BALLSTON SPA — St. Mary’s parish in Ballston Spa welcomed newly ordained Father Rick Lesser with open arms. Known as Father Rick, the 60-year-old chose the priesthood as a second vocation after the loss of his wife, Marilyn Schmidt Lesser, ten years ago.
Father Rick has the approachable smile and ready laugh of a person sure in his faith, displaying a relaxed confidence that can put even the shyest person at ease. He was raised Catholic in Bradford, PA. One of six children, he loved camping and hiking in his rural community, and begged his father for a horse. He was told he could have one as long as he paid for it, so the young Rick Lesser sold 144 brooms as a teenager door to door to raise the money. “I’m not sure my father was happy that I succeeded,” he laughed.
Horses remained a big part of his life, although he originally thought he’d be a dairy practitioner when he went to the veterinary college at Cornell. He met his future bride at school in 1977 and joined the horse practice she was in. Together they began the Equine Clinic at Oakencroft in Ravena, and a bulk of the practice were equine patients in the Saratoga area.
“We took care of show horses, brood mares, foals, and pleasure horses,” said Father Rick. “We had about 100 horses on the farm back in 2008, but averaged around 60 or 70 since then.”
He and Marilyn raised three children: Evan, 30, a rancher in Kansas; Craig, 25, a new horse veterinarian in Minnesota; and Taryn, 21, who is in college in Colorado studying psychology with an eye toward therapeutic riding. They all grew up around horses, cattle and sheep. “Old McDonald had a farm,” said Father Rick. “It was a great place to raise the kids. It was pretty run down when we got it, but we worked side by side to build up the farm.”
Then the unthinkable happened, and his healthy, athletic wife was lost to an unexpected fatal heart arrhythmia in 2005. “We always assumed I would be the one to go first,” Father Rick said. With three kids and a very large practice, the widower had some decisions to make. “Some of the farm staff had been there forever. Marilyn and I, we did this together.” It was not the same without her.
Father Rick decided to retire. “It was not running away from it, but I just didn’t need it to find fulfillment.” For that, he started at the Kateri Institute for Lay Ministry Formation. From there, he went on to earn his masters in divinity at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. After seminary and meeting all requirements, Frederick Richard Lesser was ordained in June of this year at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, with his children in attendance at the ceremony.
“It was just a few years after Marilyn died that I realized God was calling me,” said Father Rick. He said that a call does not have to be a big rainbow voice, but is often a quiet realization. “I’m positive that God knows what’s best for me, and He meant for me to be married and raise a family. Then He meant for me to be a priest. There were so many things that could have derailed it, but none of that happened. The kids thrived, people bought the practice, and St. Bernard’s was a close and viable option – the lack of any obstacles was a call for me to follow and trust where God was leading.”
Father Rick is now a parochial vicar at St. Mary’s Church, where he assists the pastor in the celebration of mass, baptisms, funerals, and weddings. He participates in many home and hospital visits, and is happy in “this beautiful church community filled with people who are rich with faith,” he said. “Whatever God puts on my plate today, I’m happy just doing what is asked.”
He still rides horses and spends quality time with his family. “I went on a cattle drive in Montana with my daughter and fell off the horse the first morning,” he laughed. “Turns out I had broken two ribs, but I got up and rode anyway.”
“I think that because of the life I’ve lived, that I’m better equipped to help people find their faith in the joys and sorrows that go with having a family,” said Father Rick. “It’s so easy for us in our comfort to forget that God is around us all the time, even in joyful moments. He sustains us in hard times, but also plays the major part in all that learned, lived faith can provide in the realization that God made me and God is nearby.”