Dec 26, 2007

Msgr. Heliodore Mejak

dustiam received an email this evening and is glad to comply.

Dear Wolftracker and dustiam,
Msgr. Mejak died on Christmas morning and I thought one of you might print a little of the history that is shown at the bottom of this page. He and his Holy Family school "kept the faith" during difficult times in the 1970's, and provided a refuge for many traditional Catholics in Kansas City. Funeral arrangements are not known at this time.
Mary Ann Grelinger

Fr. Heliodore N. Mejak

The longest serving pastor of an active parish in the world was Msgr. Heliodore Mejak (May’-yock), who died December 25, 2007. At age 98, he continued to say Mass seven days a week in the Slovenian parish of Kansas City, KS that he has served since 1944, six bishops ago[1]. Msgr. Mejak was a do-it-all pastor, and was very proud that his parish had no paid employees and was staffed entirely by volunteers.

Until shortly before his death, he prepared the weekly bulletin, managed the finances of the parish, and until injured several years ago while maintaining the church boilers, was the parish handyman and lawnkeeper. His mind seemed as sharp as it was when he graduated first in his Catholic High School class and subsequently first in his class at St. Benedict’s College. With advancing age, his poor eyesight required daily memorization of the changeable parts of the Mass.

Fr. Mejak (he disdained any title except Father) welcomed many families who sought an oasis during the rampages of Modernism, and wanted to avoid sex education in the Catholic schools, irregular and irreverent liturgies, and flawed Catholic education. These faithful families fled their old parishes to insure their children received an excellent Catholic education, including daily Mass, weekly Benediction, and at least four opportunities for monthly Confession.

Holy Family Church boasts a centered tabernacle, communion rail, statues, Stations of the Cross, and altar boys. A beautiful stained glass window of the Nativity of Jesus Christ was photographed to become a Hallmark® Christmas card. Fr. Mejak made no apologies for his traditional Catholicism. He was the last priest in the archdiocese to continue offering the old Latin Mass after Vatican II had installed the Novus Ordo. In the 1980s, he continued to hope that he would again be allowed to offer the old Latin Mass again at Holy Family church.

Our children attended Holy Family School (that he built during his time as pastor) and said Fr. Mejak carefully reviewed each report card before giving it to a student. Poor grades would make his deep voice even more impressively somber, and good grades would receive favorable comments that students knew were deserved. Fr. Mejak’s commitment and donations kept the elementary school tuition one of the lowest in the diocese.

Holy Family Elementary School was one of the last Catholic grade schools in the Archdiocese to be staffed with Catholic nuns in full habits (School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King, Lemont, IL). The school was integrated with St. John the Baptist School in the 1990s and Fr. Mejak worked diligently to keep the small school open until Fall 2007 when St. John/Holy Family School was integrated with and moved to St. Peter Cathedral School.

This deep voiced and gruff speaking priest with a slight stutter was a super Grand Father whose special delight was small children—searching for them, talking to them, playing with them, and laughing with them. At the communion rail, babies and small children always appeared for Father’s blessing and wide smile.

When we joined Holy Family parish, Fr. Mejak took us to his basement to show our five children his replicas of old trains and all his tools. He explained that he constructed his trains by hand using old photographs and drawings. Once, a thief broke into the rectory and stole the trains; needless to say, the police quickly recovered them, much to Fr. Mejak’s relief—as he had spent years constructing the individual gears, wheels, and engines.

Born in Rijeka along the Adriatic coast in 1909, Fr. Mejak immigrated to the U.S. as a 3-year old. Bad luck began in New York when all their belongings were either lost or stolen. His tailor father died when Fr. Mejak was 9, and his mother worked as a seamstress in their home to support the four children. The backyard had chickens and a vegetable garden, but the Mejak home had no electricity. So 15-year old Fr. Mejak installed electrical wire and fixtures throughout the house, and helped his Mother to paper and paint the walls and enlarge the basement.

The young priest-to-be attracted the attention of Father Koch, who arranged for Fr. Mejak to attend Catholic High tuition-free with used, donated books. One of the jobs of the young student was to work after school until 9 p.m. in a dental laboratory. Then he attended late classes at a public high school to study architectural drawing, after which he walked a couple of miles hom--after eleven at night. In one of his last sermons, Fr. Mejak remembered one of his summer jobs when he took a cheese sandwich to work. His employer saw the cheese sandwich and asked the young boy if he was a Catholic. When the reply was yes, the young student was fired. In spite of a rigorous schedule of learning and working, Fr. Mejak garnered yearly gold medals for academic performance and graduated from Catholic high in Kansas City, KS as Valedictorian in 1927. A scholarship is now presented in Msgr. Heliodore Mejak’s name at the renamed Bishop Ward High School.

His four years at St. Benedict’s College again showed his intelligence and zeal. His roommate was a Croatian student from Kansas City, KS, who also became a priest, Rev. Msgr. Stanley J. Loncaric (1909-2006). Fr. Loncaric would be sent to the rural parishes of Miami County, KS, while Rev. Msgr. Mejak would serve Kansas City, KS.

Ordinarily, the first ranked graduating student to enter the seminary would be sent to Rome for study, but because Fr. Mejak was not yet an American citizen, Bishop Johannes feared he would be drafted into the Italian Army (Rijeka was now occupied by Italy). So he was sent to study at the Sulpician seminary at the Catholic University of America where Fr. Mejak was ordained a priest on June 8, 1935. When Holy Family Church needed a new pastor, Bishop Schulte asked him to quickly learn Slovenian (Fr. Mejak’s native language was German) and Fr. Mejak was appointed pastor on August 1, 1944. He has remained the active pastor of Holy Family Church for a total of 63 + years of continuous service in a single parish.

The people of Holy Family parish learned to love their priest, and Fr. Mejak unabashedly admitted to loving his parishioners in an interview with the Archdiocesan newspaper, The Leaven. One example of that love was shown by Victor Macek of Shawnee who cut short a trip several years ago in order to be an altar boy for Fr. Macek’s Mass as he celebrated 60 years at Holy Family Church in Kansas City, KS. Victor and Michael Macek are twins who as 12-year old boys had served Fr. Mejak's first Mass at Holy Family in 1944.

The parishioners of Holy Family parish knew they had a special priest in Msgr. Mejak. Anita Montez graduated from Holy Family School in 1979 and had moved away but knew her old pastor was very aged and decided to return for his last few Sunday Masses. She said she knew Fr. Mejak’s time on earth was limited and she would always regret it if she did not come to his last offerings of the Eucharist at Holy Family.

Another graduate of Holy Family School, Ann Sanders of Asbury, MO, was informed on December 24 that Fr. Mejak was in the hospital and would not be able to offer Christmas Mass. This Mass that begins with candles in the dark church was clearly Fr. Mejak’s favorite feast of the year. Mrs. Sanders mused to her sisters that perhaps this year he would be blessed with enjoying Christmas in heaven with the baby Jesus. Fr. Heliodore Mejak died Christmas morning. May God eternally bless Fr. Mejak with His choicest blessings.



[1] Francis Johannes (20 Apr 1929 - 13 Mar 1937)

Paul Clarence Schulte (29 May 1937 - 20 Jul 1946)

George Joseph Donnelly (9 Nov 1946 - 13 Dec 1950)

Edward Joseph Hunkeler (31 Mar 1951 - 10 Sep 1969)

Ignatius Jerome Strecker (10 Sep 1969 - 28 Jun 1993)

James Patrick Keleher (28 Jun 1993 - 15 Jan 2005)

Joseph Fred Naumann (15 Jan 2005 - Current)

4 comments:

Alison said...

The news of Father's death is bittersweet for me. It's the loss of one stellar priest. I know he has some place more glorious to go but it is just hard to lose the physical presence on earth of one who loved Christ so much and was truly a "Father" to so many. What a great example of final preseverance.
My husband and I were talking about him on Christmas Eve. There are so many great stories about him. His parish really was a refuge for me. When we used to go and pray at the nearby abortion facility, all the pro-lifers would attend Mass at Holy Family first. I could have never overcome the feeling of dread of going to the abortuary without attending Holy Mass there first. Father always was so fearless. Father always knew what his vocation was about.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved your obituary to Fr. Mejak. Thank you!

Were you a graduate of Holy Family School?

God Bless, Brian K.

KJK said...

The Leaven, newspaper of the KCK archdiocese, published a lovely profile of Msgr Mejak in 2003.

http://www.theleaven.com/archives/feb03.html


The Leaven
7 Februrary 2003
Faith of our Fathers: He's ancient of days. He can't
see very well. And he has been known to be slow to
change. But at age 93 Msgr. Heliodore Mejak has no
intention of calling it quits.
By Bethanne Scholl
Special to the Leaven

The joke goes something like this: Old priests don't
retire, they just . . .

Having trouble filling in the blank?

Maybe it's because there is no punch line.

Out of a lifelong love of their priestly vocation and
a concern for their parishes, many old priests just
don't want to retire.

It is safe to say that Msgr. Heliodore Mejak, who will
turn 94 on St. Patrick's Day, is one of the oldest
active priests in the country, perhaps even in the
world.

He is by far the oldest active priest in the
archdiocese, celebrating Masses seven days a week for
the 200 or so families of his Kansas City, Kan.,
parish of Holy Family.

At 93 and counting, Msgr. Mejak could be said to be
stubborn, firmly set in his ways. He is a little shy
and has been described as "not exactly gruff."

He does not mince words, but speaks his mind - a
sharp, intelligent and driven man. He shepherds his
flock with the love of a strict parent.

Holy Family is one of the few remaining "national"
parishes in the archdiocese - that is, a parish
founded, usually in the early 20th century, to meet
the spiritual needs of a particular immigrant group.
Holy Family was founded in 1907 to serve the influx of
Slovenian immigrants to the Strawberry Hill area.

"They wanted another Slovenian priest to take over,"
said Msgr. Mejak, of his assignment to the parish. "So
the bishop sent me here 68 years ago."

"I can understand Slovenian, but I can't talk a word
of it," he said. "My mother was Bohemian; my father,
Slovenian. But the official language in Yugoslavia at
the time was German, so we spoke German in the house."

"I still hear Slovenian and Croatian confessions,"
said Msgr. Mejak, "but no more German. They're all
gone now."

Msgr. Mejak's father died when he was nine, leaving
him as the head of the house. He took on his new role
willingly, using his quick mind and capable hands to
help his seamstress mother take care of his two
younger sisters.

"I've always been very handy," said Msgr. Mejak. "I
remember wiring our house when I was 16 years old. I
could figure out everything. I was the first one to
build my own radio when they came out. I had the best
one in town."

Msgr. Mejak's pride and joy are the five brass model
trains he has built over the past 40 years. Each part
was painstakingly handcrafted with steady hands and a
keen eye.

"I loved working with my hands," he said.

But about 10 years ago, Msgr. Mejak was diagnosed with
a degenerative eye disease, leaving him legally blind.
He no longer works with his hands or drives a car. And
he has never been able to master the latest
technological advances of a computer - he simply can't
see the screen.

"Father has always been self-sufficient," said a
parishioner. "He has never asked for help. I can't
remember if he ever did. He never wanted a secretary
or a live-in housekeeper.

"If he ever got a tear in his clothes, he'd just get
out his Singer sewing machine and fix it," she said.
"See, he learned that from his mother. When she was
sewing and cooking, Father was right there, learning
it too."

"Slovenians are a very determined people," she added.

That character trait served Msgr. Mejak well when the
deterioration of his eyesight made it harder and
harder for him to celebrate Mass.

"He enlarges the readings," said one parishioner, "by
wearing large (magnifying) goggles over his glasses.
He just has to read slowly [relying primarily on his
peripheral vision].

"Sometimes he loses his place and he has to refocus.
Then we go on. He is very dedicated and very
determined and doesn't want to give up."

"We take it day by day together," she said.

"I memorize the prayer and the Gospel the day before,"
said Msgr. Mejak. "The Gospel is no problem after all
these years, but sometimes the prayers are difficult."

"I can't see the headlines in the newspaper. They're
too big, and I can only see a part of those letters,"
he said. "I magnify everything only about a quarter of
an inch.

"I work that Xerox machine to death."

Msgr. Mejak still types the weekly bulletin, despite
his failing sight.

"He has always been an excellent typist," said a
parishioner. "He does make errors. He'll say, 'Was it
very bad?' And we'll tell him, 'No, Father, it wasn't
that bad.' He wants to do it."

While lay lectors have been a part of most parishes
since the Second Vatican Council changes were
implemented in the '70s, it has only been in the last
four or five years that Holy Family has seen them.

"We don't have the sign of peace, no eucharistic
ministers. I call it a 'chapel' type of service," said
a parishioner. "Father started letting the children
from the school read a few years ago, and after a
while we were quite sure Father was OK about lectors.
It was time for him to say 'yes.'

"When he absolutely cannot do it anymore, he'll say
'yes.'"

Holy Family still has a Communion rail that is used
daily as well as tabernacle veils - vestiges of a
church many Catholics today have never even seen.

"Father takes care of ordering the candles and the
missalettes," said a parishioner. "He sets up the
vestments and takes care of the tabernacle veils. We
have things at Holy Family that you'll never see in
any other church anymore. But we've never heard a
complaint, ever."

Msgr. Mejak makes no apologies for the way his parish
is run.

"I am old and traditional," he said. "I believe in
old-fashioned things. I must do something that
attracts people here. People come here from six other
counties that don't really belong here. People go
where they feel comfortable. A lot of people feel at
home here. We're down to earth, not snooty."

When asked about retirement, Msgr. Mejak is matter of
fact.

"If I got sick and I had to retire, I think I'd die in
six months - out of boredom," he said. "At the end of
seminary, I was told I'd never be a preacher. That's
true. I'm a lousy preacher, but I'm a good lover, so
to speak. I love the people here in the parish, and I
think they love me. That makes up for a lot of it."

"Because of the shortage of priests, they're not going
to send another priest here," said Msgr. Mejak. "Maybe
they'd combine this parish with another or just close
it down. I've baptized and married three generations
here."

"We all talk about [his retirement] and think about
it," said a parishioner. "But Father doesn't make any
definite comments. He isn't interested in retiring. He
wouldn't have anything to do."

"I don't know what I could do if I retired," said
Msgr. Mejak. "I've never taken a vacation in 25 years.
All my buddies died, you see.

"I still have friends. A group of us priests get
together at Bishop Forst's and play cards and have
dinner - talking the bull. They demand that I make
chili for them."

"I still have friends," he added, "but not buddies."

"I was ordained to serve the people," said Msgr.
Mejak, "and I can do it. That's a beautiful thing."

"I'm very happy here," he concluded. "We're out of
debt. We have money in the bank. I love this parish."

Kit said...

What a beautiful tribute! My husband's grandmother died a few years ago on Christmas, and someone sent this:

An Irish Legend

Whoever’s born on Christmas
Is favored from the start;
Has laughter and good fortune
And a contented heart;
Is loved by noble company,
Has all that should suffice.

But he that dies on Christmas
Goes strait to paradise.