When one door closes, another opens, and for Fr. John Sauer of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Owatonna, there's a bittersweet truth to the timeworn sentiment. After 12 years – or two full terms – of serving as the parish’s priest, Sauer delivered his final Mass in Owatonna Sunday before beginning his new assignment in Rochester.
“There is excitement in what the new is going to look like and how that will be,” Sauer said. “But of course it’s hard to be leaving behind a place I’ve really come to love and appreciate.”
Sauer first came to the Owatonna church in May 2008 from a parish in Winona. At the time, Sauer said he was happy to move closer to his aging parents in St. Cloud so that he could take advantage of seeing them more frequently before they died. Sauer said he had also been adamant about wanting to move to a community where there was another priest in town as well as having the opportunity to be part of a parish that had a school.
Owatonna gave him all that and more.
In addition to serving Sacred Heart and the accompanying St. Mary’s School, Sauer also served as the priest of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Litomysl until spring 2019, when the church was aligned with a cluster with Blooming Prairie and Hayfield. The church also had an accompanying school – St. Isidore – until May 2015.
“There’s a difference in the smaller communities that are very rural — the people really know each other and it’s a little bit easier to get to know everybody in the parish,” Sauer said of his time at Litomysl. “The folks really love their parish and take great care of it — it’s was very self-directed.”
Sauer said he cherished his time at Litomysl, proving to be one of the more unique experiences during his priesthood and highly different from his time in Owatonna.
“There is a lot to be proud of,” Sauer said of his time at Sacred Heart. “Absolutely, our renovation is among the top highlights.”
It had been roughly half a century since the sanctuary at Sacred Heart had been renovated, and on Friday the project was officially declared complete. Sauer said that he wanted to take cues from the past without replicating it, adding that he is especially proud of the Litany of the Sacred Heart painted across the top of the sanctuary walls in both English in Spanish — better representing the entire congregation. In May, the church was awarded the Steele County Historical Society 2020 Preservation Award for adhering to the 1922 building’s Romanesque style.
Sauer said that other highlights of his time in Owatonna include the completion of the new office building, celebrating the parish’s 150th anniversary, and the “annual highlights’ he was able to share with his congregation.
“Internally you develop these relationships and get to be involved in people’s lives through baptisms, first communions, confirmations and marriages,” Sauer said. “I laugh with the school kids because I’m at the point now where I’ve baptized the majority of all St. Mary’s students. Being a part of those stages in their journeys – it’s just really a wonderful thing.”
Sauer’s new assignment places him as the pastor of Pax Christi Parish in Rochester — the largest parish in the diocese — and St. Peter and St. Paul’s parish in Mazeppa. Though there is no school on site at Pax Christi, the church is heavily involved in the Catholic school community in Rochester. Sauer said he looks forward to the different level of involvement with the schools his new assignment will give him. He also said that the parish has a strong youth ministry program and activity center, which he looks forward to being part of.
“It will be a new challenge for me, but I am excited about going,” Sauer said. “There is marvelous staff there, and the parish is a welcoming and devoted to the church and their faith.”
Fr. Swami Pothireddy will step into Sauer’s role in Owatonna, coming from the cluster surrounding Sacred Heart in Adams, Minn. Sauer, who worked briefly with Pothireddy when he first came to the United States from India, said he is both confident and excited for the Sacred Heart congregants to have Pothireddy as their new priest.
“They will welcome him and appreciate him,” Sauer said. “He has a lot of energy and skills, he loves school and does great work with them. I really trust that he will do very well here — I am not worried at all.”
As Sauer finishes his final days in Owatonna, he said that the community as a whole is something that he will miss the most.
“I’ve really come to appreciate Owatonna both as a faith community and as a civic community,” Sauer said. “I feel like I’ve made a home here and that will remain a part of me — I am actually thinking I might retire here when I get to that age.”
The past few months have proven difficult for the priest, specifically as he realized he would have having to say goodbye to his congregation while still navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s really difficult to not be together in the ways we have in the past,” Sauer said. “It feels there are some kind of unresolved farewells because of the restrictions and care we’re taking to keep people safe.”
Despite being unable to have their “normal” Mass Sunday, Sauer welcomed those in his congregation who felt safe to worship with him for an outdoor Mass and finished the service with an “obligatory selfie” before saying his final goodbye.
“Thank you for the prayers, the support, and the encouragement over the years,” Sauer said. “This is a wonderful community and I hope you all continue to grow in faith and as a civic community and just continue to be the welcoming place that I experienced.”