Father Luke Austin enjoys serving in a rural diocese
When Father Luke Austin, pastor of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Middlebury, was growing up in Rutland in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the second largest city in Vermont, following Burlington.
But it was still rural to him, and while living in Washington, D.C., later in life, he realized that there was something about the Green Mountain State’s rural nature that drew him.
And it drew him back home.
The seed of Father Austin’s journey to the priesthood might be traced back to his childhood in Rutland where he attended Christ the King School. He came from a devout Catholic family — his uncle was a priest and his grandmother had strong Catholic roots in Poland — and like other boys, he sometimes pretended to be a priest and celebrate Mass in the family dining room or at kindergarten. His mother and his grandmother’s housekeeper even sewed him is own mini “vestments” in different liturgical colors.
But as he grew up and attended Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland, he never really thought seriously about the priesthood; he was more interested in becoming a doctor, like his father. While in high school his interest shifted from science to history — though he also enjoyed religion classes — and he entered Cornell University in 1994 considering a major in government, history, or English.
He graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in government and worked for a year as a legislative correspondent for the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., before entering law school. He received his law degree from George Washington University Law School in 2002.
Just before he was to begin State Department training to enter foreign service, the young man suffered a stroke in Washington, so he never made it to the training. After recovering from the stroke, he served as a contract attorney at the U.S. Department of the Interior from 2003-2004 and began to date a former girlfriend from law school.
But he had been thinking of the priesthood since his third year in law school when news broke of the clergy abuse scandal in Boston. “I thought of the good priests and nuns getting a bad rap because of the actions of a few,” he recalled.
After law school he met with the vocations director for the Archdiocese of Washington, and the discernment process became more formal. He joined the Cathedral of St. Matthew Parish, was a sponsor in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program and sought assistance from a spiritual director.
While considering the priesthood for the archdiocese, he decided to “check in” with his home Diocese of Burlington, first speaking with Father Chuck Durham, a priest he knew from his days as a camper at Camp Holy Cross in Colchester, who put him in touch with the vocations director, Msgr. Michael DeForge.
Msgr. DeForge arranged for him to shadow several priests including himself, Msgr. Richard Lavalley, Father Francis Holland and Msgr. Bernie Bourgeois. “I really felt the sense of community and the need [for priests] in Vermont,” Father Austin recalled. “I felt the call to come back to Vermont and apply for the seminary here.”
He was admitted to the seminary and earned degrees from Mount St. Mary Seminary and the Pontifical Gregorian University and was ordained by Burlington Bishop Salvatore Matano in 2010.
Father Austin’s priestly assignments have been as temporary parochial vicar at Christ Our Savior Parish in Manchester Center, parochial vicar at Corpus Christi Parish based in St. Johnsbury, pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary/St. Louis Parish based in Swanton and since 2017 as pastor in Middlebury along with St. Bernadette Church in Bridport and St. Genevieve Church in Shoreham.
Part of his ministry entails supporting the Catholic Migrant Ministry of Addison County, a “growing, exciting ministry,” he said. “My formation in Rome was in the heart of the universal Church, and for me, this is a ministry to people in a difficult economic situation doing incredibly hard work on farms.”
The Catholic migrant workers — who speak Spanish — are part of the same faith community as other Catholics, but their work schedules and transportation difficulties, and the language barrier “prevent fuller participation” in parish life and Masses. So the ministry is essential.
Father Austin wants his churches to be churches that are building “a culture of invitation,” and support of the migrant ministry is one way to do that.
In addition to his parish responsibilities, Father Austin has been the judicial vicar for the Marriage Tribunal of the Diocese of Burlington since 2017, concentrating on annulments. He deals with about 40 cases a year.
“Maybe my interest in government had a contribution to how I would study and understand Canon Law,” he said.
Father Austin served on the school board at Good Shepherd Catholic School in St. Johnsbury and on the school board at Mount St. Joseph Academy.
He also serves as the newly appointed delegate for clergy, as liaison to the bishop.
The youngest of the five children of Dr. David and Pauline Austin, Father Austin prefers being in a rural area though he does like to visit cities. He is “thinking about getting back into tennis” and enjoys skiing and reading (spiritual, theological, and American rural culture titles).
Recently he reread the letters of Blessed Stanley Rother, a priest from a rural Oklahoma diocese who “really loved his people and integrated into the culture he was living in in Guatemala and was willing to give up his life for his people despite death threats.”
Numerous priests have influenced Father Austin’s vocation including his parish priests at Christ The King Church in Rutland, the Cathedral of St. Matthew, and the seminaries he attended.
“There are always surprises in the priesthood,” Father Austin said, noting that the Church has changed considerably since he was a boy playing priest. “It’s always changing. … but in my own prayer life I try to see where the Spirit is leading.”
—Originally published in the Winter 2023 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.