By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator 

Digging into history is more than a favorite pastime for Father Frank Uter, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs.  

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Father Frank Uter is pictured at the Canterbury Cathedral next to the tomb of a brother of an ancestor, Hubert Walter, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1193-1205.  Archbishop Walter was buried near the tomb of St. Thomas Becket, who had previously served as Archbishop of Canterbury. Photos provided by Father Frank Uter

 

Each time he was assigned to a new church parish during his 50 years of priesthood, he researched the history of the area and presence of the Catholic Church to discover the community’s Catholic faith roots. In doing so, he planted roots throughout the Diocese of Baton Rouge by bringing his memories and experiences from one parish to the next.  

Family and friends from different milestones of Father Uter’s life will gather May 31 at Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs as he celebrates his golden jubilee.  

“I think it (call to the priesthood) was always in the back of my head,” said Father Uter. “Daddy worked for Exxon He was a chemist and worked in the lab. But he liked to do woodwork and carpentry. A lot of times he would go to the (St. Joseph Cathedral, Father Uter’s childhood parish) and build this or enlarge that. And he always brought me with him. I got to know the priests a little better. In the fourth- or fifth-grade I became an altar server. The priests were really good and I respected them. And it was about that time, I began to wonder if I could be doing that.”  

That thought came to his mind periodically during “four great years” at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge and when he attended LSU, but “I was able to fill my mind with a lot of other things too,” he chuckled.  

Father Uter replied with a standard “CPA” when people asked him what he wanted to be.  

One day he realized, “This is crazy. This has been going on long enough. You keep telling everybody what you’re going to be when in the back of your head you keep thinking about the possibility of being a priest.”  

He wrote a letter to St. Joseph Seminary inquiring about the application process and they replied with an affirming letter asking him to show their letter to Msgr. Herman P. Lohmann, who was then pastor at St. Joseph Cathedral.  

Father Uter handed the letter to Msgr. Lohmann, who read it, put it back in its envelope, smiled at Father Uter and said, “Frankie, I’ve known this for a long time. I’ve been waiting for you to find out.” 

“And so the rest was history,” smiled Father Uter. 

He has served as pastor of St. Mary of False River Church in New Roads, St. Joseph Cathedral, the cluster parishes of St. Michael the Archangel in Convent, St. Joseph in Paulina and Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Gramercy, as well as parochial vicar at St. Isidore Church in Baker and St. Thomas More Church in Baton Rouge. 

Several of the parishes were approaching milestone anniversaries at the time of assignment. 

When Father Uter was assigned to St. Mary of False River in 1976, he helped plan the 250th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Catholic Church in Pointe Coupee Civil Parish at the Post de la Pointe Coupee by French missionaries in 1728. 

Likewise, when he was assigned to St. Joseph Cathedral in 1984, he helped plan the bicentennial celebration of the cathedral and the Catholic Church in Baton Rouge in 1792. 

“It was fantastic,” Father Uter said of the cathedral celebration. “Cardinal (Albert) Decourtray came in from France and Bishop Mauro Rubio was here from the Diocese of Salamanca (Spain), which is where the first priests came from.” 

Father Uter wrote about the history of the cathedral in his book, “A History of the Catholic Church in Baton Rouge.” Additionally he was a contributing editor to the book “Roots of Faith: History of the Diocese of Baton Rouge,” a project of the Diocese of Baton Rouge Archives Department. 

He also captured history further down river in “Stones Beside a River: A History of the Catholic Church on the East Bank of St. James Parish,” where he served at an important junction in their history during the clustering of St Michael, St. Joseph and Sacred Heart. 

“The parishes never experienced sharing a pastor,” recalled Father Uter. “There were tensions during those first few years about whom they felt ‘I liked the most.’ 

“It was a challenge to have them understand and accept that I loved them all the same. And in time they realized that and started working together in beautiful ways.” 

One of his favorite memories of the river parishes was the St. James Parish Christmas Eve bonfires, held annually on the levee. He celebrated Christmas Eve Mass at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and walked and visited families until he reached St. Joseph. Then he walked back to the rectory, rested and celebrated midnight Mass at St. Joseph. 

“You couldn’t eat at every house because you wouldn’t be able to move,” laughed Father Uter. “But it was nice visiting with people and talking and relaxing.” 

In addition to recording ecclesial history, Father Uter said his idea of a vacation is “going to do family genealogy” which has taken him throughout Europe. 

“I’ve got it down to the 11th century,” he said. “I recently discovered that I had ancestors who accompanied William the Conqueror when he went from Normandy, France (to invade) England. 

“I’ve (also) discovered that one of my ancestor’s brother was the Archbishop of Canterbury just two bishops after St. Thomas à Becket. I was able to see his tomb in the cathedral.” 

Fond memories fill Father Uter’s head of each one of parishes he served, including his most recent assignment at Immaculate Conception, where they dedicated the church’s historical landmark “the Gate of Mercy” during the Year of Mercy, 2015-2016. 

This is why his parishioners come first with Father Uter. He had originally planned to celebrate his anniversary on March 1, his ordination date. But he was approached by a woman he had baptized, as well as her siblings, and whose parents he had married and she asked if he would celebrate her wedding. He said “Sure, what is the date?” and she replied “March 1.”

So his own plans went on the back burner until staff members and parishioners pressed him to set a date to celebrate his anniversary. 

He selected May 31, which is the date his first assignment became effective at St. Isidore, as well as the Feast of the Visitation. 

“Mary went to minister to her cousin Elizabeth. And as Mary approached, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and ministered to Mary, which ended up with Mary praising God for his goodness,” said Father Uter. “And I think in much the same way over these 50 years I have been assigned and gone to parishes with the idea of going to minister only to experience how wonderfully they have been ministering to me, and for this I also praise God for his goodness.” 

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Father Uter holds “Little Frankie,” a baby goat named after him that was born at the petting zoo at the 2013 Parish Fair at Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs.