WATERTOWN — It took a while for Pastor Paul D. Luisi to find his true calling in life, but once he did, his devotion to the task was divine.
He also happened to land at a Watertown church that has a tradition of keeping pastors for the long haul. Of the six pastors who have served at Concordia Lutheran Church since its incorporation in the city in 1906, Pastor Luisi is among the longest serving. But after 31 years at the helm, he will step aside on Sunday, April 23, when a special service is held at the 818 Arsenal St. church to celebrate his three-decade tenure, which he says makes him the longest-serving pastor in Watertown.
Through those years, Pastor Luisi has lived and worked with his favorite Bible passage in mind — Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It is more than just a verse for Pastor Luisi.
“I often speak on issues of justice and the distinction of following the ways and the words of Jesus and not just reciting Bible verses, which are often taken out of context and have lost their meaning through centuries of misinterpretation,” Pastor Luisi said. “It is gratifying for me when people leave the service saying, ‘Thank you, Pastor. I never looked at it that way before!’”
Pastor Luisi was 39 when he decided to answer the Lord’s question posed in verse 6:8. Pondering what was required in his life, in July of 1988 he began Greek studies at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He served as an intern pastor for a year at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska and in May of 1992 he graduated from Wartburg with a master of divinity degree. Pastor Luisi, his wife, Mary, and their three children, ages 11, 9 and 6, arrived in Watertown in July of 1992. He was ordained here by Bishop Lee Miller, the father of the present bishop, Lee M. Miller Jr. of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who will be at Concordia’s special 10 a.m. service on Sunday to honor Pastor Luisi.
“It’s all kind of divinely orchestrated,” Pastor Luisi said of the coincidence involving the senior and junior Bishop Millers.
“Thirty-one years is a long time serving with one congregation and community, and very few pastors have this unique experience,” said Bishop Miller. “He is among a small group of pastors who have served faithfully for several generations. We are most grateful.”
Pastor Luisi will turn 75 in July. He and his wife won’t have anything to do with the day-to-day management of the church after Sunday, but they will remain in Watertown, where they have three grandchildren.
Mrs. Luisi, who has a degree in journalism and communications from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has assisted at Concordia by volunteering as church secretary and editing the church bulletin. She also plays piano during services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she recorded, posted and financed 99 of her husband’s video messages on Facebook, which garnered thousands of views around the world.
The couple met when Pastor Luisi, born and raised in Mauston, Wisconsin, enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1975 to study resource management in the field of natural resources. He proposed 17 days after their first date and they were wed on Feb. 21, 1976, at Immanuel-Trinity Lutheran Church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Mary’s father, Pastor Paul Piotter, officiated. Pastor Luisi was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family.
Following graduation from the Madonna High School in Mauston in 1966 and in its final graduation class, Pastor Luisi studied pre-med for three years at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. In 1971, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served as a medic for four years. He received an orthopedic physician assistant degree in 1978.
It was his work as an orthopedic physician assistant, his job prior to the ministry, where thoughts of becoming a pastor first bloomed for Pastor Luisi. He put his physician’s assistant degree to work in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri and New York State.
“Patients would come in and start talking about spiritual matters,” Pastor Luisi recalled. “I’m there for their physical well-being, but it turned out to be spiritual as well as physical. People would say I sound more like a reverend than a doctor.”
Pastor Luisi recalled one particular patient: “There was a woman who came in,” he said. “I was doing an exam on her and she took my hand and said, ‘May I speak?’” Pastor Luisi said of course she could.
“She said, ‘I see Jesus in your eyes — that for which labor will not be in vain.’”
He eventually put medicine behind him, and with his young family, went to Dubuque, Iowa, for four years of seminary, which led to the year as an intern pastor at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Omaha and his May 1992 graduation from Wartburg.
When Pastor Luisi and Mrs. Luisi arrived in Watertown in 1992, the goal was to have all their children graduate from high school here, which was achieved in 2004.
Since Pastor Luisi was ordained in Watertown on Nov. 8, 1992, he has officiated at 166 baptisms and 153 funerals.
‘BODY AND SOUL’
Pastor Luisi, the oldest of five children, was familiar with New York state because his father, Dr. August Luisi, a dentist, was raised in Auburn. “I came to Auburn every year with my family since I was a child.”
Pastor Luisi’s father died in 2004 at the age of 86. His mother, Suzanne Luisi of Madison, Wisconsin, recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
The pastor said his training and experience in the medical field “absolutely” helped him in his spiritual career.
“Through the years, I’ve been told that I’m one of the few clergy people who routinely visit the patients from the congregation in the hospital,” Pastor Luisi said. “For me, being in the hospital is like being home. I’m very familiar and comfortable in hospital settings. I used to work in surgery, ER and on the ward and so on. So, I have a good rapport and good knowledge of medicine.”
He added, “As pastoral care goes, that’s part of healing too. It’s a unit. Body and soul.”
There’s also his environmental training that can be thrown into the pastoral mix. “The environment, health care and theology. That takes care pretty much of life,” Pastor Luisi said.
The life of Concordia Lutheran Church in Watertown began in 1906 when it was organized after German and Saxon descendants founded the congregation with services held in the Herald building. Ground for the former church building at 118 N. Massey St., where land was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Vogt, was broken on June 20, 1907. It was dedicated on May 24, 1908 as German Evangelical Lutheran Concordia. The building, made of pressed brick and sandstone, now is the home of Kall & D’Argenio CPAs, LLP. In 1971, Concordia relocated to its present Arsenal Street site. In 1977, after a fund drive by the church’s property committee, a Fiberglass steeple was added and dedicated. In 1997, an addition added two rooms to the church. In 2005, artist Wilson Bickford, who died in 2021, painted a mural overlooking the altar of the sun breaking through clouds.
Involvement in local events outside the walls of Concordia has been important for Pastor Luisi. For several years, he performed in community theater along with his daughter, Anna. He has participated in the Council of Churches, Watertown Urban Mission, Jefferson County Police Chaplaincy, the Cross Walk, CROP Walk, ecumenical Thanksgiving services, delivering invocations at the annual 9-11 memorial service, dedication of the Veterans Memorial in front of the Jefferson County Office Building in 2000, invocations at Jefferson County legislative meetings and at a Cape Vincent sailing regatta.
The Luisi family includes Amanda (and husband Todd DeMar) of Watertown and her daughters, Rosalyn (almost 16), Bryndis, 13, and Laura, 11, their father, Owen Lewis; son Anthony and wife Paloma of Loudonville, Albany County, and their children, Evangeline, 9, and Dominic 6; and daughter Anna and her husband, Brad Ellis, who live in Seneca Falls, Seneca County.
In retirement, Pastor Luisi and his wife plan to spend more time with their family. The pastor also enjoys long walks, crossword puzzles, reading and movies.
A ‘CALL’ OF DUTY
Watertown has been the Pastor Luisi’s only “call.” Usually, pastors, no matter the denomination, can be moved around in their careers several times. But he is obviously grateful for his service here.
“I’ve been able to meet hundreds of people who have come and gone and who have made an impact on our lives, some of whom we still keep in touch with,” Pastor Luisi said. “All over the world, we’ve made some fabulous relationships. It’s been a fine tenure and I’ve been blessed.”
The pastor paused for several seconds when asked what he enjoyed about his job.
“It gave me the opportunity to be the best person I could be,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to be a real servant of the Lord on behalf of the people. It’s been a real good use of my later adult life from age almost 44 to almost 75.”
He then referenced again his favorite Bible passage, about, “… to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
“That’s the goal,” he said, but also, “Be kind.”
That attitude also fits in with a book that Pastor Luisi recently finished: “If God Is Love, Don’t Be a Jerk: Finding a Faith That Makes Us Better Humans,” by John Pavlovitz and published by Westminster John Knox Press. One of the author’s goals is to “make sure that love has the last, loudest word.”
In some of his final words as a pastor at Concordia, Pastor Luisi, in the April/May church publication The Concordia Trumpet, wrote: “Although some people focus on making a good ‘first impression,’ remember that your words and actions also create a ‘lasting impression’ that is carried on into the future. Be Christlike — and remember to ‘do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’”
PASTORS AT CONCORDIA
Following Pastor Paul D. Luisi’s final service April 23 at Concordia Lutheran Church in Watertown, “supply pastors” from the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, based in East Syracuse, will conduct services, beginning at the Saturday, April 29 service. Pastor Luisi estimated that the supply pastors will be at the church for about a year until the synod presents church members with candidates for a new, permanent pastor.
The six pastors at Concordia:
1906 to 1914: The Rev. Yost Brandt. Under his leadership, the church was established and grew.
1914 to 1921: The Rev. Paul Kasten. During his tenure, several church-based organizations were formed.
1921 to 1960: The Rev. Frederick K. Vogt. He helped many refugees from Europe settle in this area after World War II. He also conducted services for German prisoners of war at Pine Camp.
1961 to 1986: The Rev. John N. Campbell. Under his tenure, a parsonage was purchased on Washington Street and then sold when the one on Bugbee Drive was purchased. He was instrumental in having the present Concordia building erected in 1971.
1986 to 1992: The Rev. David L. Windle. He served as a Navy chaplain for 23 years, retiring with the rank of commander in October 1983. The Rev. Mr. Windle came out of retirement in November 1986 when he was called to serve as pastor of Concordia. He did much of the remodeling work in the parsonage and also made many civic contributions to the Watertown area.
1992 to present: Pastor Paul D. Luisi. He began a third service on Saturday evenings. Many new members joined and he oversaw an addition to the church. He is the longest serving full-time pastor in the Upstate New York Synod, consisting of 170 churches and a coverage area of all of New York, except for New York City and Long Island, and the only member of the 1992 graduating class of Wartburg Theological Seminary still in their first “call.”
Source: Concordia Lutheran Church
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