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From the Bennington Banner, Sept. 24, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

NORTH BENNINGTON — At age 90, the Rev. Michael Demasi is still going strong. For a quarter of a century he led  St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, and on Sunday family, friends and parishioners celebrated his birthday and let him know how much he is appreciated.

Demasi, who served as pastor of St. John the Baptist from 1968 to 1993, was honored at the 11 a.m. Mass and at a reception and dinner afterward in the parish hall. He still says a weekday Mass at the church and does not let age or health problems stop him from ministering to people in the hospital and at nursing homes, gathering food for the poor or conducting funerals.

Many friends

At the beginning of Sunday's service, the current pastor, the Rev. James Doherty, welcomed those who came especially to celebrate Demasi's birthday. Two rows in front were reserved for Demasi's family, and the rest of the church pews were overflowing, with some standing in the back.

"Every time I say Mass here, I think I'm standing on this guy's shoulders," Doherty said. "I always feel that his spirit is with me when I preside here at St. John the Baptist."

Demasi stood on the altar during Mass, participating in the service, and helped distribute Communion. At the end of the service he spoke, thanking all attending. "You kind of caught me at an off time. I just got out of the hospital recently, and the doctor thought that I should carry a catheter with me. It gives me a great deal of anxiety — and it doesn't bother him one bit," he said to much laughter.

Demasi then offered a few thoughts that he called "commercials."

"If any of you here have drifted away from the church, I invite you back," he said. "Almighty God — as said in the scriptures many, many times — awaits your return."

He also praised Doherty, and urged parishioners to help him. "You have a priest that is excellent. He's a tremendous, tremendous priest, so back him up."

Demasi received an extended standing ovation after his remarks. Originally from Northfield, Demasi was born Sept. 20, 1917, graduated from high school there in 1935 and was ordained in 1943. He lives in Bennington, and though officially retired, he still ministers to and cares for people in a variety of ways. "I'm still on duty," he said after Mass.

The parish hall was overflowing for the buffet reception, with people standing in line outside the dining hall. Elizabeth Demasi, a relative by marriage, spoke of Demasi's aid to the poor. "Even though he's sick, he's helping people. He's really a very good priest."

Said parishioner Jill Levin, who helped organize the celebration: "You're looking at a saint out there."

Doherty has been assigned to St. John the Baptist for two years. As soon as he arrived, Demasi offered to help him in any way he could.

"So I asked him if he could say the Mass on my day off, so every Thursday, and sometimes even on Fridays too, he'll say daily Mass for me," Doherty said. "So he's been very helpful.

"The other thing is, for almost every parishioner that has died, he comes back and does the funeral eulogy for them and tells these wonderful stories."

Demasi also says Mass at the Vermont Veterans Home every Saturday afternoon. Local funeral homes also ask the priest to conduct funeral services for people who didn't belong to a parish. "If the family doesn't have any association with a parish, they'll go to Father Mike and ask him to do the service."

Demasi also conducts an extensive ministry at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. "He gets up every morning and goes over to the hospital and makes sure that everybody that needs to be anointed is anointed over there, and then he has his breakfast there. And then he goes back and checks in at the end of the day and makes sure no one else needs it, and then he has his supper there," Doherty said.

Demasi's ministry to the poor even includes harvesting fallen apples from local orchards, an activity he plans to continue this year.

"I'm told that on my day off on Thursday, he first stops at Price Chopper, picks up their day-old bread, loads the car with that, comes up here. And then he has some people up in East Dorset who he helps out quite a bit," Doherty said. "In addition to that, there are people out in the countryside here who he goes out and visits on a regular basis and just brings them what he can.

"And the other thing he does, you'll notice that the (birthday) cake that he has has an apple tree in it. He and his nephew every year ... go out to these apple orchards, and apples that are dropped on the ground, he picks them up and he gives those to the poor, too."

"He's unbelievable, and he won't stop," Doherty said. "He's always evangelizing. He doesn't miss an opportunity to do that."

Demasi only gives Doherty counsel and advice when he asks for it, which he does from time to time. "He's a very humble man ... and very, very easy and respectful to work with," Doherty said. "He's wonderful, and he's very, very sociable with people."