Local stories, events, and Catholic inspiration in northeast Wisconsin

Fr. Dennis Ryan celebrates 50 years of priesthood

Fr. Dennis Ryan will mark the 50-year anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on June 2. His jubilee will be celebrated at weekend Masses, June 1-2, at Prince of Peace Church in Bellevue. Fr. Ryan has served as priest celebrant and priest moderator at Prince of Peace for the last five years. (Jeff Kurowski | On Mission)

Green Bay native served 15 years as pastor at St. Nicholas Parish in Freedom, 13 years at St. Bernard Parish in Appleton

By Jeff Kurowski | On Mission

GREEN BAY — Fr. Dennis Ryan’s call to the priesthood doesn’t trace back to a specific moment or a series of seeds being planted. He said that it’s just always been present since his days growing up on Green Bay’s west side and attending St. Patrick School.

“I think I always was a priest,” he said. “Of course, you fight it, but I think it was always there.”

Fr. Ryan will mark the 50-year anniversary of his ordination to priesthood on Sunday, June 2. His jubilee will be celebrated at Masses that weekend at Prince of Peace Parish in Bellevue where he has served as priest celebrant and priest moderator the last five years. He will conclude that appointment on June 30.

Following graduation from Green Bay West High School, Fr. Ryan attended Sacred Heart Seminary in Oneida for two years before moving on to St. Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis, near Milwaukee, for six years. 

He was ordained a priest on June 2, 1974, by then Green Bay Auxiliary Bishop Mark Schmitt at St. Patrick Church in Green Bay.

That year all four priests in the ordination class were ordained at their home parish churches.

“The bishop (Bishop Aloysius Wycislo) and the diocese wanted to promote vocations and thought this was one way of doing it,” said Fr. Ryan. “It was for the purpose of getting vocations, people being exposed to priest ordinations. It lasted only a short time and then they moved (ordinations) back to the cathedral (St. Francis Xavier).”

In his first assignments, Fr. Ryan served as an associate pastor (parochial vicar) at St. Therese Parish, Appleton, and then at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral before being appointed pastor to St. Mary Parish, Stockbridge, in 1984.   

“I was 35 (years old) with a lot of energy,” he said about his first pastor assignment. “I tried to bring things together. There were lots of great ministries, lots of participation.”

Fr. Ryan’s longest parish assignment was as pastor at St. Nicholas Parish, Freedom, from 1990 to 2005.

“It takes awhile to get to know the people and for them to get to know you. Then you envision ministry for the parish and where it is going,” he said. “At St. Nicholas, I changed the high school religion education program to Life Teen. We developed a band and did a whole new style of education (and vibrant liturgy). It really became formative to the youth.”

In 2001, Fr. Ryan led a $750,000 renovation project at St. Nicholas Church that included a new altar, baptismal font and tabernacle chapel.

“I was concerned at St. Nicholas about making a theological statement as one walked into the church,” he said. “You walk into the church; there’s the baptismal font. Once you are baptized, you enter into the community of the church. You gather as church around the altar and around the word of God. The word of God is preached over you. That’s why the ambo is back farther. You really get to see everyone.”

Fr. Ryan added that the tabernacle was placed, with a seat present, where people “could sit and pray personally.”

“The man who built the church is incredible because there is a dialogue between the (stained-glass) windows on one side and the windows on the other side,” he said. “From the altar back is the dialogue. One time I said to the people, ‘I’m going to tell you what those windows say. If I get too long, raise your hand and I will shut up.’ It’s a living faith expression.”

Reflecting on his priesthood, Fr. Ryan said that he is grateful that he had “a really short list of parishes.” 

A fond memory from his 13 years serving at St. Bernard in Appleton, from 2005 to 2018, was the unity among the pastors of the eight Appleton parishes.

“We met monthly. It was a very good experience to come together to talk and plan,” he said. “It was a two-hour meeting. People could come and talk to us. We would give them a certain amount of time and would decide if we would go forward with what they were asking. We did programming together.”

Fr. Ryan also led a church renovation project at St. Bernard, and his ongoing work in evangelization began while serving the parish, working with Julianne Stanz, former director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay. 

Fr. Ryan completed Catholic Evangelization Studies (CES) programs and, along with Stanz, presented evangelization materials and guidance to the Appleton parishes.

Fr. Ryan was the only priest to serve on the Evangelization Committee for the diocese, which helped to design the Entrust retreats, which are currently offered in the diocese.

While in parish ministry, Fr. Ryan also served 30 years as a master of ceremonies for the diocese.

“I was emcee for the big liturgies, Holy Week, ordinations, the anniversary of Bishop Wycislo, the funeral of Bishop Wycislo, when Bishop (now Cardinal Adam) Maida was installed a bishop, and the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral building,” he said. “There were only two of us. I worked with Msgr. (John) Schuh.”

During his ministry at Prince of Peace, Fr. Ryan welcomed the Sunday night Mass, somewhat reminiscent of Life Teen liturgies, after St. Bernard Parish, Green Bay, didn’t bring it back after the COVID pandemic.

“When they were looking for a place, I said, ‘Oh yeah, we want the band.’ It’s a very different musical, liturgical experience for the people,” said Fr. Ryan. “There are a number of families, a number of older people whose families have grown up, who come. They just like the spirit that’s present and feel very engaged in the liturgy.”

Looking forward, Fr. Ryan said that he would like to see the “parish be a school of evangelization” and that the people know the role they play in evangelization.

“Breaking that down, it means developing an understanding and personal relationship to Jesus,” he said. “And, secondly, they come to see the importance of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If they are going to grow in their faith lives, they need to see themselves as the church, not the priest as the church or the building as the church. They are the church.”

Fr. Ryan said that he is grateful for the support in his priesthood that he received from his late parents, Patrick and Dorothy Ryan, and his six siblings.

“You can go to them (family) and be yourself. You receive their love and support and go forward. I had very good families and people in the parishes as well,” he said.

“(Priesthood) is an incredible call. As much as I’ve been in the background, I’ve been able to do some really incredible things,” said Fr. Ryan. “I will (now) step back and see what the Lord is calling me to do.” 

Scroll to Top