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A new home, new direction at Assumption

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

During his visit to the U.S. this week, Pope Benedict XVI praised the country for its commitment to strong religious life.

Members of Assumption Church and others in the community are discovering the many ways Father Tim Baltes is helping to bolster that way of life in the Morris area.

Baltes was installed as Assumption's pastor in January and is learning about the people and the place in his first assignment in this part of the St. Cloud Diocese.

"(The priesthood) is always something I thought about, it's always something I've wanted to do," said Baltes, 57. "The drawing card for me was that it's a wonderful way to be a part of peoples' lives and share the story of hope and love through the gospel of Jesus."

Baltes is no stranger to West Central Minnesota. He grew up in Alexandria, and his mother and brother still live there. He has a sister living in Arizona.

Baltes attended high school at Crozier Preparatory School in Onamia, then completed his college studies and seminary training at St. John's University, in Collegeville.

Baltes served as an associate pastor in Melrose, then at the Church of St. Paul in St. Cloud.

After two years at a church in Roscoe, Minn., Baltes lived and worked at St. John's, and was involved in vocational ministry for many years.

Baltes was back at St. Paul's for 13 years before being assigned to serve parishes in Glenwood and Villard last summer. Then came the assignment to Assumption.

"In the back of my head, because of the policy (12 years at a church) and age, I was thinking that could have been my last assignment," Baltes said, adding with a smile, "that's what happens when you start thinking -- somebody else has other ideas."

But Assumption's former pastor, John Caskey, left the parish in December and is facing criminal charges for possessing child pornography. Baltes got a call from the diocese.

"I was surprised," Baltes said. "I wasn't anticipating moving. But once you're here, OK. And I'd never been out in this part of the diocese. I spent all my time in Stearns County."

Baltes, the oldest of his siblings, was almost destined for a religious life. His birth father, who died when Baltes was 4 years old, had several family members in religious life. His stepfather, who married his mother when Baltes was 11, also had many friendships with priests and he associated with them.

"I grew up around people in religious life, and the faith of others is important," Baltes said.

Throughout his career, Baltes has witnessed the transformation in how priests interact with their parishioners. He recalled, with a smile, the old days of "pray, pay and obey."

"The priest did everything, knew everything, and you just followed," Baltes said.

But the priests then were most likely the most educated people in their communities. That has changed considerably. Today, priests are more inclined to lead by example, he said.

"The gospel comes alive because we all have a role to play, not because one person has a role to play," Baltes said.

That suits Baltes, who said he is neither an extreme extrovert or introvert.

"I enjoy gathering with folks," he said. "I'm more low keyed but I enjoy being with people."

Typically, priests move on to new assignments in the summer when school is not in session and the church schedule is less challenging. As such, his mid-winter move thrust him into the middle of Assumption's life during one of its busiest times.

"I'm trying to get up to speed," Baltes said.

And despite the challenges facing the church in the last two years, Baltes said his assignment didn't come with special instructions.

"I'm not a savior," he said.

He said Assumption's problems don't dominate the church's focus, and at the same time, he's not one to brush those troubles aside, as if they didn't matter.

"Any parish, any community can be facing challenges," Baltes said. "These were real serious challenges but it's my belief that you have to address them openly. We must know that we are not alone. Even from the darkest situation, God can do great things."

Baltes believes that reaching into the wider community to create a welcoming environment is always important. But for now Baltes is concentrating on becoming more comfortable in his new role in a new church.

"Just to learn the life rhythms of the parish -- who and what we are," he said. "I didn't come here with the idea, 'This is what Assumption parish needs to be.' I'll be in a better position to offer a sense of direction."