As Tom Speier’s fellow friars and loved ones gathered at St. Clement Church on July 10 for his Mass of Christian Burial, one of his nieces recalled the old adage that applies so well to the way he lived his life: “Be alive while you’re alive.”
Whether he was traveling to distant lands, such as Indonesia or the Philippines, to lead the Franciscan Spiritual Direction Program, pursuing his passion for the Order’s charism, taking on an adventure from his bucket list, engaging in sacramental ministry or spending time with family and friends, Tom did so with faith, gusto and a sense of humor that inspired those around him.
Tom’s niece, Jane Wenk, recalled a deeply meaningful example of how his faith and acceptance made a difference in her life, noting that she and her husband, Gary, were married by a Christian minister and moved away from the area more than 40 years ago. When they returned to Cincinnati, Jane began attending Mass again and considered returning to the Church. Pope Francis’ declaration of a Jubilee Year of Mercy (December 2015 to November 2016) prompted Jane to approach her uncle about having their marriage recognized and blessed by the Church.
“Gary and I talked a lot with Uncle Tom about the Church and our faith and commitment to each other as a couple,” she said. “That was one of the special things about him. You could talk to him about pretty much anything and know he wouldn’t judge. He performed a marriage convalidation ceremony in front of our family and friends and I felt like I had returned home again. I know we couldn’t have done that without Uncle Tom’s help, and we’re grateful to have had his spiritual guidance and love in our lives.”
Gary spoke of how much he appreciated Tom’s humor and broad knowledge and interest in a variety of topics. “He had an amazing sense of humor. I loved making him laugh, and he tolerated my sense of humor beautifully. He was a joy to be around,” Gary said. “The other thing I’ll never forget was his interest in everything. We had great conversations, and I’m going to miss those.”
Nephew Chris Stieritiz has been charged with organizing and digitizing the hundreds of photos and slides from Tom’s travels and family gatherings over the years. “One of my earliest memories is taking the ferry to go and pick Uncle Tom up at the airport. He would bring back a suitcase full of souvenirs for all of us,” Chris said. “He would come over all the time for family gatherings and was just such a big part of our lives. We loved it when he reserved the Franciscans’ place at Lake Lorelei for our family. We’d come out for the weekend and just relax, and he would say Mass for us on the screened-in porch. That was pretty special.”
Chris also acknowledged his uncle’s adventurous spirit. “Uncle Tom loved to experience life and would be out there plowing a field or climbing the nearest mountain,” he said. “I went hot air ballooning with him and to the go-kart track. He was always up for anything. He lived life with so much enthusiasm – the way it should be lived.”
Sherry Stieritz, Tom’s niece by marriage, believes the friar touched so many lives, including hers, because “he was so real. Getting to know a priest as a person, too, had a profound impact on me,” she said. “I realized priests and consecrated religious are striving to live their faith just like anyone else.”
“The way Tom lived his vows and preached the Gospel really strengthened my faith,” she added. “He always spoke of the Gospel as being the Good News and this was reflected in everything he did. In all his experiences, he shared his love and zeal for the Lord and St. Francis.”
That same zeal carried over into Tom’s thirst for new experiences, even as he grew older. At 86, Tom made his first parachute jump, explaining at the time that it was on his bucket list. Joining him, albeit reluctantly, was Michelle Viacava, province nurse, along with her friend, Bill Bresser. “Tom could convince you to do just about anything,” Michelle said. “I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for him. He helped me to do something I wasn’t comfortable with and helped me grow as a person.”
Tom became a spiritual father of sorts for Michelle, who lost her dad in 2010. “He was just so full of life and his love for Christ. He was my role model,” she said. “He was so smart and witty, and we had some great conversations. He was active in ministry as long as he could be, saying Mass up until the time he went into the hospital. His last baptism was Memorial Day weekend, the child of one of my nurses. That was really special. He’ll be missed so much because he gave all of us so much. I’m glad that he’s now in a place where he’s free of pain.”
Steve and Linda Wilson, parishioners at St. Monica-St. George, came to know Tom when he assisted with Masses there and served at Holy Name Parish in Mount Auburn. “His homilies were wonderful, and he was such a good-spirited soul,” Steve said. “You just could tell he was very non-judgmental and accepted people for who they are. If that’s not Franciscan, I don’t know what is.”
His brother friars also shared their memories of Tom. Frank Jasper, guardian at St. Clement Friary, first came to know Tom when he was a student at Duns Scotus College. Tom taught biology and the philosophy of science there, in addition to serving as director of formation for the friar students. “Tom was one of the best teachers I ever had. He was so well organized,” Frank said. “I never lived with him until he came to St. Clement, and he certainly made his presence known here. He was a big part of our community, and everyone loved his spiritual direction. We really miss him, and there is a hole in our community now with him gone.”
Tom Gerchak, director of the Office for Senior Friars for the province, said, “I saw Tom as inquisitive, friendly, engaged with people and life. He was very learned and studious and good at teaching and sharing what he knew with others. He was the kind of person who stayed the course and got things done and was so determined even as he started to slow down. Towards the end when I visited, he was still very much the tenacious fighter and wanted to do things for himself. I treasure the moments I was able to be there with him.”
Provincial Minister Mark Soehner, who presided at the funeral liturgy, said at the start of Mass, “What a powerful gathering we have here this morning: Tom’s nieces and nephews (it seems like dozens), the friars, of course, people that have been touched by Tom’s powerful presence, his love for life. I don’t know if I know anybody that was as adventurous as Tom. But we celebrate his adventure today, his adventure into Jesus Christ and his love for the Lord that was so powerful.”
“This is a glorious day! A day of celebration!” Fred Link said as he began the homily. “Our brother Tom is free from pain and alive with Christ. And he is fully aware of all the good things that have been and will continue to be said about him. Tom died last Tuesday morning, July 4: Independence Day for him, for sure. We, friars of St. Clement, were gathered that afternoon for a Fourth of July party, and Guardian Frank Jasper got our attention and invited us all to raise our glasses and shout a toast in the hour of our brother now safely at home in the arms of his Lord.”
“Might Tom have had you in mind when he chose the Offertory hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes?” Fred asked the congregation. “A love song from Jesus, a love song from Tom: ‘All I ask of you is to forever remember me as loving you.’”
He continued, “We heard from the Book of Revelation: ‘I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne.’ In fulfillment of that promise, I can just picture Tom sitting on the throne with Jesus. He’ll be comfortable, pain-free, for sure. Tom is fully healed.”
“Tom believed in God’s word,” Fred emphasized. “In fact, his whole life was devoted to preaching it. From the very beginning in Detroit at the Sarah Fisher Home to children who were waiting for adoption, through laboring at Duns Scotus to sometimes resistant clerics, through going worldwide with his amazing Franciscan Spiritual Direction Program to his continued preaching in parishes, among them Corpus Christi, St. Monica-St. George, Holy Name, and even as recently as a month ago, to retired friars at St. John the Baptist Friary.”
“His homilies were always messages of hope, just like the messages he chose for this Mass of Christian Burial, just like his life,” added Fred. “So, in effect, he’s still proclaiming and explaining the Good News.”
As the Mass ended, those who knew and loved Tom processed out of the church to a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Dozens of voices joined in singing the hope-filled words, continuing to celebrate the friar whose enthusiastic love for the Lord and example of living life to the fullest touched so many.