|Ralph Fuller, 83, serves morning Mass at St. Luke Church in Smyrna for Father Jacob Dio, MSFS, the pastor. Fuller has been an altar server nearly his entire life, starting as a 7-year-old boy and continuing through his career in the U.S. Air Force and now into retirement. He serves Mass every day at St. Luke, where he has been a parishioner since the church was founded in 1982. The parish will enter a new era when it celebrates a groundbreaking for a new church building later this month. Bishop David Choby will be on hand for the groundbreaking at 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21. Photos by Rick Musacchio
Ralph Fuller’s earliest memories of the Mass are in Latin. As a 7-year-old altar boy at Sacred Heart Church in Redding, California, he and the other servers were responsible for saying all the Mass prayers and responses in Latin. They were also responsible for carrying the lectionary to the opposite sides of the altar as the priest read the Epistle and the Gospel readings for the day.
At 83 years old, Fuller is still serving Mass every day; now at St. Luke Church in Smyrna. His duties during Mass have changed, but his devotion to the liturgy hasn’t.
“My responsibilities during Mass are different now. They’re easier than they were when I was growing up,” he said.
These days, Fuller knows the routine inside and out, and mentors the younger altar servers. “The kids don’t mind an old man serving alongside them,” he laughed. “They see me as another grandpa.”
The older boys have especially taken to him. “I talk to some of the young men quite a bit. Some of them have shared with me that they’re thinking about becoming priests. I’m not a priest myself, but I listen to them and encourage them as best as I can,” he said.
Despite Fuller’s advanced age and health issues, he’s still able to remain active in his parish. “I’ve had a few heart attacks, and some problems from napalm contamination during the Vietnam War. But I can still get around fairly well. I haven’t slowed down too much!” he said.
Serving at Mass has been a common thread throughout Fuller’s life, from grade school to military service to St. Luke.
“Mom and Dad were very devout Catholics,” said Fuller, the oldest of four children, including three sisters. “We went to Mass all the time.” He and his sisters attended a Dominican Catholic school and a Catholic high school. “Every night after dinner, we prayed the rosary as a family. And I still pray it every day,” he said.
The Catholic culture surrounding him in his childhood was taken for granted. “I began altar serving because I was pretty much expected to,” he said. “In my parish, once the boys received their First Communion, they immediately started learning how to serve at Mass.”
His dedication to the liturgy never wavered as he grew older. He carried his love for the Mass up the Pacific Coast as a teenager and around the world during his time in the Navy and Air Force.
“When I was in high school, we moved from Redding to Portland, Oregon. I attended Central Catholic High School there and served Mass at the Catholic church downtown,” he said.
After high school, he spent four years in the Navy during the Korean War, and was a faithful daily communicant. “Every day, I served Mass onboard the ship,” he said.
Upon his discharge from the Navy, he got married and moved to San Francisco. It was a struggle for him to find work, and eventually he joined the Air Force with his wife’s support. He was discharged 22-and-a-half years later. He still served Mass as often as he could, and raised his son and daughter in the faith.
Eventually, he and his family settled in Tennessee. They became parishioners at St. Luke Church in 1982, and his late son Mark became a priest for the Diocese of Nashville.
Today, in addition to his active participation in the Knights of Columbus and Third Order Lay Dominicans, he is always willing to serve daily Mass.
“At St. Luke, we have Mass 8:30 a.m. from Tuesday through Friday every week, and I’m up there on the altar every day. On Mondays we have it at six in the evening, and I will still help out then and on the weekends if I’m needed,” he said.
Father Jacob Dio, M.S.F.S., pastor of St. Luke Church, says that Fuller is an inspiration to him and to the other parishioners at St. Luke. “It’s incredible to see the passion and dedication he’s had for serving Mass this long,” he said. “Every morning, while I’m preparing for daily Mass, he’s in the sacristy before me, dressed in his cassock and ready to go. And afterwards, he stays behind to help put the chalices and books and everything else away. Plus, he’s a really nice guy. It’s been great to be able to work with him.”
In addition to his active faith life, Fuller also enjoys spending time at home with his daughter and two grandsons, and puttering around in his woodshed behind his house. But he still counts serving Mass as one of the highlights of his day. “It starts my morning off right,” he said. “There’s nothing better than spending the first part of my day with God in prayer.”
The parish will enter a new era when it celebrates a groundbreaking for a new church building later this month. Bishop David Choby will be on hand for the groundbreaking at 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21.