August 30, 2023 at 6:00 a.m.
It has been 10 years since the Rev. Greg Paffel, the newly installed pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Sauk Centre, rode into town on his orange Honda Goldwing motorcycle. That motorcycle and its rider have since become familiar sights in the community, and while Paffel has had to navigate difficult times for the area’s Catholic churches, he maintains his joyful optimism as he ministers to parishioners and learns from them as they learn from him.
“I have been in Sauk Centre longer than anywhere else in my life since graduating high school,” Paffel said. “I was just telling a friend how good it feels to have deeper and stronger relationships than I’ve been able to have in the past.”
Raised in Otsego, Paffel attended Elk River High School where he lettered in football, weightlifting, track and choir. He served as the school’s mascot and won a state title in the discus throw in 1986, his senior year. After graduation, he attended the University of Minnesota-Morris and then the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where he first considered becoming a priest.
Paffel spent several years traveling with different ministries, including National Evangelization Teams and St. Paul’s Outreach. He then joined the seminary and was ordained a priest in 2001, first serving as assistant priest at St. Anthony’s Church in St. Cloud and then as pastor at St. John’s Church in Foley.
Paffel received his assignment to St. Paul’s Church in Sauk Centre right before Easter 2013. He had been to Sauk Centre a few times before, helping the previous pastor, the Rev. Todd Schneider, with Divine Mercy Sunday confessions, and Paffel’s fraternity of priests also held healing Masses in the area. After a 30-day silent retreat, Paffel arrived in Sauk Centre in early July 2013.
“When I first arrived, I remember vividly thinking, ‘Coming to this part of the diocese is like putting on an old glove, it just fits,’” Paffel said. “There is a lot Catholic faith and devotion here. In other places, I felt the need to teach people about the Catholic faith. From the beginning here, I felt like I had so much to learn from the people, and I’m still learning.”
When he started, Paffel was the pastor of one parish, but he is now in charge of six parishes – St. Paul’s and Our Lady of the Angels in Sauk Centre, St. Alexius in West Union, Sts. Peter and Paul in Elrosa, St. Francis De Sales in Belgrade and St. Donatus in Brooten – as they were combined into the Parishes on the Prairie Area Catholic Community. Paffel’s leadership style has had to change in response to this reorganization, leaning on others more and trusting them to help him lead.
“Today, my closest companions in ministry are those on my leadership team,” Paffel said. “That said, throughout the years, we have had extraordinary staff, amazing trustees, terrific finance councils, excellent people on pastoral councils, great volunteers and many kinds of church-related groups.”
Paffel also considers it a blessing to live with other priests and relate to the clergy of the area.
“If it were not for them, I would not be the happy priest I am today,” Paffel said. “Also, of course, many people and families are extra kind and lift my spirits.”
Paffel’s time as pastor has not been without its challenges. It was a challenge to help St. Paul’s move on to a bigger church addition building project after their initial plan was declined. More recently, though, it was painful for Paffel to rearrange the weekend Mass schedule to account for the Rev. Jeremy Theis’ reassignment, which decreased the ACC from three priests to two. Under the new schedule, there are no weekend Masses at St. Donatus.
“It is impossible to be a leader and not sometimes step on toes or make decisions that hurt some people’s feelings,” Paffel said. “I want those that I have hurt to know I am sorry for their pain and pray they find the kind of happiness they deserve.”
The successfully completed building projects for Sauk Centre’s churches are highlights for Paffel’s pastoral career, but he also has a special place in his heart for his parishioners’ personal growth in faith, from Kevin Soenneker being ordained a deacon this year to people who return to Catholicism and confession after years away.
“(Highlights are) when one person experiences Jesus, when they discover the riches of our faith and when they desire to grow in their understanding and love of Christ,” Paffel said.
The parish’s children are also another source of joy for Paffel.
“I loved it when I entered the lunchroom at Holy Family School a few years back and had all the children spontaneously pretend they were on a rollercoaster with me,” Paffel said.
Looking back on his 10 years as pastor, Paffel believes the ACC’s hardest years are behind them, and they are ready to move forward.
“We exist to know and follow Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd and lead others to do the same,” Paffel said. “I want us to pray boldly, work together and strive for Catholic excellence. In order to do that, we need to provide more engaging sacraments, lifelong formation and expanding leadership.”