The Rev. Mark Wagner, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Turlock, claims credit for bringing the Rev. Joseph Illo to the Stockton Diocese in 1990.
"I met Father Joe at a coffee bar in Rome. I encouraged him to join our diocese, so I'm actually responsible for St. Joseph's being what it is today," Wagner said with a chuckle.
It seems appropriate, then, that Wagner will succeed his friend Aug. 1 as pastor at St. Joseph's in Modesto when Illo leaves to become a chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California.
"I think he's the best man for the job," Illo said. "I'm very pleased that the bishop has appointed him."
No one has been selected to replace Wagner in Turlock, diocesan officials said.
Wagner said he will miss the "wonderful friendships and the cultural variety" at Sacred Heart, including parishioners who speak English, Spanish and Portuguese. "Having a Catholic school has been a joy," he added.
But he's looking forward to his new role. "I love the many things that Father Joseph has established there the perpetual adoration of the sacraments, the many spiritual groups, the Latin Mass and the many ministries," Wagner said. "These are some of the things I would have liked to have in my (Turlock) parish, so now I'm going to have them."
Of course, there will be challenges.
"There's the sheer size of the parish ministries," Wagner, 51, said. "They have 90 ministries and a large staff. It's going to be like keeping all the plates in the air."
Wagner, a priest for nearly 24 years, grew up in Stockton and graduated from Lincoln High School. He's one of only a handful of "homegrown" priests in the diocese.
He served as an altar boy and began to feel a call from God during his junior high years.
"I began to want to be a contemplative monk," he said. "Then some priests encouraged me to be a diocesan priest. I still enjoy visiting monasteries and convents for my retreats.
"I'm good at combining my personal prayer for an hour every day with my busy activities. They say if you scratch a priest, you should find a monk underneath."
In this case, you'd find a monk with an aptitude for radio work. Wagner said that while attending college in Chico, he worked as a DJ at a radio station there.
"It was kind of New Age (and) punk rock," he said. "I worked from 2 to 6 in the morning."
Was he good at the job?
"Yes," he said with a laugh. "They wanted to give me better hours."
A smooth transition
Illo, who is in Haiti this week leading a retreat for nuns from Mother Teresa's Missions of Charity, said Wagner will be good as St. Joseph's pastor, too.
"It will be the smoothest of transitions," Illo said. "He'll continue the work that's been going on for the last 10 to 15 years. He's a prudent and circumspect individual, so he will look and listen and understand before he'll make any changes.
"He has an almost intuitive sense of people. He'll be much better than I was at understanding people and responding to their needs."
The two are part of a group of seven priests that get together regularly for activities such as boating, kayaking, hiking and camping.
"He's a very fun-loving guy, very athletic and outdoorsy," Illo said of Wagner. "He's got a delightful sense of humor and is very humble. He's necessary for our days off. Without him, Thursdays wouldn't be the same."
Besides weekly outings, the priests sometimes share vacation and spiritual trips. Four of them including Wagner and Illo recently returned from Poland, where they were on a retreat with the Corpus Christi Movement for Priests, founded by the late Mother Teresa.
While there, Illo and Wagner knelt to pray at a shrine. "Jesus really spoke to me that day, assuring me that the parish was his and he would take care of it," Illo wrote in a parish newsletter.
When they arose, Wagner noticed he had a cell phone message; it was from Bishop Stephen Blaire, who asked him to become pastor at St. Joseph's. The experience served as divine confirmation for both priests.
Wagner said he shares "much of Father Joseph's vision for spirituality," such as encouraging popular devotions and having a similar theological outlook.
"We have a strong pro-life and pro-family stance," Wagner said.
Sad to see him leave
He said his staff and parishioners in Turlock "are disappointed and sad to see me go. But they support me and are happy (my new parish) is not too far away."
Asked if he plans to implement any new policies or programs at St. Joseph's, Wagner said, "I don't know yet. It sounds like I'll have my hands full."
Illo, meanwhile, said he will most of all "miss the people and the dear friendships I've been blessed with." He'll also miss the camaraderie with the other priests, although he plans to re-join them every six to eight weeks.
And, he added, "I'll miss the ordered and peaceful life of the parish. I'm very comfortable and joyful here."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at (209) 578-2012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rev. Mark Wagner's local service:
Sept. 24, 1988: Ordained as a priest in the Stockton Diocese
1989-1992: Parochial vicar at Cathedral of the Annunciation, Stockton
1992-1994: Parochial vicar at Our Lady of Fatima, Modesto
1994-1995: Parochial vicar at St. Frances of Rome, Riverbank
1995-1997: Parochial vicar at St. Jude, Ceres
1997-2002: Parochial administrator, pastor at St. Patrick's in Ripon
October 2002-present: Pastor at Sacred Heart in Turlock
Aug. 1: Will become pastor at St. Joseph's in Modesto