’s parishioners about two weeks ago; those at the 8:30 Mass stood and clapped their hands after Father Luke finished talking.
“I really feel that this is a great community,” he said during a recent interview. “I want to say thank you for making me a better priest.”
Father Luke said his first visit to the parish, during his summer assignment in 2006, left him with a good feeling. He can recall arriving a few minutes late for the 10 a.m. Mass, and waiting as Gus Morelli, an usher, waved him into a tight seat in a first-row pew. He looked around the congregation and saw young and old, families and single people, praying and following the Mass. A warm feeling filled him.
Over the years his faith has been strengthened, he said, by those around him. He remembered when a parishioner’s young son was diagnosed with cancer. Father Luke wanted to do something to show support for the family, so he helped organize a vigil.
“It was a last minute thing,” he said. “But that night we had a packed church. This is a great community. We have big funerals where you see the support. Those are the moments I will remember … when we really came together.”
Some in the parish, meanwhile, will cling to memories created with Father Luke — weddings, baptisms, first holy communions, confirmations, funerals. They will also remember him for his pursuits, in particular competing in marathons and triathlons. Father Luke trains daily, often starting his day with a 5 a.m. trip the YMCA, then following his morning Mass with a jog or bike ride. He recently ran in the Boston Marathon, his third, and finished with a time of 2 hours and 55 minutes. (He said his time would have been a little faster, but he developed blisters on the bottoms of his feet at the 18th mile mark and had to slow his pace a bit.) Some parishioners traveled to Boston to cheer on their priest.
Father Luke said his training benefited him during his recent physical fitness test for the military. Needing to run two miles in less than 13 minutes and 20 seconds, he clocked a 10:24. Needing to do 72 push-ups in two minutes, he hit that mark in 1:18. He cruised easily past the sit-up requirement and scored in the 100th percentile.
Father Luke said he is very excited about beginning the next chapter of his life with the 443rd Civil Affairs unit, which is based out of Newport. He said he is ready to help soldiers work through family problems, personal struggles and cope with the realities of combat.
“There is such a great need,” he added.
Father Luke will “go where the soldiers go, eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep,” but he will not carry a gun. He will be paired with a chaplain’s assistant, who is armed. Father Luke will also offer guidance to the superior officers.
Father Luke’s final weekend in Barrington will be May 11 and 12, then he’s off to Fort Jackson, S.C. for basic training.
“I like a challenge. I am looking forward to this,” he said.
Editor’s note: The original version of this story included the incorrect date for Father Luke’s ordination. We apologize for the error.