Father Michael Hebda, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Sacramento, retires after 25 years of ministry in diocese

“I’ve been very happy in my ministry,” says Father Michael Hebda, 73, who retired Dec. 31, 2021 after 25 years serving a variety of parishes in the Diocese of Sacramento. “One word to describe me is contented. I am contented with being a priest, even with the most difficult kinds of things. It’s good to be even-keeled in every parish you serve and you will get along well.”

While preparing to conclude his most recent assignment as pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Sacramento since January 2016, Father Hebda reflected on the joys and challenges of being a “second career” priest, having studied for the priesthood after a 20-year career as a high school teacher.

A native of the northwest side of Chicago, Ill., he grew up with his twin brother in a primarily Polish neighborhood, raised by his father, grandmother and eight aunts. “The holidays were in Polish and I took three years of Polish in elementary school,” he notes. “I had a wonderful education at St. Mary School (CHECK) from the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and the Resurrection Fathers staffed our parish.”

He graduated from Archbishop Joseph Weber High School in Chicago in 1966 and entered St. Joseph Novitiate of the Congregation of the Resurrection in Woodstock, Ill., dedicated to formation of future Resurrectionist priests and brothers. After a year, however, he discerned he would study for his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and obtain his teaching credential at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. He lived at the nearby Newman Catholic Center and graduated in December 1970.

After teaching for eight years at Father Francis Gordon Technical High School in Chicago (named after a Resurrectionist priest who was active in Chicago’s Polish community and died in 1928), he moved to Sacramento and taught art at Christian Brothers High School for the next 13 years. Eventually he taught not only visual arts but also music and drama.

“I loved my years at Christian Brothers,” he recalls. “But I’d always wanted to be a priest and had never pursued it. So I decided I wanted to try and I applied to be a seminarian with the diocese and was accepted by Bishop (Francis A.) Quinn.”

He began studies for the priesthood in September 1992 at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., and graduated in December 1996. Since 1973, Sacred Heart had educated second-career candidates for the priesthood sponsored by dioceses throughout the country. Bishop William K. Weigand ordained Father Hebda to the priesthood on Dec. 20, 1996 in Sacred Heart Church in Sacramento.

What was his experience of becoming a priest at an older age than most? “Talking to my classmates, we all had ‘second career syndrome’,” Father Hebda reflects. “We felt like we had to work twice as hard to prove ourselves. I don’t think that expectation came from our bishops, but we felt that way within ourselves. In our diocese I have been fortunate to serve in a variety of parishes and places and had a rich ministry in each.”

He served for one year as parochial vicar of St. John the Baptist Parish in Chico, “where I learned all about almonds and agriculture and I loved it,” he notes. He became pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Red Bluff in April 1998, where he served until September 2004. He recalls his first two weeks at Sacred Heart, when he presided at seven funerals. “I was so proud,” he says.

During his years at Sacred Heart, parishioners raised money to put a new slate roof on the exterior and restored the interior of the historic church at 515 Main St., known for its twin spires and bell chimes. The Romanesque edifice with matching towers was designed in 1906 by noted San Francisco architect W.H. Weeks. Father Hebda oversaw the complete artistic restoration of the church to its original condition.

“I loved Red Bluff because of St. Elizabeth Catholic Hospital, (the former) Mercy High School, Sacred Heart School and Northern Valley Catholic Service,” he says. “We also had four area nursing homes we visited – one each week. It was a very fulfilling ministry and the people really took me in. I also served many farmworker families who spoke Spanish. I found it to be a beautiful place.”

He served as pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Redding and Our Lady, Queen of Peace Mission in Shingletown (and dean of the Shasta Deanery) from September 2004 to June 2009. “We put a roof on Our Lady of Mercy Church also,” Father Hebda laughs. “I got to know the Filipino Catholic community there well, because they were very involved as doctors and nurses at the hospitals. I also connected with many business people running their own businesses.”

From July 2009 to June 2011, Father Hebda served Bishop Jaime Soto and the diocese as Vicar for Clergy and Personnel Director for Priests, while in residence at St. Anthony Parish in Sacramento.

As pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Winters (and St. Martin Mission in Esparto) from July 2011 to January 2015, he collaborated with parishioners on the planning and construction of a new Spanish Colonial style church. Parishioners created a mosaic mural in the entrance of St. Anthony of Padua holding the baby Jesus, standing amid the local landscape: orchards and vineyards on either side, Berryessa Gap in the background, with Putah Creek flowing down from the hills into the valley.

Father Hebda adds that the baptismal font was made by a crafts person in Winters, the dedication candlesticks were made by the blacksmith teacher at Winters High School, the Mariani family paid for all of the pews, and he designed the church altar modeled after the one in Father Junipero Serra’s St. Anthony of Padua Mission in Monterey County.

As pastor of Holy Spirit, he’s pleased that during his tenure the parish has established a successful St. Vincent de Paul parish conference; a Helping Hearts ministry with volunteers who are chefs or drivers, providing home-cooked meals to parishioners who are unable, for any reason, to prepare their own; active Bible study groups; and a new STEM building for Holy Spirit School, dedicated by Bishop Soto last September.

He will live at the Priests’ Retirement Village in Citrus Heights and as time allows assist pastors with celebrating Masses at parishes where he is needed. He also plans to travel and perhaps take classes locally.

“The priesthood has changed greatly in the past 25 years,” he concludes. “When you serve parishioners you come across a variety of situations they’ve faced in their lives. There’s situations where you have to be flexible with people, and kind and gentle. That’s how we get more people into our parish communities too. Young families, especially, are looking for community. We have to make changes to meet people’s needs.”


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