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"I think it was chosen for me," said the Rev. Mike Hildenbrand. "I see the presence of the Holy Spirit." After more than 30 years as the pastor and guidance counselor for Providence High School, Hildebrand now leads St. Mary of the Knobs since 2010. 

FLOYDS KNOBS — Here they come, Rev. Mike Hilderbrand's final Christmas and Easter as pastor.

Like this time last year.

To slap an asterisk on Hilderbrand's upcoming retirement seems as understandable as it is unfortunate. After all, his Roman Catholic church lacks clergy like Amazon lacks sorters.

So the dilemma remains. Replacing priests gets tricky. By next summer, the almost 71-year-old Hilderbrand again will be ready to go. Looking ahead, though, he laughed and told me, 'If it's meant for me, that's great.

"If not . . . ."

Hilderbrand pastors St. Mary of the Knobs, the large and lively parish to which he was sent in 2010. He brought to it relentless optimism and energy, wisdom as well as approachability and drive. He steered enviable growth.

Asked to serve still more, Hilderbrand serves still more. He seems more than willing to keep leading St. Mary of the Knobs to still-better days. He clings to hope amid the shame battering Catholicism. "I don't see it collapsing, I see it ballooning," Hilderbrand said. "We won't recognize the Catholic church in 20 years."

If he had had his druthers, Hilderbrand well might have stayed at Providence High — his first assignment — which he helped lead for 32 years. Once again, however, his faith's hierarchy had other ideas. Hilderbrand moved on a decade ago from the school at which he left an enduring, unique mark.

Primarily a guidance counselor and chaplain, Hilderbrand also directed Providence traffic often while wearing one goofy hat or another. He put a smiling face to the word omnipresence. "He's definitely part of the Providence fabric," Kathryn Jacobi, a longtime teacher there, said.

Earlier this year, the church urged Hilderbrand again to trust in its top-down path for him. Its plea? It just was not the right time to appoint the right successor. "'I'll stay if you ask me,'" Hilderbrand said he said.

"Within a week, I was asked."

Hilderbrand surely told his bosses what he told me: As much as he loves his parish, St. Mary of the Knobs needs someone young with loads of energy and fresh ideas. Nonetheless, Hilderbrand re-upped while also settling into the condo in New Albany he bought for retirement. Ever the company man, Hilderbrand continues to represent God both with obedience and flair.

Self-pity? Bitterness? They don't fit here. "I don't take it personally," he said.

Rev. Sonny Day, former dean of the New Albany Deanery, said of his longtime friend's willingness to wait, "It shows his dedication to the people of the parish."

Hilderbrand does not X-out days on a calendar like a prisoner. He cannot help but look forward, though, to the kick of kicking back. "When I leave the hill, I'll be leaving it all behind," he said. "That's a nice thing."

Mike Hilderbrand grew up in New Jersey. The family moved to Indianapolis when his father, who helped develop color TV for RCA, was transferred.

A graduate of the first class of Bishop Chatard High School, Mike Hilderbrand was smitten by the commitment of the many priests and nuns who had taught him. "I don't know if I fell into it or I chose it," Hilderbrand said of his vocation.

He recalls no Plan B. "I think it was chosen for me," he went on. "I think our whole life is chosen for everyone. I see the presence of the Holy Spirit."

Ordained in 1976, Hilderbrand welcomed being dispatched to Providence, at which he stayed years and years beyond the norm. That was him there daily early and late, him helping keep the calm between classes, him showing priestly compassion whenever need be. "He was very affable, very much a student advocate," Jacobi said. "He fulfilled that very well."

On top of that, Hilderbrand filled in routinely at area parishes when their pastors were out.

Hilderbrand's faith, or at least his outlook, certainly has been tested. He battled past both breast cancer and severe bike-wreck injuries. The hard way, he earned useful perspective. "Here I am, still alive," he said. "It gave me a different attitude as a priest and as a person. I hope I'm more compassionate than I've ever been."

A world traveler, a yoga devotee, Hilderbrand lacks not for a post-career agenda. It will begin, of course, whenever it begins. "Why am I here?" he asked. "Why was I given another year?

"I'm going to find that out as the year goes on."

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