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June 2003

Father John Sturm, S.J. -
The Downtown Priest

by Joseph H. RADDER

Father John Sturm, S.J. spent his earliest childhood years in the shadow of St. Ann’s Church on Broadway at Watson Street in Buffalo, NY. His family lived in an upper flat over his grandfather’s candy store. A number of the Jesuit priests at St. Ann’s took an interest in little John. My grandmother used to say, “You receive so many blessings from all of those priests over there, you’ll be blessed all your life.” And indeed her prediction came true. Father Sturm has been blessed in many ways during his 86 years on this earth.

 

“We left St. Ann’s parish in 1920 when I was three years of age and moved to Sprenger Avenue near Schiller Park. My Dad was the organist and choir director at Most Holy Redeemer Church on Genesee Street.” When I got old enough I was paid 10 cents per Mass to pump the organ.” For those too young to remember (and that includes most of our readers), the air supply for those old organs came from manual pumping and not electric power as it does today.

 

While John G. Sturm Sr. was an accomplished organist who also played the zither and the cello, he couldn’t make a living that way. He was a paymaster at the Dold Packing Company near the stockyards, where John, Jr. had a summer job working on the loading docks for the whopping sum of 15 cents an hour. If this writer remembers correctly it was worth a lot more than that just to endure the smell of those stockyards.

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Great Grandpa John Setter.

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John's father's family - 1914.

John's mother's family - 1910.

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Grandpa Andrew Sturm 1854-1920.

Grandma Mary Sturm 1865-1936.

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Grandpa John Setter 1872-1921.

Grandma Catherine Setter 1872-1940.

John’s mother, Catherine Setter, was the one who taught him to enjoy life. She used to say, “You have to discover happiness within yourself.” Later, when talking about his new book, Father said, “Most people are brought up to be dissatisfied with what they have. People don’t see God in themselves. There is great dissatisfaction about life. Society doesn’t want us to be happy with what we have. It wants us to have more and better. We’re frustrated and always searching for happiness. It can only truly be found within ourselves.”

 

He has a sister, Noreen Marie, who has been in the convent for 63 years. His brother, Herbert, was a buyer and in charge of sales for the O-CEL-O Sponge company. Herbert and his wife Grace have six children and nineteen grandchildren. Father Sturm smiled happily as we suggested that undoubtedly they are always glad to see Uncle John whenever he comes over.

 

Father Sturm’s education began with the Sisters of St. Francis at the Most Holy Redeemer School. He went to Canisius High School, where he excelled in sports, a talent that served him well at Canisius College.

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John Sturm, 14 months old - 1918.

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John Sturm, 9 years old - 1926.

John's 1st Communion, 6 years old - 1923.

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John and his brother Herbert - 1930.

John's graduation from Most Holy Redeemer School, 14 years old- 1931.

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John on the football field at Canisius College - 1937.

John playing baseball at Woodstock College - 1948.

“I loved sports,” he said. “I enjoyed the speed skating races in the city parks and won one gold medal. In track I was a constant winner in the 100 yard dash. I was captain of the baseball team in grammar school and at Canisius High School. I played football at both Canisius High School and Canisius College.” Today his sports activity is limited to the spectator type and his frequent games of golf at Beaver Island, Grover Cleveland, and Delaware Park, which he thoroughly enjoys.

 

Young John Sturm had a morning Courier paper route with 85 daily and 180 Sunday customers while in high school. “My Dad said I could have the route if I followed three rules: 1) Get up every morning without being called. 2) Pay your brother when you need his help. And 3) Always collect on the same day. Those were good lessons in self-reliance, respect, fairness, and dependability, that I carried all through my life. In fact, I taught these principles to my students later on at Canisius High School.”

 

While in college at Canisius, he had a summer job in the mailroom at DuPont. He excelled in football at Canisius College; however he felt a strong pull to the priesthood. “But I didn’t really want to be a priest,” he remembered. “I was having too much fun .My favorite song was, ‘You’ve gotta be a football hero to get along with the beautiful girls’.”

 

However, the calling persisted so he finally said, “God, if I get injured, I’ll become a priest.” As luck would have it, he was injured in an automobile accident. “But that didn’t count,” he said. “I meant that I would be a priest if I was injured playing football.” So the Lord called his bluff and he was indeed injured in a spring practice football game in his sophomore year.

 

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From left to right: John's mom Catherine, brother Herbert, John, sister Noreen and dad John, Sr. (seated) - 1937.

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John and his dad at his Canisius High School graduation - 1935.

John and his mom at St. Andrew's on the Hudson - 1939.

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John, his mom, his sister Noreen and his brother Herbert - 1947.

John's sister Noreen, John and their Aunt Sister Agnes Marie - 1942.

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Father Sturm's first blessing, given to his mother - 1950.

Father Sturm was the Prefect of Discipline at Canisius High School from 1952-1970.

The Jesuit influence of his childhood was strong, so it was only natural for John Sturm to enroll in a Jesuit Seminary in 1937, St. Andrew on the Hudson at Poughkeepsie, New York. After four years at St. Andrew’s, he went to Woodstock College in Maryland for three years of Philosophy and Math. He then taught for three years at St. Regis High School in New York City, returning to Woodstock for four years of Theology before he was ordained to the priesthood in 1950. After ordination, he spent one more year in Pass Christian, Mississippi for deeper prayer, opportunities to write retreats, etc.

 

Father John’s first assignment in Buffalo in 1952 was at Canisius High School where he spent eighteen years as Prefect of Discipline. One of his students, Tim Russert, moderator of the NBC News program, “Meet the Press” says “We learned how to act like gentlemen at Canisius High School from a priest named Father John Sturm, SJ.” Russert considers Father Sturm and Sister Mary Lucille of St. Bonaventure School as the mentors who were most influential in shaping his lifetime values.

 

Influencing others’ lives in a positive way has been Father John Sturm’s lifetime ministry. “In 1971 Marriage Encounter got started in Buffalo. It was a week-end retreat, not for troubled marriages, but to make good marriages better. After I retired from Canisius I became involved with this program, directing the weekends for some twenty years.” During that time he supervised about 400 weekends in Buffalo, Erie, Rochester and Cleveland. He also spent two weeks in Dublin, Ireland, teaching priests and lay people to direct their own weekends. In 1974 he began the Engaged Encounter for couples engaged to be married.

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Tim Russert and Father Sturm reminiscing with friends - 2000.

Father Sturm baptizes his niece Christina - 1996.

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Celebrating Father Sturm's 50th anniversary in the Priesthood - 2000.

Father Sturm and one of his Marriage Encounter groups - 1998.

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Father Sturm enjoys golfing with Paul, Annette and Doug.

Sister Mary Lucille, Tim Russert and Father John Sturm - 2000.

Father Sturm came to St. Michael’s in 1981. “We have a great community here and a very wonderful parish” he told us. “It’s a real family experience. Everybody’s concerned for everybody else.” In an earlier article in Living Prime Time he said “The Jesuit community is a real source of peace and joy.”

 

The “Downtown Priest,” as he is called on the cover of his new book, “Life is a Dance, not a Dress Rehearsal,” is very enthusiastic about the book project. With the help of several local business leaders, the book will be published this summer. Tim Russert is honorary chairman of the publishing committee and is writing a message for the cover.

 

Talking about the theme of the book Father John says, “It is a book on spiritual awakening to the beauty of the gift of life, and especially the beauty of each person. The way society has taught us, the way we have been told to live has not given happiness to the world. Loneliness, desolation, jealousy and depression are frequent. The book points out all of that can be defeated. I try to show readers how to look upon themselves and the world. The Lord created you to be happy. You were created by a loving God, who is the Master Architect. You are beautiful and good. It is within each person if the reader opens his eyes and sees. Life is really a dance and is not a dress rehearsal. There are no retakes so do not believe everything you are told by society, but seek the truth. Jesus died for you. See the good in yourself and enjoy life. You are worth it.”

 

The book project began as a series of articles in St. Michael’s bulletin. So many people requested copies, Father Sturm decided to create a collection of these and put them in book form.

 

Father Sturm is also interested in helping the handicapped. He has two cousins whom he used to baby sit once a week when they were small. To this day he still assists with the younger cousin, and is active with the Providence Community on Breckenridge Street.

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Father Sturm and his nephews Nick and Jim Schmitt.

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Father Sturm's brother Herbert and his wife Grace.

Herbert and Grace's family.

He also has been friends with Lillian Bernas who has the gift of the stigmata (bodily marks resembling the wounds of the crucified Christ). With the written permission of the Bishop of Buffalo, Father Sturm has introduced Ms. Bernas, who lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake Ontario, to many parishes in the Buffalo Diocese. He told us, “I have been with Lillian many times as she went through the pain and sufferings of Jesus Christ.”

 

Father John Sturm, the Downtown Priest, is indeed a unique individual. We can all get to know him better by reading his book. For book information: 1-877-387-8876 or go to www.TheDowntownPriest.com.

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Tim Russert endorsed Father Sturm's book in May 2003:
"These words of faith and inspiration are as
powerful and unique as Father Sturm himself.
Long live the Downtown Priest!"

Joseph H. Radder, a freelance writer and regular contributor to Living Prime Time, is the author of a new book, a fictional biography of a young Jew named Jesus, “Young Jesus, the missing years.”

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