Saturday, December 29, 2007

...With His Boots On

The nation's longest-serving parish priest has gone to his reward.

A priest of the archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, Msgr Heliodore Mejak died at 98 on Christmas Eve.

A native of Austria ordained in 1935, Mejak labored at Holy Family in Kansas City until the day of his death -- a pastorate that spanned 63 years and five months... or, to put it another way, six pontificates.
He will be remembered not only for his longevity but for his staunchly traditional Catholicism and his devotion to his parish, where he was also the church handyman, lawn cutter, financial manager and compiler of the weekly bulletin.

“He was a stellar priest,” said Mary Ann Grelinger, a former parishioner at Holy Family who wrote a 2006 biography on Mejak for a priests’ magazine called Homiletic & Pastoral Review. “He said Mass every day. He never took a day off or a vacation. Most priests do. He didn’t.”

Mejak celebrated Mass until about a week before he died, even though he had become progressively weaker, was losing his vision and used a walker.

“He couldn’t see,” said Kevin Fogarty, a Wyandotte County firefighter who has been attending Holy Family Church regularly for about 10 years. “He wore ‘welding goggles’ with huge magnifiers. When he said Mass, it was obvious he was reciting from memory. He couldn’t read it at all.”

Mejak may be best known for his resistance to changes in the church. Holy Family, a Slovenian parish, drew people who believed as he did. He was the last priest in the archdiocese to stop celebrating Mass in Latin in the wake of the Vatican II church reforms approved in the 1960s.

Mejak did not want laypeople to serve communion and said the host should only be served directly from a priest’s hand, rather than placing it in the hand of the recipient. He wanted people to kneel rather than stand for communion.

When Vatican II called on people to shake hands or hug as a sign of peace during Mass, Mejak ignored it....

Charles Andalikiewicz, 77, had known Mejak since he was a boy growing up in the neighborhood of the church. Andalikiewicz is priest of Immaculate Conception Church in Louisburg, Kan.

“He was very humble, very loyal and a gentle man,” Andalikiewicz said. “He was also very scholarly.”

Mejak was a train buff who built electric trains in the church basement that he liked to show children, Grelinger recalled. He built the trains using old pictures and drawings as a guide....

He served several churches in Kansas before being assigned to the Holy Family, where he had to learn the Slovenian language.
"We all knew that he wouldn’t live forever, but at times he certainly seemed indestructible," Archbishop Joseph Naumann told a local paper.

“Monsignor is somebody you don’t replace.”

While an administrator will be named shortly, Naumann said that, in time, Holy Family will likely be consolidated with two other parishes under the leadership of a shared pastor.

Indeed, in more ways than one, it's the end of an era.