By Fr. George Welzbacher
September 23, 2007
On September the eighth, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, a truly great priest of this archdiocese passed to God: Monsignor Patrick Hessian, seventy-nine years of age, for fifty-four years a priest of Christ and for twenty-three years a military chaplain. His death was due to complications stemming from injuries sustained almost forty years ago in Viet Nam. His death deprives me, as it deprives many others, of a much cherished friendship.
My friendship with Father Hessian goes back a long, long way, all the way back to the fall of 1942 and precisely (an eery coincidence) to September the eighth of that year.
At Nazareth Hall, the archdiocesan preparatory seminary that stood on the shores of Lake Johanna, September the eighth, because it was a Marian feast, was traditionally the day on which the new school year began. Young Pat Hessian, from Sacred Heart Parish in Belle Plaine, was a member of that year's in-coming high school freshman class. I was returning as an upper classman to begin my junior year, and the tradition was that the upper classmen helped to welcome the freshmen to their new surroundings in the hope of forestalling the homesickness which could always be a problem in a boy's first days at boarding school. Accordingly it is likely that I met Pat that very first day of school.
Throughout the autumn of 1942 World War II was raging in unmitigated fury. The Battle of Midway the previous June had eviscerated the Japanese navy. In August we invaded Guadalcanal . At an incredible cost in human lives the Russians were holding fast at Stalingrad, and late that same fall, in early November, our invasion of North Afhca, mounted from across the Atlantic, would amaze the world.
No surprise, then, that as the school year got underway, a crowd would gather each night after dinner, Pat and myself included, around the radio in the common room to hear the latest news. Needless to say, no one would have speculated then that one day, in a different war, Pat would be ministering to soldiers dying in Southeast Asia's jungles. But what was obvious to all of us even then was that Pat had a delightful sense of humor, understated, laid back, soft-spoken, with perhaps, maybe, yes! just a touch of the sardonic (an adolescent weary, as it were, with knowledge of the world and its ways). Sixty-one years later that same sense of humor would bring the house down when, as a golden jubilarian speaking at Rochester at the biennial assembly of the archdiocesan priests, he reminisced about the problems facing a chaplain in peace time. His war-time experiences, however, he preferred to pass over in respectful silence.
Pat and I were both "lifers", that is to say, we did the "whole nine yards," completing the entire twelve year program, including high school, college, and a final four years of graduate study in theology and related disciplines-altogether six years spent at Nazareth Hall and six at the St. Paul Seminary. Though by dint of strict division into class cohorts I was perpetually two steps higher on the escalator, we were close enough in age to become good friends, despite the fact that that our interests were in some respects markedly different-Pat was a first rate athlete: at bat, he was a pitcher's despair; I was unabashedly a bookworm who had absolutely not the slightest modicum of interest in team sports, though for a one-on-one sport like tennis I could feel an intermittent zeal. Nevertheless, thanks to our common faith, our common goal, and especially, I think, thanks to a shared sense of humor, we became good friends and remained good friends our whole lives long.
After serving for ten years (1953 to 1963) as the much beloved assistant pastor at St. James Parish in St. Paul-back in those days we weren't called associates- Pat sought and received permission from Archbishop Leo Binz to enter an arduous training program with a view to becoming a chaplain for the U. S. Army's paratroopers. His military career eventually would run to twenty-three demanding years, with postings in South Korea, Germany, war-time Viet Nam and the U.S.. In Viet Nam he was wounded twice. On one occasion, as he was tending to the wounded and dying, his forehead was grazed by a fragment of shrapnel; a deviation in its flight path by not much more than a cat's whisker would have been enough to kill him then and there. On another occasion a gas grenade exploding in close proximity did permanent damage to his lungs. "It felt like my lungs were on fire!" is the way he once described it. Nevertheless he recovered and was able to continue his military career.
For the final four years (1982-1986) of his military service, Father Pat Hessian's genius for leadership was officially recognized with promotion to the rank of Major General, the highest rank to which a military chaplain can rise. Wearing two stars on his epaulets, he served as chief of all the chaplains in the United States Army.
In the years of his retirement he returned to the archdiocese to serve the Church on important missions and to help out as needed in various parishes. He also set aside some time each week for a virtuoso game of golf. But in the very last months of his life the storm clouds started gathering fast. In the end it was that long ago encounter with the gas grenade that carried the day. Dormant for years, complications came suddenly and aggressively alive, and the fabled athletic prowess that he had used so effectively for so many years to win the respect and the trust, first of the kids of St. James Parish and then of the soldiers entrusted to his care, suddenly was gone, and he found himself bound to an oxygen tank. For the man who once could run like the wind a simple flight of stairs was now a challenge.
On the day of his First Solemn Mass, back in 1953, at Sacred Heart Church in Belle Plaine, towards the end of the parish dinner that was held in his honor the young Father Hessian rose to speak. ( My source for this is Father Marvin O'Connell, a seminarian then, now a distinguished historian, who was present at the Mass and the dinner). This is what Father Hessian had to say: "Yesterday, the day I was ordained to the priesthood, was one of the two most important days of my life. The other most important day of my life will be-the day I die."
That day has come. And the Lord Whom he served for so many years so bravely and so well was surely at his side, to take his hand and lead him safely home.
Christifidelis, regnes cum Christo!
* * * * *A moving tribute to Father Hessian appeared in the September 14 th edition of the Star Tribune, written by columnist Nick Coleman, one of Father Hessian's former altar boys. I reprint it here, adding this comment of my own: the final hymn that was sung as Father Hessian's casket was carried down the steps of the church was the hauntingly beautiful Salve Regina, sung in its ancient chant setting by some forty of his brother priests, who lined the pathway to the hearse.
* * * * *Monsignor Was the Face of God in War's Inferno.
By Nick Coleman
It took 40 priests, the archbishop, a National Guard honor guard and a brigadier general to give Patrick J Hessian a send-off Thursday. He deserved it all.
"Father Hessian" we called him back when he was a dashing young priest who enlisted me and my friends to be altar boys at St. James Catholic Church in St. Paul before he joined the Army, driving around in an ancient Model T, honking his hom, breaking up street rights and laying down the law to kids on the corners, without regard to whether they were Catholics, Lutherans, or Methodists.
"I'm the toughest kid on West Seventh Street," he said. I believed him. Hessian died Saturday at 79 and was buried in his hometown of Belle Plaine, Minn., after a funeral in Our Lady of the Prairie Catholic Church.
He was a paratrooper and a priest, a chaplain in Vietnam who prayed over hundreds of dying soldiers.
In 1969, Hessian was knocked unconscious by shrapnel that almost killed him. When he came to, he resumed praying over the other fallen.
"When anyone dies, we want our families around us," he told me a few years ago, after celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination in 1953. "But when you have an 18 year old kid, thousands of miles from home and he'd like to see his mother but there's nobody .... I tried to be the local parish priest for those kids. Their eyes are just pleading with you: "Help me, help me." It was awful.
But I had to be there."
He won a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Distinguished Service Medal, and a soldier's medal, given when he disarmed a suicidal young soldier. Hessian got him to hand over a live grenade-leaving it to Hessian to gingerly replace the pin-by telling the soldier his mom would be very mad.
It always worked on West Seventh. It worked in Vietnam, too.
Hessian rose through the ranks of Army and Church, becoming a monsignor and a major general. From 1982 to 1986, when he retired, he was the Army's chief of chaplains.
"We just revered him," said one of his subordinate chaplains, Howie Krienke, a retired colonel who is associate pastor of Zion Lutheran Churchin Hopkins. "Hessian was plain and ordinary in the way he acted, but he was ani con. We stood in awe of him. He didn't care if you were Lutheran or rabbi or Muslim. He treated us all fairly, and honored and respected our traditions."
"He looked the part," said Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee, an Army chaplain of the Presbyterian persuasion who also served under Hessian and attended his funeral. "He was handsome and tall and looked distinguished. More than that, he kept the faith and kept the focus on spirituality, especially in times of chaos and war. He brought the soldiers to God, and God to the soldiers."
Hessian's authority over 3,000 chaplains of all faiths was hard to explain when he met with the top officer in his other line of command, Pope John Paul II. They had a private audience at the Vatican in 1986 and discovered they had something in common: Each had been wounded (the pope was shot in an assassination attempt). After swapping their stories, the pope asked the chaplain how a priest could be the boss of Protestants and Jews.
Hessian reminded the pope of the story of the Roman centurion in Matthew: "I, too, am a man of authority with soldiers under me."
Then, tapping the stars on his uniform, he said, "You see these two stars? That means I'm in charge."
"Here I am, a guy from Minnesota, quoting scripture to the pope," he told me once. "I really enjoyed that."
Yesterday, as they carried Monsignor and Major General Patrick J. Hessian out of Our Lady of the Prairie Church, they stopped to cover his plain pine coffin with an American flag in front of a statute of St. Patrick.
The statue came from Belle Plaine's old Irish Church, Sacred Heart, which was razed when the Irish and German congregations combined. Hessian grew up in Sacred Heart Parish, and remained close to Belle Plaine. Thursday, it was noted that his funeral was scheduled at his regular Thursday tee time at Belle Plaine's Valley View Golf Club: 11 a.m..
This "Hessian," by the way, was as Irish as a Murphy or O'Halloran. As they carried him out of the church, the organist struck up a familiar tune: "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."
I think the toughest kid on West Seventh would've really enjoyed that.