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Year for Priests: Love of nature inspires priest’s faith, ministry

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

By David Eck

DAYTON DEANERY — On the surface it might seem odd for a one-time farm boy to serve as pastor of an urban pastoral region but for Father P. Del Staigers, a love of nature and the outdoors is never far away.

The office grounds of Dayton’s pastoral Region One are nicely landscaped, and there’s even a small fountain just outside the building’s back door. That’s the way Father Staigers likes it.

“I grew up on a farm, so plants have always been in my blood, so to speak,” he said. “I do more landscaping these days.”

As a boy growing up on his family’s farm between Yellow Springs and Xenia, the priest developed a bond with nature. He helped take care of the cows and sheared sheep, spending as much time as he could outside.

Father Del Staigers with his dog, Thacker. The dog was often a subject of Father Stagiers’ homilies before Thacker died several months ago. (Courtesy photo)

“I love the outdoors,” he said. “I live outside as much as I can.”

He uses a secluded cottage for getaways, a place that’s peaceful and quiet.

Through nature Father Staigers is attuned to God.

“It definitely relates, because in creation it keeps me centered [to] all the other places I try to find God,” he said. “Other than the sacraments, I think the natural beauty of the world is the clearest expression of God’s presence.”

A former assistant homiletics professor at the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s seminary, Father Staigers writes his homilies outdoors.

“That’s where my imagination works, when I’m outside in nature,” he said. “There’s a beauty that we can’t mimic, and I think that’s directly attributed to God.”

He grew up as a member of St. Paul Parish in Yellow Springs and attended Xenia High School. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the Pontifical College Josephinum and following formation at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Father Staigers was ordained in 1987.

His vocation began evolving more than 30 years ago when he met current Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk.

“I was remotely considering the priesthood, and was investigating religious orders to begin initial discernment,” Father Staigers recently wrote in the parish bulletin. “I had mentioned this to then-Bishop Pilarczyk, and within two days the vocation director from the archdiocese called me, asking if he could come and visit me. My discernment began there and is a direction for which I have always been grateful. I’ve always considered the archbishop to be a vital part of my vocation, beginning with that brief conversation and invitation.”

He spent three years as an associate pastor at St. Helen Parish in Dayton, and taught at the Athenaeum from 1991-2000, while serving as a Sunday associate at St. Andrew Parish in Milford. Father Staigers also served as the director of diaconate formation for three years at the Athenaeum.

In 2000 he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Dayton. He is now pastor of Dayton’s pastoral Region One, which is comprised of Our Lady of Mercy, Corpus Christi and Queen of Martyrs parishes.

He still contributes to a preaching website at the Athenaeum.

“I love teaching homiletics — still do to deacons after ordination — because I believe that it is the integrating discipline of all theology,” Father Staigers said. “Homiletics takes what we learn in the books and interprets it for pastoral ministry. Theology and life intersect in the homily. I do believe that teaching and studying homiletics has helped me to become a better preacher; I believe that if I were teaching full-time today my teaching would definitely be informed by being a pastor for ten years.”

While an assistant professor at the Athenaeum, Father Staigers put emphasis on reaching the people in the pews with homilies.

“Not only did he teach that but he lived it, lives it and he models it in the way he writes his homilies,” said Deacon David Shea, assistant professor of homiletics at the Athenaeum. “He’s got a great empathy for what’s going on in people’s lives. He has this real pastoral sensitivity.”

In his parishes, Father Staigers interacts with the parishioners.

“He provides great leadership in our parish, and I think being an average guy has helped with that,” said Lori Mayo. “He’s one of us.”

His dog, Thacker, was well known by parishioners, as the priest would speak of the canine in his homilies. Thacker was a rescued greyhound who died several months ago.

“Oftentimes Thacker was a part of that story,” Mayo said. “I can remember him telling once that somehow Thacker got away and Del had to walk blocks and blocks and blocks to find him.”

It is that personal touch that helps make Father Staigers a successful priest, Mayo said.

“I just think that when people get to know you a little more personally, it helps you relate better,” she said. “He’s willing to share some of the personal things.”

David Eck can be reached at [email protected].

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