Parishioners at St. Philip The Apostle Church were not surprised when their much-loved pastor, Monsignor Ronald Swett, announced his retirement Sunday at morning Mass.
Surprised? No. Grateful for his years of service? Oh, yes.
They were clearly thankful for the quarter century of spiritual and moral leadership Swett brought to the Catholic church on Stockdale Highway. And they continue to stand in awe of his ability to consistently live the Gospel, not just read it.
"He shepherds us," said longtime parishioner Peggy Swank. "He knows what we face to live in the world every day. He's looking out for you whether you know it or not."
Many cited Swett's sense of humor, which was in evidence Sunday when he told the congregation there might be a reporter waiting outside to speak with them after Mass.
"Say nice things about me," Swett deadpanned.
Ron and Julie Black have been attending services at St. Philip for more than 15 years.
"He's always here. He's always available," Mr. Black said of Swett. "He allows a lot of the lay people to participate in the ministry. And that's a very good thing."
Even 18-year-old Daniel Kinder, who is beginning his freshman year at UCLA, said Swett will be greatly missed.
"He's very easy to talk to," Kinder said. "He knows history, he knows sports -- he knows life."
Swett said his decision to retire was based on his achieving three major milestones in his life.
"I celebrated my 70th birthday last October, I have just celebrated my 45th year as a priest, and 25 years as pastor of St. Philip's," Swett said. "I thought with all those coming together it was time to let someone else come in.
"I think it's time for me to step down while I'm still relatively healthy," Swett said.
His retirement is effective Jan. 31 to allow for a smooth transition.
"I felt I wanted to let the parishioners know (now) so they can begin to adjust and begin to plan for someone else to take over," Swett said.
But the one-time Army chaplain won't be coasting during his final five months. He's just started a major renovation of the church, which will include installing new pews to add more seats, and enlarging the foyer.
"The church was really designed in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, so it's just time for a major renovation," Swett said.
Founded May 1968 when Bishop (later Cardinal) Timothy Manning divided St. Francis of Assisi parish, St. Philip was established to serve Bakersfield's rapidly growing population. The first pastor was Monsignor James Logan, who started with 600 families. There were about 2,800 families when he became pastor, Swett said. Now there are about 4,700.
"I was one who was formed right out of the Second Vatican Council -- the reform and renewal council," Swett said. "We have a strong and vibrant worship and liturgy at St. Philip's. I feel we have maintained and strengthened it."
Swett also pointed to the development of several ministries to support the parish, including a youth ministry, support groups for the bereaved and those with marital troubles, and a thriving Hispanic ministry.
Swett's path to shepherding St. Philip's parishioners is similar to that of many of Kern County's veteran priests. Born in Taft, Swett attended the Ryan Preparatory Minor Seminary in Fresno, a high school for students planning to enter the priesthood.
"He's been a good personal friend since we met," said Monsignor Michael Braun of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, who was a classmate of Swett's. "He was 13, I was 14, if you can imagine that."
Braun said their respective careers dovetailed each other over the 45 years they have each been in the priesthood, serving at towns and cities throughout the Fresno Diocese until both of them ended up as pastors in Bakersfield.
"We really had some fun times as young priests, getting to know what being a priest meant while working for different pastors," Braun said.
Braun said they kept in touch regularly. They also supported each other through tough times.
"I preached at his mom's and dad's funerals, and he preached at my mom's funeral," Braun said.
Braun said Swett followed him to Bakersfield.
"I was made pastor in June; he was made pastor in September," Braun said.
For 17 years, Swett also served as rector of Garces High School, a post Braun now holds.
And Swett served as the Vicar Foraine, the head of the deanery, a division of the diocese that includes Kern and Inyo counties.
"Monsignor Swett was our dean for many years as well as Rector of Garces for many years -- and with his experience and wisdom has really been a 'go-to man,'" St. Francis pastor Monsignor Craig Harrison said in an email. "I have consulted him many times during my term as dean."
Both Braun and Harrison said it will be a challenge to replace Swett.
"It will certainly take a special priest who can work well and collaboratively with the laity," Harrison wrote. "St. Philip's has been a wonderful model of ministry and outreach incorporating the gifts and talents of the laity."
Everything depends on Bishop Armando Ochoa, who is still so new to the diocese that it's hard to predict the choice he will make. Nevertheless, Swett, who sits on the diocesan personnel board, has some ideas.
"I expect the position to be put out to bid," Swett said, meaning that the bishop will announce the opening and invite priests to apply.
"Eventually Bishop Ochoa will make the decision, but I don't expect a decision before December," Swett said.
Braun agreed that St. Philip's will be a highly sought-after position.
"Most priests in this diocese want to be pastors, so St. Philip's is a prize," Braun said
Swett explained that while he is retiring as pastor, he isn't retiring from being a priest. He plans to live in Bakersfield, and he hopes to serve his brother priests, filling in where needed. Swett said he advises his successor to continue to develop the Hispanic ministry at St. Philip, but otherwise expects the new pastor to take a fresh look at things.
"That priest will be coming into a fabulous parish with wonderful parishioners," Swett said. "I think he will find it a welcoming home."