The vision of father Charlie

Helping the students of the Newman Center inspires an optimistic outlook
Sunday, February 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:25 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

It’s 5:30 on a Thursday evening, and as usual, a group of 15 to 20 students is gathered in the Aquinas Room of the Newman Center for head pastor Charlie Pardee’s weekly Scripture study. Sunday’s Bible passages are written on the chalkboard, and a tattered and frayed scroll-like historical timeline — one of Pardee’s trademarks — hangs from the ceiling, nearly reaching the floor.

Pardee takes a seat at the head of the room, but don’t expect him to stay put for long. It’s not uncommon for him to spring from his chair numerous times to point out locations on the map hanging on the wall or dates on his timeline, providing context to the passages. When it comes to Scripture and getting college students to think critically about its meaning and historical context, Pardee’s energy is boundless.

It’s an energy to which the students respond. He asks about the historical significance of the first reading, and two or three students throw out educated guesses. Pardee guides them to the correct answer. He asks a question about the gospel reading and, knowing certain students’ tendency to rely on footnotes rather than their own knowledge, quickly adds in a tone both playful and serious: “And don’t cheat! No turning the page – I know how you all operate.” Everyone laughs.

His sly sense of humor is a trait those in his Scripture study group have come to love and expect from Pardee (or, as he’s most commonly known, “Father Charlie”), but one that’s often obscured at first by the more serious, business-minded facet of his personality. Pardee, 49, whose lean frame is nearly always dressed in slacks and a neatly pressed button-down oxford shirt, describes himself as highly organized and routine-oriented.

Then there’s the squirt gun, proof that Pardee isn’t exactly all business, all the time.

“He keeps a loaded squirt gun in his office, just in case he needs to defend himself against the college students,” says Ricky Willmann, Newman’s Life Teen director.

Pardee’s office is beside that of Christy Hicks, the campus minister. “The spillover is in here just about every day; students can walk right in,” Pardee says. His involvement with students and the Newman Center’s dedication to campus ministry are both aspects of Pardee’s job that he says are extremely important to him.

“He really makes an effort to know the students, and to make a little community with the students within the greater community,” says MU student Elizabeth Isele.

The same qualities that lead some to perceive Pardee as such a serious guy are the very qualities that many say have contributed to his leadership success at Newman.

“His personality is misleading in that way, because many people see him as very business-oriented and miss his sense of humor,” says Willmann.

Described by his co-workers as direct, organized and efficient, Pardee has a reputation for getting things done.

“He’s certainly not fuzzy-headed,” says Father Mark Smith, associate pastor at Newman. “He cuts through the baloney really quickly, and he cuts down to the heart of the matter.” It’s an approach that some people find difficult to deal with, according to Smith, but one that he believes has been beneficial.

The Newman Center is the fifth parish Pardee has served in his pastoral career, and the second in which he’s had a campus ministry. He served as an associate pastor and campus minister at the University of Missouri-Rolla from 1986 to 1990. His entire priesthood has been spent serving the Jefferson City diocese.

Pardee took the scenic route on his journey toward priesthood. He remembers thinking about it at various times growing up, but he didn’t enter the seminary until he was 25. In the meantime, he attended MU and earned a degree in political science, going on to earn a master’s degree in the same subject from the University of Chicago.

After graduation, he worked for a time in Houston, Texas, as a management trainee for an electrical distributor, but said that things just weren’t “clicking” and that it was the right point in his life to give priesthood a try. He entered the seminary at Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, in 1980 and earned master’s degrees in moral theology and divinity.

Pardee says his experiences in public education have benefited his ability to relate to young people, and more specifically, MU students.

“I trooped through the same buildings and took many of the same classes as the students here now,” he says. His familiarity with MU aided in the transition from serving a family parish at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Boonville to Newman, which serves more than 900 families in addition to its campus ministry.

Upon coming to Newman in July 1998, Pardee had the challenge of replacing a well-liked pastor who had served the Newman community for 21 years. Also, the parish was $2.1 million in debt following a building renovation and expansion project. The debt was paid off last year, thanks at least in part, according to Smith and others, to Pardee’s keen sense for business and financial matters. But for Pardee, the goal of making campus ministry a main focus at Newman was always near the forefront.

“He has a great devotion to the students, and I remember him saying at one point in a discussion with somebody, ‘Why can’t people here see the college students as the poor?’” Smith says. “We’re always called to minister to the poor, and college students don’t have a place, they tend to feel marginalized from their faith and from the structures of the church. He wanted people to see college students – in a broad sense – as poor, and he didn’t mean economically.

“I think he’s expanded the ministry to students here, and I think he’s pushed the parish in the direction of seeing the campus as their primary focus.”

Emily Wenzlick, an MU student, appreciates Pardee’s teaching style.

“Father Charlie is the perfect person to lead our Newman community,” she says. “He presents the teachings of the Catholic Church in a way that is uncompromising, but at the same time his own faith and love for the church helps him to convey the beauty and truth of the Scripture in an amazing way. He has a true love and appreciation for the lives and struggles of students and families.”

Pardee says his own earliest inspiration and religious direction came from his family. Born in St. Louis and raised in the rural south-central Missouri town of Rosati, Pardee says that his parents instilled in him a strong faith and that church was a location for frequent family and social activities.

“I grew up in a small town. There was a winery, a store and the church. There was always a lot of family around, and the church was a big part of our lives,” he says.

Pardee says that in many ways, the very group he feels called to serve – students – have had a profound impact on his own faith.

“I’ve learned to have a real hopefulness and a real confidence because I just see in young people such great faith, great charity, great energy, great love – all of those things,” he says. “So I’ve learned to be totally optimistic and totally hopeful that things are – as I believe and as the Scripture says – good. Things are good.”

That sense of optimism and enthusiasm extends to other aspects of Pardee’s life. An avid exerciser, he enjoys biking, jogging and spending time outdoors.

“I like to keep active,” he says. “It comes from growing up on a farm and helping my parents harvest grapes for the family winery.”

He still spends most of his days off tending the farm, harvesting the grapes himself. Other hobbies and interests include traveling, gardening and studying the architecture of Roman cathedrals and churches. But unless you happen to see him roaming around Columbia on his bicycle or have attended his Scripture study and seen his home videos of Rome in the midst of Lenten celebration, the extent and diversity of Pardee’s interests and experiences, like much of his personality, are not immediately revealed.

“He’s intriguing, for he’s very much an introvert,” Hick says. “I believe that there is a lot about him that most people do not know.”

Pardee may be introverted, but he’s also a very gracious and engaging host. It’s now a Saturday night in early December, and students are pouring into the rectory that he and Smith call home, potluck dishes in hand, for Newman’s annual Holiday Fun party. Everyone takes their shoes off at the door and heads to the basement, where a feast has been laid out and rows of tables set up. The mood is light with laughter and chitchat, and the food is delicious. After the meal, numerous games and activities await them upstairs.

He had expressed some anxiety about the evening a few days prior, wondering if everything would be ready in time and when they’d get around to setting up the tables, but now that students have arrived and begun devouring the food and visiting with one another, almost like family – a scene interpreted perhaps as testament to the ongoing success and growth of Newman’s campus ministry – it seems obvious that he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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