Archbishop Robert Dwyer anoints the hands of Fr. William Hammelman in 1971 at Mount Angel Abbey. (Sentinel archives)
Archbishop Robert Dwyer anoints the hands of Fr. William Hammelman in 1971 at Mount Angel Abbey. (Sentinel archives)
A gentle Benedictine monk who cherishes monastic life yet also served as a parish pastor and ministered among engaged and married couples, is marking 50 years as a priest.

Father William Hammelman, ordained in 1971 by Archbishop Robert Dwyer, grew up on a small farm 2 miles from the abbey that became his lifetime home.

One grandfather immigrated from Germany, the other from Switzerland, a classic heritage for a native son of Mount Angel. Young William came of age working in the berry fields and attending St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel, which the Benedictines long have served. Monks were Hammelman family friends and the young boy’s heroes. That included Father Edward Spear, an athletic and witty monk who was on a bowling team with William’s father.

It seemed natural to try Benedictine life.

“I am a lifer,” said the 76 -year-old priest, now subprior of Mount Angel Abbey.

Young William himself was an athlete, playing football and basketball and running track for the high school seminary teams.

As a boy, the only kind of priests he knew about were monks. Later, he had to decide between Benedictine life and diocesan priesthood. Both were good choices, he knew, but realized he was built for community.

“I thought I’d make a horrible bachelor living alone,” Father William said with a laugh.

On the hilltop, he served as dean of Mount Angel College, was a seminary formation director and taught communication and preaching to seminarians for three decades. He holds a master’s degree in communications. But his contributions were broad. For Oktoberfest, he would make candles that the Benedictines would sell to earn income. And he has long helped tend the abbey’s orchards and fields.

In the mid-1970s, Father William became involved in Marriage Encounter, a Catholic movement that gathers couples and priests to deepen their faith and commitment to married and celibate life. The dedication of couples to the church and to each other humbled and inspired him. He later became an Engaged Encounter priest, helping lead retreats for those about to get married. He rates his experience with couples among the most important influences in his life. He felt himself develop personally because of it.

“My life has been extremely blessed by all the people I met and worked with,” said Father William.

“He is terrific,” said Mary Saxman of St. Clare Parish in Southwest Portland. She and husband John teamed up with Father William as national coordinators of Engaged Encounter, a major task.

“He is quiet and wise, very dependable and very creative,” said Mary. “He certainly has lived his vocation. He’s a good symbol for young people.”

Father William became close to Pat and Donna McCormick, members of Sacred Heart Parish in Portland who were Marriage Encounter leaders. The priest and the couple traveled together and gave presentations as a team.

“A lot of us were impressed by his openness and sharing,” said Pat. “He was a person who did a good job of touching people’s lives.”

Father William would visit the McCormick home where their young daughters had him sit so they could put curlers in his hair. Later, he officiated at those girls’ weddings. When one McCormick girl died, Father William presided at her funeral.

“We think of him as a member of the family,” said Pat. “He is a gentle, loving, very humble man who is capable of so many different things.”

Maybe because God likes to nudge people out of their comfort zones, Father William received an assignment as pastor of St. Paul Parish in Silverton, spending 13 years there, ending in 2016. He loved workaday life among the people. He is grateful to Spanish-speaking parishioners for accepting what he describes as inexpert speech, learned during a crash course in Mexico. Still, among his finest memories are presiding at Spanish-language weddings and quinceañeras.

During his time at the parish, he learned of family joys and struggles and visited many hospital patients.

Father William made it through his own bout with cancer, getting a new perspective on life, and resides at the abbey again. He still works with men beginning monastic formation. And since farm boy roots run deep, he labors on the abbey’s grounds. Most of all, he is glad to live among his fellow monks.

“I have enjoyed the community here a lot,” he said. “There have been so many good men. I knew about probably half of the people in the cemetery.”