After more than five years as pastor at both St. George in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, Father Daniel J. Merz has seen a lot of spiritual growth, both in the parishes …
After more than five years as pastor at both St. George in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, Father Daniel J. Merz has seen a lot of spiritual growth, both in the parishes he has overseen, and in the community as a whole.
“One of the things we’re taught is that I am not only pastor of this parish, but of this area,” said Merz, who has been reassigned to the St. Thomas More Newman Center parish in Columbia, and will celebrate his final Mass at St. George on Sunday. “Even for the people who are not Catholic, I have a certain responsibility. I don’t go out and proselytize and try to pull them this direction, but I have a responsibility to care for them, so if they come to our door and need help, we try to help them.”
It was announced in November of 2014 that Fr. Merz would become the pastor of St. George Church in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Frankenstein.
During his first week in the job at Linn, in January of 2015, he attended a lunch with members of the Ministerial Alliance, and began a fruitful relationship with the pastors from other churches.
“It’s been a very good friendship,” he said. “We don’t agree on everything, but that’s okay. We work together for the good of the community.”
While there are some specific beliefs and teachings about which Fr. Merz and other pastors do not agree, he said there are many that are shared beliefs.
“Even though we disagree on some things, we can be friends,” Fr. Merz added. “We don’t stand up and condemn each other. That’s kind of a lost art these days, to be able to strongly disagree with someone, and still be civil, charitable, loving and cooperative.”
A STRONG FOUNDATION
Fr. Merz joined the Conception Seminary College faculty and formation team in the fall of 2001, teaching courses in theology, Latin and liturgy. In 2007, at age 36, he became the seminary’s first non-Benedictine vice rector and dean of students.
He holds a licentiate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Rome, and defended his doctoral dissertation in Rome in the spring of 2011. He has been director of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission since 2007.
He is a son of Gerald and Sandra (Muldoon) Merz. He grew up on a farm outside Bowling Green and graduated from St. Clement School in St. Clement, and St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal.
He studied philosophy at Conception and theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis before completing his theology studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Athenaeum of Sant’ Anselmo, both in Rome.
Ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 1998, he served as master of ceremonies at the Cathedral of St. Joseph for two years and became a member of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission in 1999.
BEGINNING A PASTORAL CAREER
For three years prior to his appointment to Linn, Fr. Merz served the bishops of the United States as a member of the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Secretariat of Divine Worship.
Fr. Merz was asked to assist the Secretariat of Divine Worship while the new translation of the Roman Missal was being introduced in this country. He left the USCCB as the associate director.
Moving to a new parish in a new role was exciting.
“This is my first time being a pastor,” said Fr. Merz, who, in a few months, will celebrate 22 years in the priesthood. “To me, a pastor, or shepherd, should walk with the people of the parish and community. Pope Francis has encouraged us to have the ‘Smell of the Sheep,’ and I have enjoyed diving in and getting to know as many people as possible.”
Fr. Merz said people seemed to marvel that he knew their name, but added there was some work that went into being able to do that. “There are more names that I would still like get to know,” he added. “It’s a huge family, and every time I have a funeral or a wedding, I make more connections.”
The best part, he said, has been being a part of peoples’ lives.
“That makes it hard to leave,” he said. “We’ve made emotional connections, and I will miss them.”
Fr. Merz said he found that St. George was in a bit of turmoil when he arrived. “Some say that St. George has always had some kind of turmoil and divide,” he said. “I think the thing I’m most grateful for is seeing the parish community come together.”
When Fr. Merz arrived in Linn, he held the idea that whatever could be done to improve the parish would be about the parish, and not about himself. “I only wanted to facilitate the community and parish coming together in their relationship with Christ,” he added. “What I’ve come to find out is that it’s hard to do that, without having a personal connection. I think we have some good structures set up that will help continue things.”
Improvements at St. George, with the renovation of the church and addition of the statue out front, have been rewarding for Fr. Merz.
“We were able to do all that without borrowing money or going into debt,” he said. “People just have been very generous, and we had a tremendous amount of local, talented people who volunteered their time and efforts to make it a reality. I’m amazed at how much skill there is right here.”
Not all projects worked out. “They haven’t jumped on every idea I’ve had, but they explained it, and I have not tried to push anything down anyone’s throat,” said Fr. Merz. “I’ve learned a lot in my time here.”
Fr. Merz said he truly enjoyed going down to the cafeteria to have lunch with students. “One of the first times I did that, a student ran over to me with a big smile and asked if I was the new priest,” said Fr. Merz. “I loved that, and I knew right then I would enjoy my time in Osage County.”
He got to know the students at St. George and Frankenstein, and then their families through Mass and other events.
“I learned their struggles, and was part of the complaints and healings, and changes,” said Fr. Merz. “Part of the connection is that we’ve made some difficult decisions together. It’s beautiful to meet adults who attended school here, or their parents attended school at St. George or Frankenstein.”
Frankenstein is a unique community, and one that Fr. Merz has enjoyed getting to know. “Every Wednesday night I go there and spend the night at the rectory,” he said. “Many times I would get there late at night, and I’d get out of the car and just stand there for 10 or 15 minutes, just enjoying the peacefulness. During the day, the teachers, students and families were a joy. They are truly a community. They take care of each other, and take initiative on a lot of things. They have a top-notch school as well.”
Students who attend Frankenstein and St. George have traditionally finished near the top of their high school class, which Fr. Merz said has been gratifying to witness.
MOVING TO COLUMBIA
Fr. Merz explained the Bishop told him some time ago of his plan to move him to Columbia.
“I could have argued against it or put up a fight, but I made a promise of obedience,” said Fr. Merz. “I understand that we’re in a tight bind.”
Five priests are retiring or leaving the Jefferson City Diocese this year, and there were no priest ordinations this year.
The Newman Center has approximately 850 households and more than 1,000 Catholic students who are either members of the parish or should be, according to Fr. Merz.
“That should be a rich field for vocations,” said Fr. Merz, who will be working with Fr. Paul Clark, who is taking over the vocation office. “Hopefully, that will be a good combination.”
Fr. Merz has a lot of experience in the college seminary, and Fr. Clark is the vocation director for the diocese, so there is a lot of experience with students of this age who are trying to make a decision on what they want to do with their lives.
“First, we want to get them connected to Christ, and flowing from that, perhaps a transition to religious life,” said Fr. Merz. “I think that’s what the bishop had in mind. With our background, we can form a good community there, and foster some good vocations for the diocese so priests aren’t so strapped.”
Proximity to Mizzou football and basketball is another plus for Fr. Merz. “I’ve had a couple people invite me to their tailgate parties,” he said with a laugh.
TAKING HIS LEAVE
Fr. Merz said he has been pleased to see parishioners reach resolutions that have been an ongoing process.
“The last few weeks have been very busy,” he said. “I’m glad to be able to help even at the end here, and I do plan to return to this area when I can, and hopefully, be able to see as many people as possible.”
A reception will be held for Fr. Merz following his final Mass on Sunday, June 28, during which parishioners are encouraged to make an offering in lieu of this year’s canceled picnic.
A NEW LEADER
Fr. Collin Franklin will take over at St. George and Frankenstein. He’s currently a pastor in the northern edge of the diocese at Edina, along with the Newman Center in Kirksville.
Fr. Merz had some interaction with him for a couple years when he was teaching at Conception Seminary, as Fr. Franklin was taking classes.
“I had interaction with him as a professor up there, and if I was going to hand-pick someone to follow me here at St. George and Frankenstein, he would be at the top of my list,” said Fr. Merz. “I think he’ll be a good fit here.”
An introductory story on Fr. Franklin will appear in an upcoming issue of the U.D.