Father Joe Herzing is unusual for a priest. He laughed when that was mentioned to him recently.
It’s not just the 52-year-old priest’s shoulder-length hair. The pastor for the Little Falls Catholic Tri-Parish community including Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Mary’s and Holy Family Churches, is unique in a good number of other ways, too.
The man in black with the white collar turns heads as he wheels by on his Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 motorcycle.
“I do wear a helmet,” he said, “It keeps my hair from flying all over.”
He won the cow milking contest at the 2016 Morrison County Fair, putting more milk in the pail than Dairy Princess Nicole Meyer did. He gave credit for the win to the cow, a Holstein versus Princess Nicole’s, luck of the draw, brown Swiss cow.
He has served time in the fundraising dunking booth during annual Our Lady of Lourdes bazaars and is an especially popular dunk for the kids. When their throws miss the target, some run over with big grins and push the bullseye by hand, because, as so many have been heard to say, “I love Father Joe!”
They and many more kids grin with pleasure during Father Joe’s Mass ending recessional walks from the altar to the front doors of the church, when he reaches out to tap them on the head or shoulder with his hymnal. An unusual number of youngsters sit close to the center aisle in his churches, waiting the unique blessing.
“I think it shows that I’m really glad to see them there,” Father Joe said.
Most, if not all, local Catholics and visitors have also enjoyed Father Joe’s sense of humor, evidenced by church-filling laughter. He usually, as the saying goes, “Plays to a full house,” and he’s always ready with a joke, sometimes clever, sometimes so corny (he’s the first to say) that only his comedic timing and grinning delivery get the laughs (and groans).
Standing near the altar, he ends most Masses with such humor.
One of his favorites is, he said, “A dad tells his kid, ‘You have to do three things to get your driver’s license. You gotta keep your grades up, you gotta pray every day, and you gotta cut your hair.’ Well he keeps his grades up, and he prays every day, but his dad says, ‘Well, son, I can’t let you get your license — you didn’t cut your hair.’ And the kid says, ‘Well, I’ve been reading the Bible. Moses and Jesus, they had long hair.’ And the father replies, ‘Yeah, and they walked everywhere.’”
Timing and delivery are also effective during his sermons. He holds attention with occasional pauses for emphasis, also achieved as he alternates between a huskily hushed tone of voice and then a more common, conversational tone.
No “fire and brimstone” from Father Joe. Instead, he offers encouraging and enlightening advice, based studiously on, as he will say, “The Word of the Lord.”
During a recent Sunday’s homily, he suggested that “We all imagine walking in the shoes of immigrants and refugees … to see them as Jesus would.”
The next day, Monday, as usual, Father Joe returned to the farm where he was raised, near Milaca.
“It was a good place to grow up,with good parents and family,” he said. His parents Fred and Dorothy Herzing, were a farmer and a nurse and raised four sons and four daughters.
He was the seventh in that line, born July 5, just minutes after the end of the Fourth of July. He returns to the grounds of those happy days almost every Monday, to help on the farm now entrusted to two of his brothers, John and Mike, since their parents passed away.
“I mostly do repairs,” he said, although there continues to be about 30 dairy cows, as always, on the Herzing farm.
Describing himself as a kid, Father Joe said, “With so many brothers and sisters, it’s hard to think of yourself individually.”
So, he answered questions about those days like this, “We had lots of energy, we played hard, and we fought hard. And we worked hard — or so we thought at the time,” he chuckled.
Father Joe said his philosophy as a priest is, “I treat everyone as though they are my brother or sister.”
Another constant source of development for the Herzings was involvement in the local Catholic church, St. Mary’s, in Milaca.
“Mother was quite active in the church and used to kind of drag us along, but it was all right,” he said.
There may have been a special seed planted then by Father Chris Mehr of St. Mary’s. “He was there for 10 years, while I was six – 16 years old,” Father Joe said. “He was very energetic and an expressive storyteller. I think about him regularly.”
“All right” eventually became two years of service with a National Evangelism Team, traveling around, giving Christian retreats to junior and senior high school students.
“That was in the early 90s,” Father Joe said. “As we visited parishes and priests, day after day, it really began to seem like a life I should consider.
“I’ve always enjoyed helping people, especially kids and the elderly. But ultimately, one has to feel called to this thing,” he said.
So, he finished college and two years later entered the seminary at St. John’s, then St. Thomas and was ordained in 1999.
He was asked to serve as a parish priest, and began in the Bowlus, Upsala, Elmdale and North Prairie quad-parish, for two years. Then he was sent to Holdingford for four years and to Perham for seven years. All of that service was from 1999 to 2012.
It was in 2012 that he came to Little Falls.
His first impression was: “Lots of Catholics; great spirit among the people; great connections to their parishes; lots of support.”
He said, “The school (Mary of Lourdes) is a great blessing and an amazing thing.
“There are multiple opportunities for ministries here, with the hospital, jail, nursing homes and schools, and I get to visit the Franciscan sisters,” said Father Joe. “So, really, it’s just a tremendous place to be a priest.”
Some of his favorite parts of the community are the river, the dam and “the great motorcycle rides around here.”
His favorite times include the parish festivals, he said.
“The family at play, the parish having fun together, that definitely is a joy,” he said.
He is also a sports fan.
“Vikings, Twins and a little basketball and hockey,” he said. “No, I don’t pray for them. There are two things I don’t pray for as a general rule, sports and weather.”
He hunts a little, but usually only when it’s cold. “On a nice fall day, I feel like there’s other stuff to do,” he said.
Of course, there is the motorcycle. “I have a few people I can call and say, ‘Let’s get on the bikes and just go.’”
He also enjoys astronomy, with a large telescope that has a 6-inch mirror that shows him, for example, the moon’s craters.
“History is another interest,” he said. “I’ve visited a lot of old battlefields, and Native American history is an interest.”
His favorite music, befits his age.
“I’m a classic rock kind of guy,” he said, “Like Triumph, April Wine, Little River Band and Foreigner.”
He tries to find a few hours each day for those recreations, while getting to bed usually by 10 or 10:30 p.m. and up at 7 a.m. He is busy with his clerical responsibilities six days a week on average.
Mondays, working on the farm, “is kind of a hobby,” Herzing said.
His favorite books are the Bible, Graham Greene’s works such as “The Power and the Glory,” and “My Life With the Saints,” by James Martin.
“There’s no doubt, my favorite thing is celebrating the Mass for people, engaging with them, working that spiritual side and putting words to these sublime feelings, telling a story that brings those feelings out, and to have people say, ‘Yeah, that was helpful,’ that did something for them,” he said.
The maximum numbers of years a priest stays at a parish in the St. Cloud Diocese is 12 years.
“So, at most, I have another 7 1/2 years,” he said. “There are advantages and disadvantage to it, but the idea is that, after too many years, it can spiritually stagnate for the priest and the parishioners.
“The older I get, the less I want to move,” said Father Joe. “But I do believe in the system, and I think it does make sense. Yes, there are great memories and connections for me here, but I will bring what I bring to the next parish, and it will all work out for the good of God.”
As for an explanation as to why he wears his hair long, he said, “It kind of started in when I was serving Long Prairie, Upsala and Bowlus. Father Greg Mastey was with me, and he was very clean-cut, and I was too. It just seemed like I should grow my hair, so he could work one angle, and I could work the other angle, a little bit, just to be a team ministry.”
He said he had no plans to let it be long for a long time. “I had no plan of looking like Jesus (he has been told he does). But once you have it (long hair), it just becomes sort of a thing, you know,” he said. “I may cut it short some day — or not — he said, “Some say I should, and some say never.”
The ministry “angle” he referred to, said Father Joe, is that “Christ is here for all people, though we may look different and be different.”