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 | By Erika M. Hirschman

Father Bill Spencer remembered as a gentle mentor and compassionate father

Father William “Bill” Spencer defied odds by virtue of his unrelenting faith. While he was ordained at 75, Father Bill spent a lifetime lifting up friends and family whenever they requested help or needed extra prayers. His unique role as a father and husband prior to becoming an ordained priest made him a compassionate priest, say his family members and parishioners at Holy Name of Mary in Harbor Beach. Because of that strong faith and devotion, he was able to help many Catholic communities around the state – all while he himself moved closer to God. Father Bill died on Oct. 5 at age 91 in Ann Arbor.

Despite Father Bill’s short time as a priest for the Diocese of Saginaw, he leaves a mark not only on close friends and family, but also on the parishioners at Holy Name of Mary and the school community at Our Lady of Lake Huron in Harbor Beach. Father Bill served there until his retirement in 2017.

Faithful husband and father

Though Father Bill’s journey to the priesthood was nontraditional, his life was dedicated to the Lord. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he grew up in the Catholic Church and attended seminary studying management and Catholic studies. After leaving seminary in 1957, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. He met his future wife, Margaret (Peg,) while on leave during the Christmas season; they married in 1959.

Their dedication to the faith was visible throughout their 44-year-long marriage. Together, they formed and grew a prayer group called the Good Shepherd in a Christian Community in Philadelphia. He worked for RCA in Philadelphia, and – after the family relocated to Ann Arbor –   Bechtel and Detroit Edison. He and Peg raised their three children, Margi, Bill Jr. and Elizabeth, and fostered many children.

Father Bill’s daughter, Elizabeth Gava of Ann Arbor, said both her parents instilled in their children a close relationship with God and their Catholic faith.

“It wasn’t in a lecturing way. He was always an educator first. His faith trickled down to all of us. I am so thankful for that,” she said.

Elizabeth describes her father as an easygoing, down-to-earth dad with a gentle personality that made him “so approachable.”

“He had such a gentle way about him– no temper. He made friends wherever he went,” she said.

While Elizabeth says she misses him dearly, she senses him often throughout the day, especially when she prays.

“He always had such good advice,” she said.

After Peg passed away in 2004, Father Bill decided to return to the seminary to become a priest.

A second calling

There are four different callings within the vocation of baptism in the Catholic Church: Marriage, religious life, priesthood and the single life. A vocation is God’s invitation to love and serve him and his Church in a particular state or way of life, leading to holiness. Father Bill uniquely had two vocations.

In an essay published in the Winter 2008 issue of FAITH Saginaw, Father Bill describes sensing the call to the priesthood in Peg’s final years. After she died, his pastor at the time suggested the possibility.

“After that, I prayed more and asked the Lord for guidance and affirmation. Within two weeks after [Peg’s] funeral, three people suggested that I consider the priesthood,” he wrote. “Later, as the desire became stronger, I decided to take steps, like meeting with my pastor for discussion, going to Sacred Heart Major Seminary as a lay student, inquiring about the possibility of acceptance as a seminarian and receiving spiritual direction.”

After an interview with Bishop Robert Carlson, Father Bill was accepted as a seminarian after much prayer from both men.

Father Bill was given an abbreviated three-year assignment at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit before he was ordained on Dec. 14, 2007 at age 75.

Tireless and compassionate

Father Nate Harburg, pastor at Good Shepherd Parish in Ubly, met Father Bill early on during his time as a seminarian in Detroit and found Father Bill to be a great source of energy and strength. Their friendship meant a lot to Father Nate, as he describes Father Bill as a kind and compassionate person with a good sense of humor.

“He was quite easy to talk to. He had a lot of zeal and energy for serving the Lord. I miss him. I want to be like him,” said Father Nate, referring to Father Bill’s character and strong faith. “I never heard him complain. He was very positive and laughed a lot.”

Father Bill strove to help those in the parish and beyond through his priestly ministry.

“I don't know where he got all of his energy,” Father Nate remarked. “I think it was the work he was doing. He was very fulfilled by it.”

Father Nate credited Father Bill for helping guide and educate him on what it meant to serve the Lord, no matter what.

“Even when he couldn't walk, he attended Masses and my mom’s funeral. He sat in a chair wearing his stole. It meant a lot to me to have him there,” he said.

Elizabeth said her father’s faith was a gift. He continued to serve God’s people as he was able during his time as a senior priest.

“I am so thankful to have had those extra years with him after his diagnosis [of leukemia,]” she said. “He was still involved filling in where he was needed, and he went to daily Mass with his walker. [The word] ‘no’ was not in his vocabulary.”

Friend and Our Lady of Lake Huron catechist Lori Murawske says Father Bill was one of the most compassionate people she’s ever met. She and her family were comforted by Father Bill during difficult family losses.

“He came to the hospital and sat with us for hours and prayed with us. He was wonderful. He was just so thoughtful and he would always help people. He was a blessing to our parish,” she said.

Fellow catechist and friend Beth Guza also credits Father Bill for helping guide her through some difficult family issues.

“He was always available to listen when I was hurting and in pain. A priest can be the light in the darkness. He was Christ’s light,” she said.  “Christ’s love just radiated from him, from his humanity.”

Beth added attending Father Bill’s Masses always drew her closer to God when she was searching for inner peace and guidance. She recalled an occasion when she was crying, and Father Bill handed her his handkerchief.

“That’s when I saw Jesus’ face. No one had ever been there for me or seen me cry, and certainly never had been handed something to dry my tears. It reminded me of Veronica wiping Jesus’ tears,” she said. “Jesus’ presence in Father brought me to life.”

And for that she is thankful.