With longtime priest Fr. Carl Scherrer stepping away this past summer, his position has since been filled by another priest who has found a place for himself at Immaculate Conception Church in Columbia.
Fr. Steve Thoma came to the parish in June following 18 years of teaching in California, but he originally comes from Spanish Lake, Mo., a suburb in North St. Louis.
He attended Our Lady of Loretto as a child, later going to Hazelwood East High School.
It was at Our Lady of Loretto that Thoma first began to feel drawn toward the priesthood.
His time with the school’s youth group and interactions with several young priests in the area gave him a certain inspiration for preaching and parish work.
“My family was very much church-oriented. Mom and Dad were always doing things in the church, so we were always in the church,” Thoma said. “I was always around the church. And so I got to know a lot of these priests, and a lot of them were the young priests. They were good preachers, some of them were really good at singing, some of them had a lot of energy with young people, and so there was an attraction to what they were doing because they loved what they were doing.”
Thoma would go on to receive his philosophy degree at Saint Louis University before receiving his masters of divinity at Aquinas Institute of Theology.
His work as a priest then saw him bouncing around where he was needed most, first serving as a priest in St. Louis, then teaching at a high school in Chicago and returning to Our Lady of Loretto, where he also began to study for his doctorate in preaching.
He eventually ended up in California, where much of his time was spent teaching homiletics – classes dealing with preaching and giving sermons – though he was regularly called to go out and do work in area churches.
Thoma noted that a significant amount of his time as a priest has been spent teaching, though his true interests have really always lied in the work of a church pastor.
“What’s funny about my life is that I said all throughout my teen years and my early priesthood that all I wanted to do was I wanted to be a parish priest, and so I’ve found myself, the majority of my life has not been in a parish,” Thoma said. “Teaching ended up being more the norm for me rather than parish work, but my real love has always been the study of preaching, how to preach in a Catholic church.”
As he originates from the St. Louis area, Thoma said being called to Columbia has been comfortable as the Midwest is very much home for him.
He joked about the stark difference between what is considered traffic in Columbia compared to California, also discussing the joy of feeling and seeing the changes that come with fall in the Midwest compared to the near-constant temperatures and palm trees of the West Coast.
Thoma also touched on the sense of community in the area that was noticeably lacking for him – at least outside of the church – back in California, noting how everyone seems to know everyone in Columbia.
The move to Immaculate Conception, as he described it, has been less of a monumental change and more of a return to his roots.
“A lot of people say transition is difficult. I have not found this transition to be difficult, probably because the Midwest is in my bones,” Thoma said. “It’s not like I’m going to a foreign land. I’m coming home to something.”
In the few months he’s served at the parish, Thoma has been able to comfortably fill his role as Immaculate Conception pastor, though he joked that the number of meetings he attends has been a lot to handle.
Walking around the church, Thoma noted the confessional, pulpit and worship room – which also houses the church’s tabernacle – as his favorite places at Immaculate Conception due to how they represent three of the biggest ways a priest serves his parish.
Scherrer, who knew Thoma personally prior to his arrival at Immaculate Conception, has recently been present in the parish in a much-reduced capacity.
While he previously extended the offer to help as needed, Scherrer said he wanted to give Thoma “the space he needs to establish his own pattern of ministry,” adding he has since been quite pleased with Thoma’s work in the church.
“I’ve heard him preach several times, and he’s a superb preacher and homilist, and so it’s been a very smooth transition,” Scherrer said. “Since he’s been here, we’ve worked together and everything’s working out fine.”
Looking to the future, Thoma said one aspect of the parish he hopes to improve is participation on Sundays. Making Sunday mass more enticing and teaching its importance is a big goal for him.
His biggest goal now, however, is to make sure the parish he now calls home is a welcoming place for its parishioners.
“I really want the parishioners to feel home at Immaculate Conception,” Thoma said. “When I step into anything, I always look and say ‘This is not my church. This is their church; I simply get to be the shepherd of it for a while.’”