He was born in Fresno and grew up in Taft, but Monsignor Ronald J. Swett knew from a young age that he was destined for the priesthood. He cut his teeth as a young priest at a number of churches in Central California before landing at St. Philip the Apostle in southwest Bakersfield in 1987, where he would lead an ever-growing congregation for 25 years.

Swett, who baptized infants who would later grow up to watch him baptize their own children, died Monday in Bakersfield, the city where he had ministered for 33 years. He was 78.

A spokeswoman at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno confirmed Swett died early Monday, but declined to provide the cause or circumstances of the veteran priest's passing.

"He was always there" for his parishioners, said Monsignor Perry Kavookjian, pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in northwest Bakersfield.

Kavookjian was on only his second assignment as a priest when he was assigned to assist Swett in 1989 at St. Philip. He described the pastor as a mentor who helped teach him what it meant to be a pastor, what it meant to devote your life to earthly well-being and the spiritual growth of thousands of souls.

It meant being present 8-to-5 — and far beyond.

"That guy just did not slow down," Kavookjian recalled. "I was 15 years younger and he kind of put me to shame. He ran circles around me."

The younger priest described it as a "ministry of presence."

Born Oct. 30, 1941 in Fresno, Swett soon moved with his parents to Taft in western Kern County, where young Ron attended schools until about age 13.

And that's when his life took a profound turn.

"He went to school at the seminary in Fresno in 1955," Kavookjian said. "He was just out of the eighth grade.

"Exactly 12 years later, he was ordained in 1967," he said. "Sometimes we call those guys lifers."

Swett served at churches on Modesto, Porterville, Tehachapi and elsewhere.

But it was at St. Philip that he seemed to find his home.

"He was such an intellect, but he never talked down to you," remembered Maureen Buscher-Dang, who has been a member at St. Philip since before Swett arrived in 1987.

He was a teacher in the sense that he didn't just relate stories from the Bible, he placed them in context.

"One of the things I loved about him were his homilies," or sermons, she said. "He planted seeds."

They were stories she would incorporate into her daily life. They were living lessons that grew like seeds planted in fertile soil, nurtured and cared for as they climbed toward the sun.

As a minister, Swett officiated over many funerals. And one story stuck with Buscher-Dang.

"He said, 'I've never seen a U-Haul hooked up to the back of a hearse as it leaves the church,'" she remembered.

"It was about what is truly valuable in life," she said. "Whether it's money or things, you can't take it with you."

In late summer 2012, Swett announced his retirement at morning Mass.

"He shepherds us," one longtime parishioner told The Californian that day.

"He's always here. He's always available," another said.

Even then-18-year-old Daniel Kinder, who was beginning his freshman year in college, said Swett would 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 him 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 at the time. "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.

Founded May 1968, St. Philip was established to serve Bakersfield's rapidly growing population. When Swett arrived, there were about 2,800 families in the parish. When he retired, there were some 4,700.

But Swett never truly retired, Buscher-Dang said. He would celebrate Mass on a random weekday or cover for an absent priest on any given Sunday.

He remained active in the parish and in the larger Catholic community for years afterward, and was called upon to lead St. Francis of Assisi when it was in need of new leadership.

He was always there, his parishioners often said.

But maybe now, he can take his rest.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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