by Ellen C. Warren, photograph by Peter DiAntoni
Father Gerry Hessel is a paradox. His schedule is so full that it seems impossible to keep up with, yet when he is with you, he is so with you that it feels like time is standing still.
He is the rock sitting steady in the rushing river. This impression is due, in part, to his soft, slow, deliberate style of speaking. But its more than that. Its as if nothing is to be pushed and everything is to be valued.
A selfless man of service is another description, and one with which, its likely, most of his parishioners would agree. To the congregation at Our Lady of Divine Providence he is Father Gerry or Padre Gerardo. His card, printed in English and Spanish, lets it be known that he may be called At any hour (a cualquier hora). He believes that a priest needs to be available to his people.
If people need to reach me they should have access to me, he says. Fortunately, the middle of the night calls are a maximum of once a month. He stresses that its not over-taxing. When they happen they are usually a call to the bedside of a dying church member.
As pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence some of Father Gerrys functions are to prepare people for and administer sacraments, visit the sick, bury the dead, bring consolation to their families, and do counseling where it is needed. In the main, he says, I do what pastors basically try to do, and that is to pull together the charisms (divinely inspired gifts, graces) and talents of the congregation to put them to the service of Gods people in this area.
He has been in this Riverwest area for four years now, working as the pastor of both St. Casimir and St. Mary Czestochowa originally, and remaining in the same capacity after the two churches blended a couple years ago. Although Our Lady of Divine Providence is the parish name, he says the use of the former names continues when referring to the specific churches because each place brings a great heritage. Its also less confusing.
Born and raised in Milwaukee (39th & Brown) Fr. Gerry attended the St. Francis Desales Preparatory Seminary H.S. He studied for the priesthood at the St. Francis Desales Seminary where he was ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at the age of 25. His first placements were in Kenosha (St. Anthonys) and Bay View (Immaculate Conception). After that he taught English, Latin, religion and psychology at the Prep. Seminary H.S. for six years, then another six years at Dominican High School.
The Spanish hed studied kind of by accident as a part of his continuing education was put to use in his next assignment. Then they put me in Hispanic Ministry in Kenosha, and thats when I learned Spanish, Padre Gerardo offers with a smile. There his task was to be able to bring the church to the Spanish-speaking people. From 1985 to 1997 he worked with the Latino Catholic population of a large area of southeastern Wisconsin with two centers of operation, one in Kenosha, one in Burlington.
Before arriving in Riverwest Fr. Gerry was the pastor at St. Louis Church in Caledonia for 4 years. He still lives in Kenosha but appreciates the drive up as a very good time for meditation and centering. He adds, At least until I get close to Milwaukee. The ride back is a good way to wind down.
In addition to his regular parish duties Fr. Gerry teaches at our parish school. Catholic East is sponsored by five parishes: Our Lady of Divine Providence, 3 Holy Women, Sts. Peter and Paul, Old St. Mary and Cathedral. No one parish could do it alone, he says. He is also the President of their school board.
A major advocate for education, Fr. Gerry cites the statistic that presents Milwaukee as being in the top 10% for poverty and adds, education is always the key to breaking out of poverty. He is anxious about the Choice program, as he believes it has provided a boost for education in this city. He greatly admires the work being done at Catholic East where 50% of the student body are Choice students. In regard to the other half he explains, They are people who are able to pay tuition and want their kids to have a wide sense of community and an ability to live well and respectfully with people of any class.
He also admires Messmer Prep. as a school that offers a high quality education with discipline in a mixed atmosphere, and Escuela Fratney for its bilingual education. Studies have shown, he says, that the best way to learn languages is to study both at once. It strengthens the skills of both.
As for languages, he also teaches Spanish class once a week at St. Casimir in combination with teaching English as a Second Language. The two groups work on the same lesson which gives them tremendous enjoyment and, due to having a positive experience, helps them succeed at the objective of getting over the fear of speaking.
He likes Riverwest and wishes he had more time to get out to visit homes. The people are kind and generous, he says and tells the story of the roof replacement at St. Casimir. The roof was leaking and causing plaster damage. Well, 110 years is old for any roof, he quips. It was proving to be a very expensive task so they opened a capital campaign for $200,000. Less than 1½ years later they have it. And, he points out, it mostly came from the people of this community whove shown tremendous generosity and devotion to their parishes.
Among his other activities are doing taxes for the elderly, another population about which he is concerned, and working at the food pantry, one of the parishs major projects due to the large number of poor in the area.
When asked about his incredible busyness he laughingly retorts, Well, it keeps me out of the taverns. But then he voices a wish to have time to spend in taverns where he might have a better chance for dialogue with some of his congregation. This isnt a joke. He sees the bars as a cultural continuation of the old German gemutlichkeit, the meeting places where families would go to eat and socialize. Itd be fun to sit with people in the Art Bar (across the street from his offi ce in St. Mary Czestochowa), he says.
Who knows? Things might slow up for the padre a bit after Easter.
In closing, Father Gerry has this message to offer, It is a privilege to work together with people of this and any faith that want to strive together to build the kingdom of God.
Riverwest Currents online edition – April, 2006