“Life has changed quite a bit,” said Father Tony Birdsall about adjusting to his time alone at home during the pandemic. “I’m a people person.”
But the retired priest is also a chicken person. And the daily walks across the drive on his small Door County Farm to tend his flock have kept him going.
“It gets me out in the fresh air,” said Father Birdsall. “There’s a tendency when you’re 85 to sit in your chair and stay there. I still enjoy feeding and seeing the birds grow and so forth.” All Father Birdsall’s birds live in the barn he’s christened “The Chicken Chapel.”
“A chapel is a place to honor and pray to God,“ said the Father. “And I go over there and enjoy myself and here and there maybe say a little prayer also.”
His Australorps and Black Wyandottes and Light Sussexes have garnered him countless ribbons over the decades. But not this year.
“That was a big disappointment, of course, the cancelling of the local county fair,” he admitted.
Yet, Father Birdsall shrugs off what might have seemed an even larger, more personal disappointment.
“I celebrated my sixtieth anniversary as a priest this past June 11th,” Father Birdsall said. The occasion under normal circumstances would be observed by friends, former parishioners and the many relatives the Door County native still has in the area. But it was a more solemn, quiet, at-home affair like all his worship these last few months.
“I have a private mass just by myself,” the Father explained. “A mass, of course, in our tradition is the changing of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. It's intended for the people. But, also, it is something that is really meaningful for me.”
The kindness shown by his neighbors and church members of the Sturgeon Bay parish he led for many years has also meant a lot. It’s not just live chickens in the barn for the priest most call just Father Tony. His home is full of chicken-related trinkets, tchotchkes, and bric-a-brac.
“I did not purchase a single thing,” he said with a laugh. “What can they get Father Tony? Well, give him something that reminds him of chickens and he’s always a happy man.”
Now affection for the Father shows up at the doorstep with many, many meals left for him.
“They have not forgotten,” he reported. “They are still in touch.”
But Father Birdsall is probably most in touch these days with the one that has always been most important to him.
“It's a wonderful time, I think, for a retired priest to maybe do a little reflecting on his own life. And his own life with the Lord. I've got more time to do that,” he said.
“It's a wake-up call to some extent,” Father Birdsall added. “Maybe we are not in control of everything. We need to trust and have a great faith in the Lord once again. And that's being tested. Hopefully we can come out better people after this is all over.”