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Newman Center's new pastor brings college experience to Columbia

Sunday, July 27, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
The new pastor at St. Thomas More Newman Center brings his life experience to his new posting. The Rev. Richard Litzau, O.P., is a father of two and worked in the criminal justice system.

COLUMBIA — The Rev. Richard Litzau, O.P., the new pastor at the St. Thomas More Newman Center at MU, wasn’t always a priest.

He was a probation officer, a corrections officer and a hospice chaplain. And he was married.  

But Litzau's desire to be a priest was something he felt even as a kid running around in Colorado.

"When I graduated high school, I was in seminary for a year," he said. "Within the context of that year, I realized that I wasn’t old enough or mature enough, and I left."

Litzau was married for 12 years and has two children, both now grown. His son, Jacob, lives in Albuquerque, N.M., and his daughter, Elizabeth, lives in Denver.

The detour in family life and jobs wasn’t in the plan when he left the seminary, Litzau said.

"It kind of just unfolded,” he said. “But being a parent has made me who I am today and allows me to do what I do."

Litzau, 62, succeeds the Rev. Thomas Saucier, who had been at the Newman Center for eight years.

After Litzau's divorce and a church annulment of his marriage, he was ordained in the Dominican Order in 2005. The Dominican designation "O.P." after his name stands for "Order of Preachers," and Litzau said it is important to him to include its use because "it is part of who I am."

He took his first formal church position at St. Paul Catholic Center at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. He worked there for six years before going to Aquinas Newman Center at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M., where he worked for three years.

"I think my experiences of working in the real world, having a family, raising children and being in relationships were the things that I didn’t have when I was just out of high school," Litzau said. "I don’t think everyone should travel the path I traveled, but for me, that was the path God wanted me to take."

Tara Doyon, development director at St. Paul's, said Litzau is approachable and easy-going.

"He is very genuine, and he has so much feeling toward you," Doyon said. "There is a complete connection to him, to the parish and to faith."

She recalled an Ash Wednesday Mass in 2006 when she and her 3-year-old daughter went up to the altar to receive ashes, a ceremonial blessing used by many Christian denominations to signify the start of the religion's 40-day fasting period.

Doyon's daughter was going through a phase in which she liked wearing only purple. Litzau had the ashes on his finger and was about to mark the girl's forehead when she said loudly, "I don’t want that on me! I don’t like black! I like purple!"

"It's OK," Litzau said gently to the girl. "We can do another color next year."

The girl calmed down and received the ashes.

"Because he is a father, he is very good with kids," Doyon said. "He never rolled his eyes when kids were crying during Mass or if families arrived late."

Experiences working in the criminal justice system and probation office also shaped Litzau. He said he developed a casual way of helping the range of people he worked with, including people accused of burglary, drugs, car theft, murder and molestation.

"My goal was to try and empower these people," Litzau said. "I would tell them, 'It is your program, and I’ll help you get through it, but you have to do the work.'"

The Rev. Dan Davis, O.P., the new assistant pastor at the Newman Center, worked with Litzau in Albuquerque and moved with him to Columbia. He thinks Litzau’s former jobs led to his proactive attitude.

"You can’t get anybody better prepared from past experiences," Davis said.

When Davis and Litzau worked in Albuquerque, Davis was the lead pastor and Litzau was the associate pastor. Davis recommended they switch jobs once they left Albuquerque.

"When we made the decision to come out to Columbia, I wanted him to be the pastor," Davis, 66, said. "I’m at a point in my life where I can step down and start a new chapter."

As they did in Albuquerque, Davis and Litzau live together community-style in the same Old Southwest house as the previous Dominicans at Newman.

"Dan and I get along," Litzau said. "One of the foundations for a relationship in a religious community is our prayer life. We have the same approach to ministry, being low key and relaxed, and we have the same theology. We’re able to get along on different levels."

When at home, Davis and Litzau enjoy watching movies.

"He got me hooked on the science fiction genre," Davis said.

One of Litzau’s favorites is "2001: A Space Odyssey." He also likes westerns, such as "High Noon" and "The Quick and the Dead."

The Rev. Joseph Minuth, O.P., has also joined the Newman Center as the new associate pastor. He comes from the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at Purdue University and will also live with Davis and Litzau.

The Newman Center’s close proximity to MU — it is in the heart of campus at 602 Turner Ave. — gives Litzau the chance to continue to work with college students. 

"The important thing is to offer these students a place where they can come and feel safe and comfortable asking questions," he said. "Sometimes it is not even about faith. Sometimes students will come in to ask about stuff going on in their life and need someone to talk to that they trust. That’s what we do — we give them the opportunity to discover a lot of things about themselves, in their faith life and intellectual life. We ask questions and answer questions. We listen."

Allowing students to develop on their own but with a little push is the best way for them to find their way, Litzau said.

"It’s a good thing to be supportive but also really encourage people to engage," Litzau said. "It’s always about being open and, in some way, empowering the students to grow."

Litzau said he is exactly where he needs to be.

"I have a friend who is a professor at St. Louis University, and she says that a vocation is something that you can’t imagine yourself not doing," he said. "For me, that describes my life. I can’t imagine not being a priest."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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