FOWLER, Mich. — Ten children grew up on the Fowler organic dairy farm owned by Brian and Agnes Koenigsknecht. As the seven boys and three girls gained skill on the farm, the hired help left and the work fell into the maturing and capable hands of the siblings.
The fourth and fifth children, twins Todd and Gary, gladly took on more responsibility. Soon they were entrusted with more significant jobs, a tangible milestone in the life of any farm kid.
The twins, now 26, have reached another milestone. Both added the prefix of Father to their names when they were ordained as Roman Catholic priests at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing on Saturday, June 13.
Dairy farms rule the countryside in the tiny Clinton County community with a population of 1224, where the newly ordained Fathers were raised. But milk isn’t the only wholesome product raised within its boundaries. Fowler has produced 22 priests, including the Koenigsknecht brothers, their father’s brother Bill and five other extended family members. The neighboring town of Westphalia, population 938, has matched the number of men entering the priesthood. And between the two towns, 80 women have devoted their lives to service as nuns.
With no television to distract the family, things such as prayers, hard work and study built a foundation that each family member cherishes. The twins graduated at the top of their class in Fowler, and the family played games for entertainment.
In 2006, the pair entered St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. In 2010, they moved to Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit for further study. Their home parish, Most Holy Trinity, hosts a weekly prayer hour devoted to religious vocations and held an annual fundraiser to help offset seminary costs for the men. Each benefitted from the generous support of their community to the tune of $10,000 each during the past eight years.
Friends supported their vocation selection long before they entered the doors of seminary. A close friend presented the brothers with a hand-made altar upon their ordination that will be used by the family to celebrate mass at the Koenigsknecht farm. They anticipate performing marriages and baptisms for hometown friends and are eager to return the blessings and support they have received from the community.
Both brothers count it a privilege to have been raised on the farm where both parents are always around; where the family gathered for meals together around the table each day; and faith, work and prayer are all connected.
"The farm puts into context how we depend on the Lord. We do our part, planting and harvesting; God does His part, sending the rain and sunshine," the Rev. Todd Koenigsknecht said. "The farm connects our prayers to a particular event, like rain, and when it rains, we know that this didn’t come from us, it comes from God."
"Growing up on the farm, we were tutored in what it means to be a good man," Todd said. They credit their parents with setting a godly example of sacrifice and service to each other, their family and dutifully stewarding the farm in their care. Both brothers say they will lean on that example often as they commit to a life of service.
Hours spent side by side in the milking parlor have produced more than farm work. The time provided opportunity for discussions on life, a possible ministry for both and a lot of fun intermingled with the work that strengthened the brotherly bond.
The Rev. Gary Koenigsknecht disliked grinding feed and shoveling sand into the free stalls before the skid steer was purchased. "My favorite job was cutting hay. I love to see the windrows fall," he said. "I would come back late at night and just feel very satisfied." He also never tired of finding new calves in the pastures or barn.
Todd’s favorite farm jobs included anything that involved driving a tractor. "I recall the first time I seeded a field to alfalfa. The knowledge that the field would be here for seven to ten years made me want to do a good job," he said. "I was so anxious for that field to germinate, knowing that I had planted it." His least favorite job was milking cows.
Both men weave the agricultural context of many Scripture passages into their homilies.
"Israel is referred to as being a vineyard," Todd said. "I love that and that they were trained to look for God’s providence."
For Gary, Jesus’ parable of leaving the 99 sheep to find the lost one is very personal.
"From a farmer’s standpoint, that is just crazy to leave the flock to find one that’s lost. But it shows us how loving God is and that he cares so much for the one. If you’ve never worked around animals, you wouldn’t understand the depth of that imagery."
Their roots are rural, and both men plan to spend their weekly day off back on the farm as often as possible, and they consider the physical work a nice break from the busy life of a priest. For now, the Rev. Gary has been assigned to Holy Family in Grand Blanc and the Rev. Todd to St. Thomas the Apostle in Ann Arbor. Both are prepared to serve wherever called, be it big city or country community.
Did farm life influence the men’s decisions to submit their lives to a higher calling? Both agree that it probably did.
"The farm is an environment where you are just more able to hear God speak," Gary said. "I look up at the sky, see all the stars and realize just how small I am."