The Petters never had the money to buy a farm outright, but they lived comfortably from year to year on their earnings. The children went to public school by day and tended to the cotton, corn and cows by night.

The Petter household stood out, if not for its size, then for its love of its Czech heritage. At home, they ate sweet pastries known as kolaches. In town, the children joined their father, an accordionist, in playing polkas at weddings and church events.

Father Petter carries on those traditions in his ministry, serving kolaches at staff meetings, leading Masses for the Czech Club with a polka choir and even playing "Silent Night" on his harmonica at 11 Christmas Masses.

Father Petter entered seminary at the end of the heyday for priests. Seminaries were still full, and priests enjoyed a high status in society; they often were among the most educated men in town. Bing Crosby emulated that role in several popular movies such as The Bells of St. Mary's.

Mr. Hoge said a priest's role isn't so clear-cut any more. The world is more complicated, churches are bigger and Catholics demand more programs. They're also less likely to fall in step with church doctrine and less willing to tolerate a priest who demands that of them.

"In the old days, many Catholics thought their priest was the same as God," Mr. Hoge said. "You'll still see that with immigrants. But Anglos are more educated and questioning. We drill it into college students to think for themselves."

Father Petter had doubts about his calling just as he was completing a college degree in philosophy - well before he was ordained.

It was a turbulent time in the world. The Vietnam War was raging, and Catholics were wrestling with the impact of the Second Vatican Council. Many priests left the ministry during this time to marry.

If he hadn't been a priest, maybe he would be a teacher and raise a large family. He went on his first date at age 20.

When he mustered the courage to propose to Judy, he was direct. "Will you marry me?" he asked. She never said no. She just never said yes.

Ministry marathon

The administrative offices of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton are in a brick house beside the church. Inside the doorway, there's a photograph of Father Petter running in a marathon wearing flashy red- and-white striped shorts.

Running a church these days is like running a marathon, he said. Both take a lot of discipline and require listening to the body. In the church's case, he means the Body of Christ.

"If you think you're overdoing it, you slow down," he said. "If you feel like you can do more, you push ahead harder and faster."

Father Petter came to the parish three and a half years ago charged with expanding its campus and starting a spinoff parish in Plano. Though only 25 years old, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had long outgrown its facility.

Even though he's busy, Father Petter said he's happy. His colleagues say compassion is his greatest strength. They tell the story of an elderly priest that Father Petter provided housing and care to for 18 years.

The last two years of his life, the priest needed round-the-clock care. A nurse helped him during the day, but Father Petter cared for him at night, tucking him into bed and even changing his diapers.

Monsignor Glenn (Duffy) Gardner, the diocese's vicar general, said Father Petter modeled the unselfish love of Jesus in his care.

"He did something most people would never do, unless it was a relative," he said. "Even then, most of us would put our relatives in a home."

Most parishioners never witness a priest's private life. They're more likely to encounter him at worship.

On weekends, Father Petter stands at the church's doors greeting people at all nine services, even those he isn't leading. On Sunday, the first Mass starts at 7 a.m., and the last one at 7:30 p.m.

"If he didn't do that, you could conceivably be in the parish and never ever talk to your priest," said Annette Gopalan, 45, of Plano.

Most of the people coming out of church rush past him. Some glance in his direction and mumble, "Morning, Father." A few stop and talk, extending a hand to shake.

"Sometimes a short one-on-one is better than nothing at all," Father Petter said.

But some people want their babies blessed. A man suffering from diabetes asked to be anointed. A woman who'd just lost her job wanted the priest to pray with her.

Inside the church's gym, Andrew Byers was setting up chairs for the 10:15 a.m. Mass.
The 18-year-old said he'd only briefly entertained thoughts about being a priest.

What turned him off?

"They have to work too hard," he said. "Too many hours."

Father Petter winced when he heard that. "If more of them would be ordained, we'd have less work," he said.

The priest was standing just outside the church doors when a woman rushed out of a Mass carrying her wailing 2-year-old. "He's a little too active today," she said to Father Petter.

"Too active?" he shouted after her. "Sounds like a good candidate for priesthood."