Held by Faith: Fleming takes things slow in first months as new St. Mary's priest
Father TJ Fleming went through eight years of Seminary school, learned to translate mass into sign language for deaf parishioners and helped three parishes merge into one over the course of a three-year period.
The Catholic priest is now ready for a new challenge.
In April, Fleming was assigned to be the new priest at St. Mary's University Parish. Fleming’s priesthood became effective in July.
Bishop Joseph Cistone of the Diocese of Saginaw asked Fleming to be the new pastor at St. Mary's, on the campus of Central Michigan University, in April. Former St. Mary's priest Denis Heames was accused of having a sexual relationship with a student and was removed from his position. Fathers Thomas Held and Tom McNamara helped fill the position last year.
Fleming said he was good friends with Heames during their time with the Diocese, but does not believe he will serve the Diocese of Saginaw again.
“I consider him a friend," Fleming said. "I don’t try to condemn what happened. Granted it was probably the wrong thing to do, but he’s still a human being. I keep him in my prayers.”
Fleming had considered priesthood while growing up on a beef cattle farm near Midland and attending school in Merrill. He didn’t give thought to priesthood until his father’s cousin suggested he think about serving the church.
With that validation, Fleming applied for the priesthood. Bishop Francis Reh sent him to St. John Vianney Seminary on the campus of College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He obtained his bachelor's degree in history with a minor in philosophy, and sought a master's degree at St. Meinrad's School of Theology in Indiana.
His plans changed when Reh retired and Kenneth Untener replaced him as Bishop of Saginaw. Untener, who was a rector at St. John Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, sent Fleming there and he obtained his Master's of Theology in 1984.
Fleming became a transitional deacon in August 1984. He was officially ordained a priest in May 1985 and has served the Diocese of Saginaw for 31 years.
“I’m really glad for the eight years (in seminary school) — to really make the decision because I won’t be able to get married or have a family," Fleming said. "That was a big decision to make. I have been very comfortable with it. If I had to do it again, I don’t think I would change it.”
Fleming has had numerous assignments during his time with the Diocese of Saginaw. For 26 years, Fleming has helped sign Mass for the deaf in the Diocese, and travels to the 11 counties. He said he goes to Bay City every other week to sign Mass.
The diocese underwent a parish restructuring process titled "Planning Tomorrow's Parishes," which reorganized its 109 parishes from 2013-15. Fleming's last assignment was the pastor of parishes in Kawkawlin, Linwood and Beaver. He watched the three parishes merge into Prince of Peace Parish in Linwood in 2015.
Fleming said Cistone wanted an older person to fulfill the role. The 58-year-old Fleming said he was hesitant at first to accept the offer, but he did and wants to be a healer for those in the community affected by Heames conduct.
“I just want to come and just be a healing force," Fleming said. "I’m taking it very gently. I’m not pushing anything. That’s why I’m not changing a whole lot. I think a lot of healing has taken place.”
Fleming said Cistone has reminded him St. Mary's is a parish which includes families, but the main focus is outreach to the students. Fleming added he is adjusting to serving college students, but he wants to be a father figure to them.
“To be able to serve them and allow them to experience and grow in their faith as young adults (is a goal)," he said. "Some of them might be questioning their faith. They’re starting to come talk to me.”
Rockford senior Cam Borg said he attends St. Mary's every Sunday and at least one weekday for Mass. He said Fleming was "open and easy to relate to" from his first Mass and he believes he will provide stability going forward.
“He’s really open and easy to talk to and I think he’s doing an amazing job," Borg said. "I love talking to the guy — he’s funny. He’s meeting a lot of people. We all know each other. He’s coming into a new environment and I think he’s doing great. He’s going to be a great fit here in the future.”
Fowlerville senior Marie Parker also attends Mass every Sunday and at least one time during the week. She said she likes how Fleming has related to the students during his first few months as priest.
“He definitely has some good messages for the college-age student and has a passion for the faith," Parker said.
Fleming said he wants to take things slowly through the first six months and does not want to come in and tell people how to do things.
“I just kind of want to learn what they’ve done, what’s going on, and then maybe bring them forward and kind of bring some of my skills and talents into this," he said. "I haven’t really done an awful lot right now."
Fleming said he wanted to earn the trust of the staff and community following the Heames incident. Recently, he brought in Tom Conklin, Catholic Family Services director for the Diocese of Saginaw, for a self-profile activity with his staff.
Fleming said he sees himself as the priest at St. Mary's for three-to-five years and wants to expand relations with CMU and other churches. He said he is talking to Rev. Ben Ulledalen of Zion-Christ the King Lutheran Chapel about an ecumenical Thanksgiving service in November.
Parker said she has already seen Fleming embrace the community.
“He is going to bring something new to St. Mary’s," she said.