CREST HILL – Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Siegel has spent his priesthood and most of his life in his home diocese and not far from the Lockport Township home where he grew up. But he went to college at a small seminary about 60 miles away from Evansville, Indiana, and he heads back to that area in December for his new assignment.
Pope Francis last month appointed Siegel the bishop of the Diocese of Evansville, where he will be instated Dec. 15.
Siegel said he was driving home from a confirmation service in Kankakee County when he got the call on his cellphone.
“Normally, I don’t take calls from numbers I don’t recognize,” he said.
For some reason he took this one, and it was from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S.
“He told me, ‘The Holy Father named you bishop of Evansville,’ ” Siegel said.
It was the first he had even known he was being considered, since such appointments are done confidentially by consultation among the bishops.
Bishops don’t apply for the job.
Siegel had pulled off to the side of a country road to take the call. So he was surrounded by farm fields when he accepted the appointment, which he thought was fitting.
Farm boy roots
Siegel, 54, grew up on the family farm now known as Cottonwood Farms, located about a mile down Weber Road from the Blanchette Catholic Center in Crest Hill, where the Diocese of Joliet has its central offices. It’s where Siegel’s office is as well.
Today the farm is a destination point for thousands of people who go there for the fall festival and Statesville Haunted Prison in the weeks before Halloween.
Sweet corn is sold there in the summer. Christmas trees are sold in the winter.
The family farm now is run by Siegel’s brother, Paul.
“I’m just proud to call him my younger brother,” Paul said, calling it “a unique privilege” for his brother to be auxiliary bishop so close to home. “He certainly leaves behind a legacy of Christian caring.”
Joseph Siegel was the youngest of nine children. At 6 feet, 5 inches, he also was the tallest, Paul said, “so I can’t call him my little brother.”
When Siegel was growing up, the family farm conducted an egg business. Although many people associate the farm with sweet corn today, back then it was known for farm fresh eggs.
“We had 6,000 to 7,000 chickens,” Joseph Siegel said. “After school, we gathered the eggs. We prepared the eggs. And we helped to deliver them.”
He had four brothers. All but one of the Siegel boys went to the old St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Romeoville, a school that prepared teens for the priesthood if they continued on the path.
Becoming a priest
Joseph Siegel was the only one of them to continue to the priesthood. But the brothers had an aunt, Sister Clotine Siegel, who was a Franciscan nun in Joliet. Sister Clotine taught at the Cathedral of St. Raymond School, where one of her pupils was a boy named Roger Kaffer, who later would become auxiliary bishop of the Joliet diocese.
Sister Clotine was the sister of Francis Siegel, Joseph’s father.
“Growing up, my parents were very faithful people. They were very involved in the church,” Siegel said.
Francis and Marie Siegel made the Catholic faith a central part of a home life that Siegel said “planted the seeds” for him to consider the priesthood.
“They never pushed,” he added.
He was an altar server at the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus, the Siegel family’s parish. The Siegel kids also went to school there.
Siegel said he began considering the priesthood by the time he was in middle school years.
Asked whether he was dedicated to the priesthood by the time he went to St. Charles Borromeo, Siegel said, “As far as you could be as a freshman in high school. I wasn’t ready to sign the line.”
He was among the last students to attend St. Charles Borromeo.
“I would have been in the Class of ’81, but it closed in 1980,” Siegel said. “But I was able to graduate because they had accelerated classes.”
Instead of going straight to the seminary, however, Siegel went to Joliet Junior College for a year.
“I was only a junior. I thought it would be good to take a year before I went away to college,” he said.
The next year, he went into Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in southern Indiana, where Siegel made his decision to become a priest.
‘This will always be home’
Siegel was ordained in 1988 in the Diocese of Joliet. He was assigned to St. Isidore Parish in Bloomingdale. He went on to be associate pastor of St. Mary Immaculate Parish in Plainfield, parochial vicar at St. Mary Nativity Church in Joliet and at the Cathedral of St. Raymond.
Siegel was pastor of Visitation Parish in Elmhurst, also in the Joliet diocese, before he became auxiliary bishop in 2010.
Being bishop of a diocese will be different from being an auxiliary bishop, Siegel said.
“Being the spokesperson for the church and the face of the church in Evansville, I can’t say go ask the boss. I can’t pass the buck. I’m the person in charge,” he said. “I just hope to be part of the heart of Jesus Christ. As bishop, I hope to be a shepherd for the people.”
Evansville is on the southern tip of Indiana. It is in a rural area, which combined with his past life as a seminarian at Saint Meinrad, will make the diocese somewhat familiar territory.
Moving so far from the place where he grew up will be a new experience, he said.
“This will always be home,” Siegel said. “I will have a new home down there. But my roots will always be here.”