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Television priesthood: Janesville native celebrates 40 years on WISC

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Catherine W. Idzerda
December 3, 2007

When Thomas Campion was a boy growing up on a dairy farm in Rock County, he liked to play Mass.


He even had a little altar that a neighbor man built for him.


So it’s not surprising that Campion grew up to be Monsignor Thomas Campion, a pastoral favorite and minor television celebrity.


On Sunday, Campion marked his 40th year of celebrating the “Apostolate to the Handicapped” television Mass on WISC Channel 3 in Madison.


“It started the first Sunday in Advent in 1967,” Campion said. “I tell people that there was a young priest on then.”


How did he get from toy altar to television altar?


Campion’s parents, William and Gertrude Campion, lived on Highway 26 between Janesville and Milton. He was baptized at St. Mary’s in Janesville and attended school there, as well.


Campion’s father died when he was young, and he found a positive male role model in the person of Monsignor Ewald Beck, the popular priest who served the parish from 1933 to 1967.


“He was a big man; they used to call him the Rock of Rock County,” Campion said. “He had a lot to do with my calling.”


Campion entered St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee when he was 14 years old. He confessed that part of his motivation was to “get off the farm.”


Along with his time at St. Francis, he also studied at St. Norbert’s in De Pere and St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. At one point, he left the seminary, but the time away ended up solidifying his call to the priesthood.


In the late ’60s, Campion was assigned to St. James Catholic Church in Madison, and it was there that he started the Apostolate to the Handicapped.


“You have to understand, it was a different time then,” Campion said. “There were families who hid their (disabled) children in their homes; the wouldn’t bring them to church. It was breaking down a lot of prejudices.”


And the concept of “accessibility” hadn’t yet been invented.


About 60 people with disabilities and their families showed up at the first event at Holy Name Seminary; last year an event brought in 1,200 people.


The television Mass was born shortly after that first event.


One day, Campion was coming out of the bishop’s office, and he ran into Ralph O’Connor, the station manager for Channel 3.


“What did I know—nothing,” Campion said.


The idea of the Mass on TV appealed to him: It would reach people with disabilities and other shut-in, both Catholic and non-Catholic.


The ministry evolved to include the Sunday Masses and annual events.


Much of its success has to do with the young people who volunteer to help with events, and Campion is touched by their efforts.


“Maybe it sounds smaltzy, but there’s still love in the world,” Campion said.


He firmly believes that the ministry has done more for him than it has for others, turning his personal struggles into valuable assets.


“I’m an alcoholic, and it’s an emotional, mental and physical disability,” Campion said. “But one of the worst things in my life has turned out to be one of my greatest blessings; it’s given me a sensitivity to other people with problems.


“They call me the handicapped priest, and I consider that an honor. I hope they put that on my tombstone.”



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