As a young seminarian, the Rev. Frank Uter visited Denham Springs to check on property for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
“I thought to myself, who would ever build a church out here in the middle of nowhere?” recalled Uter.
At that site now stands Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and it's where Uter has served as pastor for the past decade.
It's also where on May 31, the church, now 3,300 families strong, celebrated Uter's 50th anniversary of joining the priesthood.
“Father Uter is truly the kind of priest we all strive to be,” Bishop Michael Duca, of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, told those who packed the church's pews for a special Mass. “He sees God’s will in everything and brings the powerful presence of God with him … he loves his people and he lets his people love him.”
At that, the congregation erupted into a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Uter said a few days later. “I had no idea they were going to do all this.
“It’s really been a good journey, especially when you think of the people I’ve met. You walk with them, and they walk with you. I love that.”
Uter began his priesthood at 24. Fresh from the seminary, he received a letter from then-Bishop Robert Tracy telling him he was assigned to be an associate pastor at St. Isidore the Farmer Catholic Church in Baker. Within a few weeks, he was called to teach religion at Redemptorist High School in north Baton Rouge. What was supposed to be a couple of weeks turned into a couple of years.
“I was sent to minister them, but they really ministered to me,” Uter said. “My first four years there were wonderful, and I’d still be there if not for another letter.”
This one sent him to St. Thomas More. Three years later in 1976, he got a phone call that sent him to St. Mary of False River in New Roads.
It was there that Uter began the tradition of sending handwritten Christmas cards to his parishioners, a tradition that continues today with him sending cards to 4,100 families at Immaculate Conception Church and its mission church, Sacred Heart in Livingston.
“I brought with me (to New Roads) all I was … rooted in those first two assignments,” said Uter. “I had learned so much.
“There I found a pastor’s dream,” he said, commenting on the “deep-rooted community," which celebrated its 250th anniversary under his pastorship.
He also found friendships.
“There were nights when I’d come home and think to myself, ‘Who am I going to call up and invite myself to supper with tonight?’” he said with a smile.
Uter was serving on the diocese personnel board when his friend and fellow board member the Rev. Donald Blanchard asked him about becoming pastor at St. Joseph Cathedral.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” recalled Uter. “And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s what we told Bishop (Stanley) Ott.’ I was 40 years old. And I prayed, ‘Lord, for 40 years I’ve been on a journey. What do you want me to do?’ By the time I got home, I had my answer.”
At the cathedral, Uter found himself again at the helm of a church celebrating a significant milestone — its centennial. He also oversaw a collaborative effort by downtown Baton Rouge churches to care for the poor and homeless. “It was a beautiful coming together,” he said.
His next call came from then-Bishop Alfred Hughes, who reminded Uter he’d been at the cathedral for 13 years. Traditionally, priests are moved to another parish after 12 years.
“He said, ‘I have to move you,’ and I told him that’s OK, I never asked to go there,” said Uter.
This time he approached the personnel board and requested a posting.
“The Marists (Society of St. Mary) were leaving … I had an excitement in my heart for the River Road churches (St. Michael’s in Convent, St. Joseph in Paulina, St. Mary's Assumption in Cottonport and Most Sacred Heart in Gramercy),” said Uter. “They were 12 wonderful years.”
Now, for 10 years, he has been ensconced at Immaculate Conception.
"Welcoming community so identifies this parish,” said Uter, referring to church’s mission statement as “a welcoming community, centered in the Eucharist, rooted in faith, growing in fellowship and sharing in unity the mission Christ entrusted to us.”
If the diocese holds true to form, Uter only has two more years there. Then it's on to the next challenge in a career that has spanned a half-century.