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Le Mars Citizen of the Year

Monday, January 28, 2013

(Sentinel photo by Magdalene Landegent) The Rev. Kevin Richter, priest at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Le Mars and president of Gehlen Catholic Schools, accepts the Le Mars Citizen of the Year award during the Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner Saturday. Richter was honored for his role in the $10.5 million church-building project and the merger of Spalding and Gehlen Catholic High Schools. Wednesday's edition of the Daily Sentinel will feature the Business of the Year, ICON Ag and Turf, of Le Mars.
When the Rev. Kevin Richter met up with his mother at their house on Lost Island Lake, she would ask him, "What are you up to in Le Mars?"

"You know what he'd say?" she said, shaking her finger at her grinning son. "Nothing."

Turns out Richter's "nothing" was a whole lot of something.

The priest of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Le Mars and the president of Gehlen Catholic Schools was honored during the annual Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce dinner Saturday as Le Mars' Citizen of the Year.

Despite his succinct reports to his mother, who was in Le Mars Saturday to surprise her son during the award presentation, Richter has had a rather busy year in Le Mars.

In October, his parish moved into a large new church building at the site of the former 127-year-old church, following a massive $10.5 million fundraising effort.

And earlier this month, Gehlen announced that Spalding Catholic School, in Granville, would be merging with Gehlen's high school this fall, the result of a year's worth of talks.

Richter was deeply involved in both these decisions and transitions.

"The leadership displayed by [Richter] ensured that both projects prevailed, literally changing the landscape in this community," said Chamber president Sandy Norby, announcing the Citizen of the Year award Saturday.

"Throughout both of these sizable undertakings, he handled the situations delicately as they involved a number of people, a significant financial impact and strong emotions tied to lengthy traditions," Norby said.

Richter was greeted with a standing ovation as he received the honor Saturday.

He quickly turned it around to thank the community, which he as been a part of for 8 1/2 years, for all its support.

Richter later said this has been his longest parish assignment in any community. While many prior Citizens of the Year have been long-time Le Mars residents, Richter said after nearly nine years he feels very connected to the people of Le Mars.

"One of the nice things about being a priest is you are immediately invited into the lives of families because you're there at all the critical moments," Richter said. "To me that's been the great thing here is that people have been so welcoming and I've felt very much a part of the community."

That sense of connectedness encouraged him during the process of building a new St. Joseph's church.

"One of the great things as we walk through this whole building process has been just how many people within our own parish, but also in the larger the community that supported us and encouraged us, prayed for us and walked with us as we came to its culmination," Richter told the crowd Saturday. "If you haven't seen it yet, please come be our guest. It's exceeded all of our expectations. Thank you to so many people who have been a part of that."

Richter worked with the parish to ensure that echoes of the former church were threaded throughout the new church, honoring the desire to remember the long tradition St. Joseph's has had in the community, Norby said in her award presentation.

The steeple of the new church building is a near twin to its predecessor, which marked the Le Mars skyline for many decades.

The original St. Joseph's church was built by some of the community's earliest settlers.

"Because the new church brings the best of the former building and enhances it, I think very much this will be a landmark for Le Mars and also the region," Richter said.

Just as the church construction project was starting to wind down, talks of the Spalding and Gehlen merger were building up.

Richter, who grew up in Sheldon, has a special connection in the merger because he graduated from Spalding's high school.

"It's a bittersweet experience for me as I watch my alma mater close in one sense, but there's also great excitement as we're able to partner with them and continue to provide Catholic education for those students," he said.

Richter said a goal he shared with the leaders in the merger talks was to keep a positive tone.

"We both wanted to approach this not so much as a negative, but to really be proactive for both schools and strengthen them for the long-term future," he said.

It seems that tone prevailed. When it came time for the vote, both boards agreed unanimously to move forward with the merger.

Throughout the transitions at the church and the school, Richter served as a consensus builder and a peacemaker, Norby said during the award presentation Saturday.

Richter saw "the reality of the need to move forward while holding onto traditions," she said.

The priest said he aimed to help people keep their focus on what will be gained instead of what is being lost.

"Yes we're losing something here, but let's focus on the good things that are going to come out of this," Richter explained.

"Like with the church building, to take the best of what we already have and to enhance that in a new setting; it's the same thing we're trying to do with the schools -- to take the best of what we've had and to enhance that with the addition of the families and students from Spalding," he added. "To me the focus is always trying to celebrate the positives."

With the new church fully in use and plans in the works for Spalding students to begin classes at Gehlen in the fall, the pace may just start to slow down a bit for Le Mars' Citizen of the Year.

After 12 very busy months, does Richter plan to find some time to relax?

"Yes," he said, laughing.

There may be some wilderness hiking trips ahead, which Richter says he finds peaceful and restorative.

"I like to be out in nature and away from the hubbub," he said.

Hubbub? Turns out Richter has not being doing "nothing" after all.

"I'm pretty proud," his mother said, giving him a grin.

Editor's note: A news feature on the Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year, ICON Ag & Turf, will be published in Wednesday's edition of the Le Mars Daily Sentinel.

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Congratulations Fr. Richter. A well deserved award!

-- Posted by working_class_dog on Mon, Jan 28, 2013, at 12:47 PM

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