By David Sedeño
The Texas Catholic
They came out by the hundreds in sedans and SUVs, convertibles and classic cars, even bicycles. In their hands, they carried posters and card-size envelopes. In their arms they carried bunnies, and their little dogs, too.
What was planned to be a few minutes with a few dozen cars driving along Colgate Avenue with signs saying “Happy Birthday” and “thank you” for Msgr. Donald Zimmerman, the longtime pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, turned out to be nearly an hour and more than 300 vehicles on the afternoon of April 26.
Msgr. Zimmerman, 73, a priest of the diocese for 47 years and pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church, announced earlier this month that he would retire as of July 1. Parish families planned the tribute around the church and school community to honor him for his years of service and to celebrate his birthday earlier this month.
“It’s time to step down,” Msgr. Zimmerman said in an interview as the long line of cars began queuing up at the intersection of Preston Road and Colgate. “My body’s had enough and it’s been a wonderful 26 years. I love these people dearly. I’ll miss them terribly, but it’s time to let someone else take over.”
Msgr. Zimmerman was ordained in 1973 and has served at several parishes in the diocese, including for 10 years at St. Monica Catholic Church before being assigned to Christ the King in 1994.
“I have been edified by the faith of these folks,” Msgr. Zimmerman said of his parishioners. “We are joined together by a common faith in the gospel, by a common conviction of where we are going in God’s plans and by common values as to what’s important in life and how we should order our lives accordingly.”
Among the lessons that many Christ the King parishioners said they have taken from their pastor is how to love others beyond their parish boundaries by helping other parishes and Catholic schools in economically disadvantaged areas.
The Carlton family was among those who decked out their family cars — in their case their double-cab pickup truck—to say thank you and good-bye.
“We really wanted to celebrate for him because it is so hard for us because being Catholic and not being around our community and not being able to get to Mass and not seeing monsignor has been such a struggle for all of us,” Brandy Carlton said of her husband Kurt and their sons, Trigger, Thatcher and Truxton.
“We just wanted to show our appreciation and how much we love him, love our church and love our community,” she said. “It’s been such an amazing experience to see so many cars. We are so blessed and excited and we can’t thank him enough for everything.”
Among those watching the cars were several priests who have known Msgr. Zimmerman for many years and others who have been in-residence at Christ the King.
“I’m very grateful for the hundreds of cars and parishioners saying Happy Birthday and Happy Retirement,” Auxiliary Bishop Greg Kelly said as car upon car moved slowly along Colgate Avenue as Msgr. Zimmerman waved and said “thank you” and “I’m going to miss you” from his spot on the sidewalk in front of the school.
“It’s been a challenge for most of the priests of the diocese who have not had a chance to see their own parishioners in person for about five to six weeks,” Bishop Kelly said. “So much of our ministry is directly person-to-person or to a live congregation and to have to say Mass in an empty church or church with five other people or preach to people who are watching online is such a different and less full experience of the Holy Eucharist.”
Father Sean Martin, priest of the diocese, is a priest in-residence at Christ the King when he is not at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri. He has known Msgr. Zimmerman for more than 20 years.
“He is a terrific pastor and I am impressed with his priorities,” Father Martin said. “He likes good liturgy, good teaching, good preaching and I think all of those have ended up being vectors of evangelization for the diocese at large but for Christ the King in particular. I think it has been a real delight for him to see this kind of support, seeing people that he has known for 26 years or better.”
Msgr. Zimmerman is only the fourth pastor of Christ the King since its founding in 1941 and served his first three years, from 1973 to 1976, as an assistant pastor at the parish.
“It’s been a joy and I think what these last several weeks during this crisis has shown us is how central the celebration of the Eucharist is to fostering and maintaining our community,” he said. “When we don’t have it, it really hurts and I know these people like each other and love each other and that’s the community, but it is the celebration of the Eucharist that joins us together in the living body of Christ and I think these last weeks have shown us how much it means to us and how much we miss it and how we look forward to the day when we can start celebrating the Eucharist, once again.”