A grateful celebrant: Father Mel Bessellieu marks his silver anniversary of priesthood
BURLESON — Mel Bessellieu had “no idea why” he felt called to become Catholic, but he knew one thing: “I knew the Catholics had something, and I wanted that, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” he thought.
It wasn’t for lack of searching.
Raised in Baptist and Church of Christ denominations, he was baptized — by immersion, in unheated water — as a 12-year-old at a Baptist church in Oregon. “I went into the baptismal waters a warm, dry sinner, and I came up a cold, wet saint,” he recalled.
Six years later, he experienced a “great awakening” at a Billy Graham crusade at Texas Stadium. On fire for God, he entered a Church of Christ seminary for two years but withdrew because he found the teaching limited and narrow.
He joined the Methodist Church for 13 years, but he gradually came to think, “there has to be deeper waters.”
He began to read about the Catholic Church — but this time from a Catholic perspective rather than the Protestant authors he had read previously. His main objections, to papal infallibility and the role of Mary, were laid to rest and he decided to enter RCIA in 1988.
When the RCIA director took the new inquirers on a tour of the church, the last stop was the Eucharistic chapel. “I’ll never forget this, as long as I live,” said Fr. Bessellieu. “She went to the tabernacle, turned the key, and matter-of-factly said, ‘Jesus is in here.’
“I left that chapel in tears,” he remembered. “Thinking, ‘Jesus, why would you do that for us? Why would you humble yourself, day after day, on altars around the world, to be the bread for us to eat?’ And the only answer I came up with was, ‘Because I love you. And I can’t bear to be apart from you.’”
At that moment, Fr. Bessellieu found his why. “I’m becoming Catholic because of the Eucharist. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s why I became Catholic, that’s why I will always be Catholic, and that’s why I decided to accept God’s invitation to be a priest. It all begins and ends with the Eucharist,” he explained.
On May 31, the pastor of St. Ann Parish reached the 25th anniversary of his priesthood, a milestone which he attributes to his strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament as well as the Blessed Mother.
The Burleson congregation celebrated their pastor’s silver anniversary with a Mass and reception on May 29.
St. Ann parishioner Sue Spear describes Fr. Bessellieu as “very shy, introverted — but he comes alive when he walks through the doors for Mass.” She said his reverence “makes you feel like you are at the Last Supper.”
Homilies are his “strong suit,” making it “just a pleasure to go to Mass and feel the Word,” said the longtime parish volunteer.
Celebrating Mass is never routine for the priest. “The minute I start walking down the aisle, it’s like, for a moment, for about an hour, I’m with Jesus. I’m with God. I’m really with Him,” he said.
He wants children to understand and participate in Mass as well.
Once a month the parish features Backpack Sunday, where the children gather on the altar steps for a homily directed toward them. Fr. Bessellieu asks them questions, and afterward they each receive a small gift related to the Gospel from the backpack.
Because of his reverence for Mass and his self-described “traditional, conservative bent as far as architecture,” the first major project he undertook when assigned to St. Ann Parish in 2007 was a renovation of the sanctuary, which previously resembled a “’70s meeting hall,” he said.
The congregation didn’t have a parish hall, but Fr. Bessellieu insisted, “We’re not going to build a place to party before we have a place of beauty to worship in.”
The tabernacle and crucifix were moved front and center, and the parish commissioned low and high altar pieces from artisans in Italy.
The sacred environment helps reinforce one of Fr. Bessellieu’s maxims, according to Mark von Rosenberg, a St. Ann parishioner and Grand Knight of Council 7175, based at St. Ann. “He often tells us, ‘There are no C+ saints,’ meaning we can’t try to do the bare minimum to get to heaven. Don’t shoot for purgatory, but aim for heaven and strive to be an A+ saint. Keep yourself in a state of grace,” he said, recalling his pastor’s message.
Von Rosenberg is grateful to Fr. Bessellieu’s leadership during the COVID pandemic, when attendance at the parish, and at Knights of Columbus functions, was quite low. “He never lamented to the parish about the difficulties. He was thankful for what God gave us to work with,” remembered von Rosenberg, who tried to follow the priest’s positive example.
On April 30, Fr. Bessellieu, a fourth degree Knight himself, was named “Chaplain of the Year” by the Knights of Columbus at their state assembly, where he also was appointed associate chaplain for the State of Texas.
In addition to being a Knight of Columbus, Fr. Bessellieu is a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, an organization dating to 1096 which supports the Holy Land through prayer, presence, and financial support. He will lead some newly ordained priests, seminarians, and deacons on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in July.
Another title he wears is Carmelite of the Third Order. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun, has been a special saint to him since he prayed a novena to her during his second semester of Catholic seminary, when he considered dropping out.
Buckets of roses arrived near the end of his novena to assure him that his prayers had been heard.
As a Carmelite tertiary, he embraces Carmelite spirituality and dedicates himself to contemplative prayer. He feels a special bond with the Discalced Carmelite nuns at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington, where he celebrates Mass weekly.
In his quarter century as a priest, Fr. Bessellieu has also served at St. Michael Parish in Bedford, Immaculate Conception Parish in Denton, and St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Pilot Point. As he reflects on his vocation, Fr. Bessellieu said, “I have no regrets. Every day I wake up and I say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for this gift of priesthood.’ I love being a priest. I can’t envision myself doing anything else. I’m also humbled by that. Because why did God choose me?”