When parishioners at Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church began planning a birthday party for their beloved pastor, they didn’t realize it would also serve as Monsignor Joseph Lehman’s sendoff.

Lehman, better known as Father Joe, will soon depart the Roanoke County parish he’s served for 22 years for a new assignment at Saint Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg.

Church members young and old, many clad in red to mark Pentecost, gathered Sunday at the conclusion of the day’s third and final Mass to celebrate Lehman’s 65th birthday and the end of a successful tenure leading the church.

Though the room was crowded, it was easy to spot Lehman, encircled by a seemingly endless congregation of well-wishers. Organizers weren’t surprised by how many attended.

“We always have a turnout when it’s something for Father Joe,” said Mary Branisteanu.

She never dreamed Lehman would stay at Our Lady of the Nazareth for so long. Branisteanu noted that he led the parish through its 100-year anniversary and a recent renovation.

Lehman has guided generations of parishioners through the biggest moments of their lives, Branisteanu said, from births and baptisms to marriages and deaths.

“He’s a great shepherd for his flock,” said Ken Srpan.

When parishioners approached Lehman about doing something to celebrate his birthday, the pastor had one simple instruction, Srpan recalled.

“He said ‘Surprise me.’ So this is it,” Srpan said.

If it had just been a birthday party, the celebration would have been overwhelming, Lehman said. But knowing the conversations he’d have and hugs he’d dole out to parishioners might be some of their last made it even more so.

Lehman said he was “devastated” to learn he’d be leaving his family at Our Lady of the Nazareth. At 22 years, this is the longest the pastor has been in any one place.

“But when the spirit calls, you move,” Lehman said.

Lehman’s 22-year tenure with the church is an unusually long one. When he hit the 12-year mark — a point at which pastors are typically reassigned — Lehman bought himself more time in Roanoke by requesting to exclusively serve Our Lady of the Nazareth. Previously, he had divided his time between churches in the region.

He will miss not only the church, but also the greater Roanoke Valley, where Lehman said he made numerous connections in the interfaith and ecumenical community.

Though Sunday’s celebration was bittersweet, the event remained light-hearted.

Lehman entered the party clad in a hat with a button identifying it as the “old age combat hat and survival kit,” pinned with helpful items like Polident for cleaning dentures.

A birthday cake was topped not only with candles, but also a donkey, referring to the role in which Lehman was cast in a church play. It was accompanied by a cardboard cutout of Lehman in costume.

The Rev. James O’Reilly, the church’s parochial vicar, described Lehman as a “people person” who really gets to know churchgoers as individuals.

“You’re not just a person sitting in the pews,” O’Reilly said.

Those relationships were on full display Sunday, as Lehman engaged countless parishioners in one-on-one conversations and enveloped them in warm embraces.

“It’s been a blessing to have Father Joe here,” O’Reilly said. “He will truly be missed.”

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Casey Fabris covers Franklin County, Rocky Mount and Ferrum College.

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