The Other Side of the Altar

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words: Marcus Coker images: courtesy Karen Schwartz

On December 20, Jack Sidler, Sr., a widower, father of three, and a native of Van Buren, Arkansas, will be ordained as a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock in the Roman Catholic Church. In January, he’ll turn seventy-one years old. “In 2008, when my wife, Dee, got sick with lung cancer, I wasn’t thinking beyond that; I never thought she was going to die,” says Jack. “Three months before she passed away, we were in the palliative care unit, and she said, ‘My prayer book is too heavy,’ and I said, ‘Here, I’ll read you the prayers.’ And I did that as her husband, but friends pointed out later that that’s what a priest does—they minister to people.”

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Jack, who was born in California in 1944, moved to Van Buren when he was five and attended First Presbyterian Church. Jack says, “I went to Van Buren High School and actually thought about becoming a Presbyterian minister when I was about sixteen.”

When Jack graduated, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve. After six months of active duty in South Carolina, Jack moved back to Arkansas and took a job at the Southwest American Morning Paper in Fort Smith and worked on the dump, where corrections were put in. “I learned to read backwards and upside down,” says Jack, “One night, the future Mrs. Sidler came to stay with a friend of mine who was a typesetter. We dated for a year and a half, and I converted to Catholicism before we got married in June of 1964.”

By 1970, Jack and Dee had three children, and Jack had left the military and gone back to college. In 1973, he graduated from Arkansas Tech in Russellville with a major in biology and a minor in business. For the next thirty-five years, Jack worked in the food quality assurance business. “I was director of quality assurance for Popeye’s in Atlanta, Georgia, and also worked for Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville, Kentucky, and Burger King in Miami, Florida. So we moved around a lot, but eventually ended up back in the River Valley.”

Over the years, Jack and Dee were active in the church, especially Sacred Heart of Mary in Barling. Jack taught confirmation classes, lectured (did readings) on Sundays, and joined the parish council. “I never thought of being involved as more than just a layperson.”

When Dee got sick in March of 2008, Jack took early retirement from his job as the director of technical services at Pepper Source in Van Buren and cared for Dee until her death in November.

“In January, St. Scholastica Monastery (in Fort Smith) hosted a spiritual retreat, and I attended because I just needed to get out of the house. Part of the retreat was spent on site, and at first, the heat didn’t work, and the bed was cold. I thought, Jack, you could be home in a warm bed in five minutes. But I stayed.”

The retreat lasted seven months and required Jack to spend an hour a day in prayer and meditation and meet with a group once a week. “They asked us to use our imagination, to visualize what effect our private sins have on the world. My first thought was, They don’t have any effect, but a voice inside me kept saying, ‘Jack, you know that’s not true.’

“About halfway through the retreat, I started thinking that I wanted to do something else. And I told God, ‘I don’t do subtle, so you’re going to have to make it clear.’ One day, sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, I had a sensation like warm rain coming over me, and I knew then that I wanted to be a priest. I wanted to be on the other side of the altar.”

Because Jack wasn’t even sure that someone his age could become a priest, he contacted the vocations director for the Diocese of Little Rock. (In the Catholic Church, areas under the care of a bishop are called diocese. The Diocese of Little Rock includes the entire state of Arkansas.) The answer came back: “Yes, and maybe.”

In October of 2010, Jack still wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he’d started studying theology through the Little Rock Theology Institute. “One day I got a voicemail from the vocations director that said, ‘If you’re going to start seminary in January, we need to get the paperwork filled out.’ I figured that was pretty direct, not subtle at all.”

For almost four years now, Jack has been living in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, attending Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology. Having sold his 2,200 square foot house and sold or given away most of his possessions, he’s been living in a ten-by-twelve room, sharing a bathroom and shower with twenty other seminarians. “I waited to sell the house, but I realized I’d never go back. The toughest thing was giving away my dog, Sadie. When you’re lonely, and the animal jumps up to see you, there’s a certain companionship there. The hardest part is not the physical living accommodations, but being apart from my children and grandchildren. One of my sons has cancer, and sometimes I feel guilty about being up here. So it hasn’t been a straight line; there has been some real challenge. But this is my choice.”

In addition to academic and theological studies, Jack has been asked to spend time in meditation, developing a spiritual life. “The whole process takes you out of yourself, out of your world. You’re asked to use your brain to find God. We call it the head/heart connection. It starts in your head, but winds up in your heart.”

For Jack, his age hasn’t been a liability; it’s been an asset. “I can see how an experience will play out. I don’t have all the answers, but I know that life will always teach you something if you let it. At twenty-five, I thought I knew a lot, but at seventy, I realize how little I know. And there’s a big difference. “

This month, Jack will graduate from Sacred Heart Seminary with his Masters in Divinity, and on December 20, he’ll be ordained a minister at the St. Benedict Abbey Church in Subiaco. Arkansas. During the ritual, other priests will lay their hands on Jack, and he’ll be anointed with holy water. He’ll take a vow of celibacy.

The next day, Jack will deliver his first mass at Sacred Heart of Mary in Barling at ten in the morning. After that, he’ll be assigned to a church somewhere in the diocese. “I’ll assume all the duties of a priest—celebrate mass, hear confession, call on people in the hospital, marry people, baptize, bury. I’m going to be able to marry my goddaughter the week after I’m ordained. I’m excited about it,” Jack says as he laughs. “I’m ready to go to work. I plan to be an active priest until my health prevents me from doing that.”

One of the nicest things about Jack is that he’s easy to talk to; he’s down to earth. “I’m just a simple guy, blessed in many ways. I just want to bring the sacraments to the people and do what God has asked me to do in a happy, loving manner. People can see insincerity; they can see if you’re being false. So I want you to see in me in the attributes I ask you to have.”

It’s a mission that’s both humble and honorable, the desire to live the rest of one’s life in service. And Jack knows it won’t be easy. Many priests face burnout and loneliness on a regular basis. But Jack has the support of his family, three children that have never questioned what he wants to do, which is simply share the love of God. “I’m still learning to be more effective in loving people and teaching people how to love. And you just have to live life and let it teach you.” Jack laughs. “I haven’t found any shortcuts.”

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