When Father Jim Zappa first felt the call to priesthood, he could not have imagined that he would one day preside over a congregation almost as large as the city of Waconia. But this summer, Zappa celebrated two decades at the helm of Mary, Mother of the Church, a parish of 10,000, and over 30 years in the priesthood.
“Never a dull moment, in the positive sense,” said Zappa as he reflected on the last three decades of his life.
It’s a road he chose early in life. The notion first came to him as a child growing up in a devout Italian Catholic family in St. Paul, where Zappa was born and bred. He has been in the Vatican’s fold all of his life, beginning at his childhood church, Holy Redeemer.
“I’m pretty much a product of St. Paul all the way through — grade school, high school, college at St. Thomas and seminary at St. Paul,” Zappa said.
The Zappas were a faithful flock. However, he is one of the few in the family who have accepted the cloth.
“There really isn’t (a family tradition of joining the clergy). I’ve got one cousin who is a nun and that, to my knowledge is the extent of it,” Zappa said.
Zappa had an inkling that he would join the priesthood in grade school. By the end of high school, he was strongly considering such a course. He did not fully commit to the church until college at St. Thomas, however, where he pursued a major in philosophy.
“I kept floating back to seminary and the priesthood,” Zappa said. “By the time I graduated from college it was no question that this was the route to go.”
The Zappa clan enthusiastically supported his choice.
“That was probably one of the major factors — family encouragement and support,” Zappa said.
Zappa was ordained in 1976. He was one of the first wave of priests trained post-Vatican II, a council called by Pope John XXIII that introduced sweeping reforms to the church, among them switching from a Latin to vernacular mass and other attempts to put a modern face on the ancient faith.
“I lived through that initial switch in the 60’s,” Zappa said. “There’s a term called cookie-cutter priests — where every priest looked the same, dressed the same, acted the same. When my class went through they were beginning to break out of that.”
His first assignment was at the St. John the Baptist Parish in Savage. Little did he know that he would one day have a permanent position in Burnsville later in life.
“When it came time to leave St. John’s I had interviewed at Mary, Mother and I remember (Father Donald Burns) saying ‘Well, we’ll get back to you,’” Zappa said. “I like to joke that it took them 12 years to get back to me.”
In the intervening years, Zappa served churches in Fridley, South St. Paul and Immaculate Heart of Mary on Summit Avenue in the state capitol. After many twists and turns of fate, he ended up at Mary, Mother of the Church, where he has been a pastor for most of his career.
On a whole, Zappa acknowledged that the Catholic Church is dealing with major difficulties, among them recurring sexual abuse scandals and financial hardship associated with the recession. The latter strikes close to home for Mary, Mother. Zappa said the downturn has been tough to navigate.
“The hardest part of the job has been the financial struggle, given how much the economy has slowed down so much and the growing needs for support. We get people all the time needing help with food and basic necessities of life,” Zappa said.
After 35 years, Zappa said the best part of the job is helping people and watching them grow stronger in their faith.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see people blossom — seeing even in the worst of times how people come out stronger,” Zappa said. “If it wasn’t for the parishioners it would be a whole different experience.”