HAMLET – On a recent, cool fall evening, Hamlet’s resident priest spent time in his driveway loading buckets filled with walnuts, a labor-intensive money-making venture for his parishes. During that work, he was summoned to chaplain service by a call from the Hamlet-Davis Township Volunteer Fire Department.
To say that Father Anthony Spanley puts others before himself is a sentiment worth minting into a plaque. That’s exactly what happened, as the Starke County Chamber of Commerce announced that the 81-year-old priest was the winner of the Schricker Service Before Self Award, named after a two-term governor of Indiana and native of Starke County.
Speaking in his matter-of-fact, humble tone, ahead of receiving the award on Nov. 9, the priest, who counts 33 years of service to the faithful in the far eastern part of the diocese, said, “I enjoy being loved … what else could I do?”
At 14, a young Anthony Spanley wrote a letter to Bishop John F. Noll of the then-Diocese of Fort Wayne, which included the Gary Region. He asked and gained permission to become a seminarian. With the support of his parents, he began studies at the former Our Lady of the Lake Seminary on Lake Wawasee in northeast Indiana.
However, as a teen anytime he got the chance he would help manage his parent’s Tastee-Freez franchise in Chicago Heights, Ill. That’s where he said he focused on learning specific tasks to ensure all were served ice cream to their satisfaction.
Father Spanley was ordained by Bishop Andrew G. Grutka in 1968. After several assignments in the diocese, Father Spanley said his “work in progress” priesthood hit its stride in small town ministry. Since 1990 he has been pastor of Holy Cross in Hamlet and St. Dominic Mission in Koontz Lake, a 10 minute drive, mainly on Route 30.
Though his ministry to about 60 families between the churches keeps him quite busy with his sacramental duties, and personal calls, Father Spanley has been connected to civic and service groups since he arrived in the small hamlet. He has been an officer in the local Lions Club and in the tourism-related Yellowstone Trail Fest. He is a longtime Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a state-trained volunteer representing the best interests of youths.
Pivoting from the confidential nature of his work helping children from troubled homes, Father Spanley, returned to his connection with nature.
“October is the month (local processing plants) are open for hulling, and through November 8, and I’m sure I’m going to have plenty of walnuts after that,” he said of the tree nuts, the proceeds of which he deposits into accounts to build his parishes’ savings. “Till this last week, I was (working) four days a week going to Nappanee, but this week my life got in the way of my walnuts.”
Mark Rippy has known Father Spanley for a decade. The North Judson resident said he appreciates the priest’s honesty and strong work ethic. As a board member of several civic groups in the Hamlet area, such as the chamber, Yellowstone, and the Starke County Historical Society, he has seen first-hand the clergymen’s contributions to area residents.
The Ss. Cyril and Methodius parishioner explained that people may observe Father Spanley riding aboard the fire tower truck on an emergency call, or picking up walnuts for hulling, but there is even more than meets the eye concerning the resourceful pastor’s dedication to others.
“Several months ago, I was at a meeting with Father Anthony and I said, ‘Father, if you were nominated for an award, would you accept it?’” Rippy recalled. “And he said, ‘I will, as long as it doesn’t interfere with any of my duties.’”
Rippy pointed out something Father Spanley had not mentioned in his curriculum vitae of volunteerism – that the priest also served for 22 years as a chaplain for the Indiana National Guard.
So, the evidence was overwhelming. Rippy, as a former Service Before Self award winner, said Father Spanley is consummately qualified for the chamber award.
Father Spanley recalled the moment that he was asked if he was willing to be presented with the award on Nov. 9 at the Nancy J. Dembowski Community Center in Knox. “I said, ‘let me check my calendar,’ and I was open that date.”
Seeming to deflect the attention directed toward him, Father Spanely continued: “I was surprised. I figured that was for important people. And I’ll tell you, I do not feel important. But I make (my assignment) work. I’ve got a lot of hobbies – from polishing rocks to wood carving. I’ve even gotten into decorating gourds … they are gorgeous.
He added, “I also like to go bicycling, kayaking and sailing. I don’t think you can name a lake or a river in northern Indiana that I haven’t been on.”
On Nov. 3, at the township firehouse just blocks south of Holy Cross, several firefighters offered congratulations to their chaplain. Though he acknowledges he has slowed down a bit and takes longer to respond to dispatch calls for fire-related emergencies, he still makes it to his locker to don his gear when he is available.
“I hope that I’m functioning like that if I make it to 81,” said Matt Moore, firefighter and treasurer of the Hamlet-Davis Township Volunteer Fire Department. “I have seen Father Anthony around town for years and years and he just keeps going. He looks the way he did ten years ago; he stays healthy.
Moore continued, “He closes out our business meetings with a prayer. He’s always asking God for Help with service to the community and for our safety on the call site. I just appreciate him.”
Praising Father Spanley’s promotion of civic pride and service to others, Rippy said he hopes that “Father Anthony continues to serve the people of our county and maintains his healthy lifestyle.”
Caption: Father Anthony Spanley sits in the firehouse of the Hamlet-Davis Township Volunteer Fire Department, where he serves as a chaplain, in Hamlet on Nov. 3. The 81-year-old pastor of Holy Cross and St. Dominic Mission in Koontz Lake was recently presented the Schricker Service Before Self Award by the Starke County Chamber of Commerce for his commitment to volunteerism and concern for his neighbors. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)