Priest takes leap of faith after 30 years as engineer

By Maura Wery

After 30 years of working as a civil engineer, Michael Peterson decided to make a change.

It wasn’t retirement. It wasn’t moving to a new area. It was becoming a priest.

At 54 years old, Peterson entered Blessed John XXIII, a seminary for men over 35 in Boston, Mass., and began the process of becoming a priest.

A story like this one always seems to bring up one important question: Why?

“For some men, like Pope Benedict, he knew he wanted to be a priest as a teenager and for some men, like myself, it’s a slower process how you come to that realization,” Peterson said.

The route to ultimate priesthood started for Peterson as a child. He said while growing up in Clyde, his mother had been a devout Catholic.

Peterson said he would go to church with his mother and as he grew, never really wandered away from his faith.

“I always had a love for God and for His church, so I always connected in some way shape or form,” Peterson said. “I was never a estranged from it.”

After high school, Peterson went to Cloud County Community College for two years, and the in 1973 he went to K-State to pursue engineering. 

He graduated in 1975 with a degree in civil engineering and then two years later gained a masters degree in the same subject.

“After college I went to Kansas City and worked for various contractors,” Peterson said. “I also went to KU for five years and tried to get a Ph.D. in environmental engineering - but I ran out of time, money and ambition, so I didn’t finish my thesis.”

While at KU, he also began questioning his faith and trying to find answers to the recurring questions that were troubling him.

Peterson said he found many of his answers from the writer G.K. Chesterton, a onetime atheist and socialist who converted to Catholicism.

“He was very instrumental in keeping me on the straight and narrow,” Peterson said.

After that questioning phase, Peterson still believed in his faith and continued to go to church during his working years as an engineer in Kansas City.

Peterson said he lived his life, including dating, but Peterson said marriage “never panned out for some reason or another.” But Peterson kept one love constant - his love of God.

Then in 2007, he made the ultimate leap of faith and went into the seminary, but it wasn’t a smooth transition.

“I was very uncomfortable physically,” Peterson said. “You have a room about 12x18 and that’s it. Having owned a fairly sizable house, being stuffed in a room was a different experience.”

Peterson also had another problem: He didn’t like speaking in front of larger crowds, which is necessary during sermons. But through all his trials, he always found God helping him through the chaos.

“What we come to understand is that God has called us in some shape or form to do this,” Peterson said, “and part of the seminary process is to discern that true vocation. Is it is a true call from God and not something you hear in your wildest dreams? If you think this is God’s calling, He will help you.”

After his seminary process was over and he was officially ordained, Peterson shadowed under a priest at St. Michaels Church in Leawood before coming in early July to his Wamego parish - which includes the city of Wamego along with Flush, Paxico and Newberry.

Peterson’s short tenure already has been peppered with interesting, difficult and rewarding experiences.

He said that he enjoys “the charm of the people” in his parish and that one of the best things he can do as a priest is just “being there” for those in the church.

But most of all, he enjoys how his engineering background lines up with his new profession.

“Engineering is how you deal with reality. I think that’s the same for our faith. You are dealing with reality,” Peterson said.

“In engineering, there are some things that are absolutely right and smack you in the face, but you have to deal with them in a concrete manner, same as being a priest.”

For the hard questions and even the day-to-day grind of being a new priest, Peterson looks to his faith to help him give the best advice to his parishioners.

“You learn by doing,” Peterson said. ” And sometimes you ask for a divine revelation to help you.”

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