Remembering a joy-filled priest

At mid-morning of "unquestionably the worst day of my life," Oct. 26, Steve Bannes finally found time to process the crushing news that awful day, sitting quietly next to Father Ed Stanger in his father Lorry's dining room in Ballwin.

Steve, his brother Mike, their wives and the Holy Infant Parish pastor had broken the news to his dad that Father Tim Bannes — Lorry's son, their baby brother and Father Stanger's close friend and colleague — had been found dead that morning in the rectory at St. John the Baptist "Gildehaus" Parish in Villa Ridge.

Father Stanger broke the silence in the dining room with a simple declaration that Steve didn't understand or comprehend. "Your brother was kind of a big deal," Father Stanger said.

"I must have looked at him like, 'Huh?'" Steve recalled, explaining, "I was really absorbed by my own grief, my pain, my suffering — and that of my immediate family. Sure, I knew Tim was loved, but a big deal? I had no idea what (Father Stanger) meant.

"He just looked at me and said, 'You'll see.'"

Over the next days and weeks — through the wake, funeral and memorial Mass — the vision of his brother's significance became crystal clear.

Father Bannes was beloved both by parishioners at Holy Infant, where he was associate pastor for six years after ordination in 2007, and at St. John the Baptist, where he served just three years, four months — only 40 months; 16 as administrator and the past 24 as pastor.

"It was all ages, the grade school kids, kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, the older folks, the ... uuuh, the deacon," said Deacon Randy Smith, choking up and tears welling in his eyes as he talked about Father Bannes. "He had an impact on very many lives. People loved him."

"Joy of the Gospel"

A late vocation, Father Bannes had earned a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from the University of Missouri-Rolla and worked at his family's construction company before entering Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in 2001, at age 37.

"That's one of things I think made Tim a great priest; he had lived this full life," Steve Bannes said, adding that life experiences served his brother well in pastoral settings. "When people had a struggle, he had had a struggle, too. It wasn't like, 'Let me give you some words of wisdom.' He could relate to them. He had lived it before."

As a priest, Father Bannes lived out the "Joy of the Gospel" long before Pope Francis put that thought into words in 2013 in his first encyclical. Pope Francis admonished priests "not to look so grim" after celebrating Mass, but that never applied to Father Bannes, who always seemed to be smiling and cheerful.

His first assignment, at Holy Infant, was a preview of his ministry at St. John the Baptist: a joyous priest, who easily connected with parishioners — socializing after Masses, at parish events or at regular restaurant outings — and with students in the Parish School of Religion or the parish elementary school. It's no coincidence St. John enrollment has risen since his arrival.

Students "knew he cared about them," Deacon Smith said.

With high-fives and fist-bumps, Father Tim greeted them at the start of each day, joined them on the playground at recess, and bid them farewell after school. He did the same at PSR. And he was a regular in their classrooms, visiting each grade level over a two-week span, answering students' questions from an "Ask" box or just hanging out.

"He'd come in the middle of class, get officially yelled at by the teacher and go, 'Oops,'" former St. John student Alyssa Maune said, with a laugh. An eighth grader when Father Bannes arrived, she's now a junior at St. Francis Borgia High School. "He made all the students feel very good. ... He spread good feelings to everybody."

Father Tim was known for his silliness, which is evident in selfies, photobombs or photos of him mugging for the camera. He liked to play dress-up, too. He wore a floppy eared, Stars & Stripes crocheted hat in excursions to Washington, D.C., for the March For Life. He dressed as the "Nutty Professor" of Jerry Lewis fame for Halloween, a big-game hunter with school mascot John the Jaguar or as a random saint of day.

He also let students attach him to a wall with duct tape. Would the tape hold him up off the ground? Nope.

Principal Gary Menke described the pastor's presence at school as "constant. Through the course of the year, (Father Bannes) was right in the middle of our celebrations. He was an important fabric of his school."

His presence also was felt in general parish life. The parish's food pantry, St. John's Helping Hand, is in the rectory basement, and he carried over canned goods left at the back of church and assisted in any way possible.

"He was always there," volunteer director Judy Haley said.

"The worst day"

Father Bannes's seeming omnipresence prompted concern Oct. 26 when he wasn't there to meet arriving students. Concern turned into alarm when the 8 a.m. start of an all-school Mass came and went.

Haley, who had a key, went to the rectory, let herself in the back door and called out for Father Tim. Silence. She went upstairs to the living quarters, found his bed still made, then discovered his body on the floor in the TV room. His arms were crossed on his chest, and a student later told her, "I think he was praying."

She felt for a pulse, found none and called 9-1-1. Menke arrived to perform CPR and attempted to use an AED, which confirmed what they knew from the start. "Whatever the message, no charge was needed," Menke said, solemnly.

Emergency personnel from Franklin County descended on the rectory, and the previously calm, cool and collected Haley and Menke dissolved outside the room. A friend held Haley to keep her from collapsing, and Menke dropped to his knees, shaking. "I felt physically sick," he said.

His first thought was of the students waiting for Mass. "By now, surely our teachers and children knew," he said. "Someone said, 'No, Gary, they don't.' Oh, my. What do we do now?"

Menke collected himself, then recruited parishioners lingering at church — familiar faces — to wait with the students while he told the teachers. That group broke down, sobbed and prayed, then in turn collected themselves to tell the students, each in their regular classrooms.

Soon, archdiocesan education personnel and priests started arriving. The priests came as pastoral ministers for traumatized, shocked and dazed students, staff and parishioners, but also to fulfill the responsibilities on Father Bannes' calendar. There were weekend and weekday Masses to celebrate, confessions to hear, weddings to officiate, infants to baptize, and more.

Led by archdiocesan vicar for priests Father Michael Boehm and Father Gene Robertson, head of the Washington Deanery, the priests reworked their packed schedules to fill Father Bannes's packed schedule.

"Within a couple hours, there were seven or eight priests there," Deacon Smith marveled. "They were helping people get through the shock; they themselves were shocked, but they all came together very quickly."

Pilgrimage

The healing began at the first weekend Mass — the Saturday night vigil, Oct. 29. At the end of Mass, celebrant Father Kevin Schmittgens, from St. Francis Borgia Parish in Washington, asked the congregation to share Father Tim stories.

"As people spoke, I became aware that others — outside our immediate family — also experienced a very significant loss, a loss of equal proportion to my own," Steve Bannes said.

Also that night, on what would have been Father Tim's 53rd birthday, Alyssa Maune experienced what felt like his presence after a car accident, a firm yet comforting grasp of her left forearm though no one was sitting beside her or grabbing her arm through a window. "It was kind of scary at first," she admitted, though "after a few moments, it started to get warm, so I went with it."

Later, she confided the feeling to her father, Randy; they believe it to be Father Bannes' presence.

"That tells me he's out there looking out for us," Randy said. "We all had a special relationship with Father Bannes."

Steve Bannes understood that after the wake the next day at Holy Infant, that his brother indeed was a big deal. Scheduled from 4-8 p.m., the wake lasted until midnight, eight hours with long waits to get in. Driving home to south St. Louis County, he asked his wife, Mary Lee, "Is there anyone you know (for whom) you would be willing to stand in line for three to four hours to pay your respects?"

"I can't think of a single person yet this is precisely what (they) did," he said. "Who waits three or four hours to pay their respects? Pilgrims do. Pilgrims journey to a sacred place for spiritual reasons. ... They came to honor and say goodbye to a holy man."

More than 1,000 people attended the funeral, including St. John's parishioners — now part of the Bannes family and vice versa. About 275 went to a Memorial Mass a few weeks later at Gildehaus. Archbishop Robert J. Carlson celebrated both Masses.

At the funeral, with three bishops and more than 100 brother priests concelebrating with the archbishop, they sang "Ave Regina" in Latin — customary for a priest's funeral.

"I was in awe," Steve Bannes said, noting his brother's devotion to the Blessed Mother.

Father Bannes honored Mary and motherhood each time he celebrated Mass. When he raised his chalice in the Eucharistic prayer, he could feel the wedding rings of significant women in his life: his grandmothers and his mother, Janet, who passed away in 1993. The family had the rings soldered beneath the base and gave him the chalice at ordination.

The legacy

In the long term, Father Bannes' legacy lies in the students he evangelized. In 10 to 15 years, will they be open to the call of vocations after having experienced his joyful priesthood?

In the short term, a semblance of normalcy is returning at St. John. "It just takes time, friends and prayer," Haley said.

Parish and school events have taken place as scheduled, and after a week out of school, teachers have stepped up to greet students before school and send them off after. Deacon Smith assists at Mass as usual, but with a determination to emulate the devoutness Father Bannes had as a celebrant. Randy Maune, who is in formation to be a deacon, opens the church, turns on the lights and sets up Masses for visiting priests, who sometimes arrive with moments to spare. He also makes sure there are enough candles ... all the little things Father Bannes did on his own because he was worried that Maune was too busy.

Visiting priests have covered Masses and sacramental events, with only one exception. There's a communion service after all-day Eucharistic Adoration on Tuesdays rather than a Mass.

The Tuesday night Mass was the last celebrated by Father Bannes, who did so with his usual devoutness and his silent homage to the important women in his life. Before that Mass, he picked up candy for the parish's Trunk Or Treat; he planned to dress as Captain America.

"Those were two of the last things he did," Menke said, adding, "It comforts me that he was taking care of his parishioners and the children." 

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