Father Gary Lombardi, the longtime pastor of Petaluma’s St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, is retiring — but not all the way.
“While I am retiring as the pastor, I’m not retiring as a priest,” he said. “I’ll still be available for the people.”
Still, it is quite a change for the 75-year-old priest.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring for about three years,” he said. “I’m excited, but not nervous. I will start living on my own schedule and spending more time with my friends and family. What other things open up, I’ll just wait and see. I don’t see myself just sitting in a chair.”
For the past 23 years he has been not only the pastor, but the face of Petaluma’s largest church. He leaves as pastor with mixed feelings.
“One thing I will miss is the deep connection the pastor has with his people,” he said. “You’re an important part of people’s lives at some of the most important times in their lives.”
Father Lombardi recently moved into a new home in Petaluma.
“I’m a member of the community now by choice,” he said. “It is nice to be part of the community and call this my home. It tempers the sadness of missing the people.”
Father Lombardi’s retirement comes at a time when the St. Vincent parish is undergoing some major changes in its two schools — St. Vincent High School and St. Vincent Elementary School, which includes a junior high school component for seventh and eighth graders.
Father Lombardi admits that administering the schools has been difficult for him.
“I wasn’t ordained to be a school administrator,” he said. “The changes in the schools have become a challenge. They need a person far better equipped than me.”
He said that person is the new pastor, Father Bill Donahue.
“He went to school at St. Vincent. He has a strong background in education. His parents were both educators. He is the right person for the parish,” Father Lombardi said.
The schools aren’t the only things that have changed in the parish during Father Lombardi’s nearly quarter century as pastor.
“The challenge many churches, especially the institutional churches, face is reaching the younger generation,” he said. “I’ve thought over the years of the different things we need to do to attract younger families. In many ways I was ordained for a different time and that time has passed. If we want to attract younger families, we have to retool. Catholic churches have to borrow from the evangelical churches while still maintaining the Roman Catholic doctrine.”
That observation is born out in the differences in St. Vincent’s English and Spanish-speaking congregations.
“We see more gray hair at our English-speaking mass,” he said. “The Spanish-speaking families tend to be very young, very lively and very devoted. The church is a big part of their life and culture.”
Maintaining a church that serves around 2,500 families from two different cultures requires a great deal of administrative skill and time. Although known for his outreach not only to parish members, but also into the community, Father Lombardi has been able to take care of church business.
“Somebody has to run the ship,” he said. “I‘ve always found it (administrative work) enjoyable. The bulk of the work is done by the people. The exciting part is putting people with different gifts in the right place to use their strengths.”