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 | By Denyse Shannon

Remembering Father Tom Sutton, dedicated to ministry

Being a priest was the most important part of Father Thomas Sutton’s life, said his sister Debbie Russell. There was nothing more important to her older brother than his ministry.

While Father Tom served as a priest for 53 years, his family was initially taken by surprise when he entered the seminary.

“We never really spoke about his calling, but I know it didn’t happen until late in his senior year or even right before he graduated [from St. James High School in Bay City in 1960],” Debbie said. She thinks it was a surprise to him as well as their family and friends. “A lot of his classmates said they were shocked when he decided to go to seminary.”

When Father Tom made the decision to go to St. Paul’s Seminary in Saginaw, he poured his heart and soul into it. He dedicated his life to the priesthood, even spending summers helping the Catholic community in various ways.

“He was always involved in his faith,” said Debbie, who grew up a decade behind him. “One summer he painted the old St. James Convent for the nuns there, and he told me he used to drive them back to the motherhouse.”

After St. Paul’s Seminary, Father Tom attended Holy Cross Seminary in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and American College of Louvain in Belgium, where he was ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Saginaw on June 28, 1969.

After his ordination, he began his priestly ministry as associate pastor at Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Bay City; St. Stephen, Saginaw; St. Christopher, Bridgeport and St. Helen, Saginaw. He also served as the pastor at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Midland, studying canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

His degree in canon law aided him as the vice tribunal vicar for the diocesan tribunal. He also served as the vicar general for the Diocese from July 1987 through June 2005. During that time, he was instrumental in the construction of the diocesan Center for Ministry, which serves as a meeting space and conference center. A bequest from Monsignor Charles Mahoney was earmarked for a student chapel at Nouvel Catholic Central High School; Father Tom envisioned something that could serve the needs of not only the school, but the entire Diocese.

“(Father Tom) … doesn’t flinch from challenges,” Bishop Ken Untener said in a document entitled “Anatomy of a Diocesan Building Project,” written by Patricia O’Toole, which provides a comprehensive background on the Center for Ministry’s creation. “After some thoughts about these needs, Father Sutton came up with the idea to combine them and design a Center for Ministry, offering usable space for all concerned parties. Monsignor Mahoney’s bequest to the diocese could then be used as seed money for the project.”

Bishop Ken appointed Father Tom, who was vicar of administration at the time, to the role of project manager in 1997. Father Tom drew on his experience during the construction of St. Stephen Church (now part of St. Dominic Parish) in Saginaw, which had recently been completed.

In establishing an executive committee to plan the project and generating funds, Father Tom made sure that ownership of the project could be spread across all of the parishes in the diocese.

O’Toole’s document notes that Father Sutton set up a plan for voluntary donations from parishes, raising nearly $700,000 toward construction costs.

A year after the Nov. 24, 1997, groundbreaking, the new building was dedicated. Father Tom’s legacy continues through the Center for Ministry, which continues to be a “beehive of activity,” as Bishop Untener described it, hosting lay ministry formation, presbyteral meetings, retreats and conferences for the faithful of the Diocese.

In 1997, Father Tom also became the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Auburn and led the community through a merger with neighboring St. Anthony in Fisherville in 2003. Father Tom continued to serve the newly-named St. Gabriel Parish in Auburn as pastor, where he wanted to continue ministering as much as possible throughout his illness.

Tony and Deb Lupo were two of those parishioners whose lives were touched deeply by Father Tom. Tony, who served on the parish council, said he appreciated being able to go to Father Tom as a friend and spiritual advisor.

Both he and Deb appreciated his dedication to ministry when Deb was diagnosed with cancer at the same time Tony was going through two knee replacements, even though Father Tom himself had recently undergone knee replacement surgery.

“Without a hesitation— the minute he found out— after church, he went and got the oils [blessed Oil of the Sick] and blessed us,” Deb said. “It just touched us so much.”

Tony, who served as the athletic director for Auburn Area Catholic School, recalled Father Tom’s patience in dialogue when they differed in opinion.

“We were always able to discuss the issues at hand, which says a lot,” he noted.

Both Tony and Deb describe their relationship with Father Tom as a member of their family.

“He just had that ability to lead and guide you,” Deb said. “You don’t really realize until you get closer to a priest, when you see what they sacrifice to help and make sure you grow in Christ.”

Deb said breaking through Father Tom’s exterior shell was difficult at times, but once they did, they realized he was someone they could count on.

“You couldn’t get a better human being than what Father Tom was, whether it was through his ministry (or) his friendship,” she said. “He was just an amazing man.”

Father Tom was known to open the doors to his cottage “up north” to his brother priests. His neighbor, Father Jerry Balwinski, said that years ago, a group of priests would meet on a Sunday evening once a month or so for dinner, cards and a movie, followed by breakfast, golf or fishing on Monday morning.

“He was like a member of the family,” said Father Jerry, who is the sacramental minister at St. Mark Parish in AuGres and was the homilist at Father Tom’s funeral Mass. He said he always looked forward to Sunday afternoons when Father Tom visited.

“We would watch movies and sporting events, and it was just nice,” he said.

Father Jerry recalled Father Tom’s simple, straightforward response when he was asked about retirement:  “I love what I’m doing.”

His dedication continued throughout his illness, writing for the church’s bulletin and answering phone calls when he was unable to offer Mass at the parish. Father Tom’s sister Debbie remarked that his faith never wavered.

Father Tom died on March 24, and his funeral Mass was celebrated by Bishop Robert Gruss on April 12 at St. Gabriel Parish, St. Joseph Church, where he dedicated so many years of his priesthood. Interment followed at St. Patrick Cemetery in Bay City.

Debbie said Father Tom’s last words to her summed everything up:  “I lived a good life.”

“To him, being a priest was more important than anything else,” she said. “His ministry was his life.”