Called a priest’s priest, Father Bertels never stopped evangelizing

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by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — There’s a story of how a parishioner at St. Gregory Parish in Marysville once went early to a 7 a.m. weekday Mass and couldn’t find Father George Bertels.

He looked around the church and in the sacristy, but no Father Bertels. Next, the parishioner went to the rectory. When no one answered the doorbell, he went in and called to him, fearing the worst. But Father Bertels wasn’t there either.

Finally, he returned to the church, wondering what to do next. To his surprise, there was Father Bertels getting ready for Mass.

“Where were you?” the parishioner asked.

“The same place I am every morning from 6 to 7 a.m. — in the confessional,” said Father Bertels. “If you ever went to confession, you’d know that.”

Father Bertels carried his farmer’s work ethic with him into the priesthood, working long hours and taking care of things himself — whether it was mowing the parish cemetery or fixing the roof. He liked to tinker and fix things.

He was tireless in evangelizing, celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, visiting the sick or imprisoned, teaching and just generally doing what needed to be done. He was always on duty and no one can remember him taking a vacation.

“One quote I remember from Father George is when he told one of his associates that it didn’t seem like Sunday unless he celebrated four or five Masses,” said Father Mark Mertes, pastor of Christ the King, and Our Lady & St. Rose and Blessed Sacrament parishes in Kansas City, Kansas.

Father George Henry Bertels, 87, Leavenworth, died on March 31 at Villa St. Francis in Olathe.

Father Bertels was born on June 3, 1928, one of three children — the only son of George and Marie (Forge) Bertels. He grew up on the family farm near Nortonville. The family belonged to St. Joseph Parish in Nortonville. The seeds of his vocation were planted by Sister Justin in the parish school and by his grandmother, both by prayer and example.

After he graduated from Nortonville High School in 1946, he worked in a post office, an insurance agency and a bank. He felt the call of the priesthood and attended Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri, from 1948 to 1951, and then the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., from 1951 to 1955.

Father Bertels was ordained on May 28, 1955, by Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler in St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas. His first pastoral assignment was as assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima Parish, also in Kansas City, Kansas.

It wasn’t for his work ethic alone that parishioners admired Father Bertels. He was also very caring of individuals, often going above and beyond to console individuals and families during times of illness and death.

“He was wonderful,” said Rita Herken, who grew up attending St. Joseph of the Valley Parish. “The people of St. Joseph of the Valley consider Father Bertels a saint.”

When the parish built a new hall, it was named after Father Bertels.

Dianna Bagby, now one of Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann’s administrative assistants, got her start in church work when she was recruited by Father Bertels.

“I was Father Bertels’ secretary at St. Gregory Parish in Marysville,” said Bagby. “Father Bertels was a great priest. He was serious about his duties, and he was there for the people at all times. And he was very supportive of Catholic education and of stewardship.”

“I remember in one of his homilies how he expressed how he loved being a priest,” she added. “You could tell this was true by the way he lived his life.”

Father Bertels led the effort to plan and build a new parish center and school addition at St. Gregory Parish. Also, during his second term at Marysville, he was injured during a fire that destroyed the rectory.

Father Jim Shaughnessy, who at the time was at a parish to the south, remembered Father Bertels’ keen interest in Catholic education, ministry to the sick and to those who had left the faith.

“He was always an evangelizer, working one-on-one,” said Father Shaughnessy. “He was always working on bringing people back to the church. Everyone knew him. He was a kind of self-appointed hospital chaplain, visiting every room about every day.”

Monsignor Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Kansas City, Kansas, in his homily at the Mass of Christian Burial, noted what a warm, welcoming figure Father Bertels was, especially to new Catholics.

“His teaching, his preaching, his sacramental ministry, especially in baptism and through the Eucharist, gave our new Catholics an exciting view of life, how to live in this world in Christ and how to be one with Jesus in eternity,” he said. “What hope [he] gave!”

“Father Bertels was a priest for 61 years,” he said later. “He was Father Bertels 24/7, as we say. He was always humble, focused on his vocation, grateful for God’s call in his life.”

Father Bertels was the kind of priest to whom younger priests looked up.

“He was a priest’s priest and a man’s man,” said Father Richard McDonald, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Basehor. “He was very kindly toward women. He would assist any priest if asked, if he possibly could. He was helping other parishes right to the end. One of the two Sisters of Charity who helped him said she’d never seen him do a selfish thing. “

An example of his unselfishness was his prison ministry. Although retired, he was at the federal prison three days a week, arriving at 6 a.m. and staying until 9 p.m., completely exhausting himself.

“He spent himself entirely on [the prisoners],” said Father McDonald. “He allowed himself to receive the insults and displaced anger of those men. He knew they had no one to vent to, so they’d vent to him. The Sisters thought he was heroic.”

“He loved being a priest,” confirmed Father Dennis Schaab, CPPS, chaplain to the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. He and Father Bertels shared the priests’ residence at the Sister of Charity of Leavenworth motherhouse.

“He was very prayerful, always reliable, and always on time — a good example to me,” Father Schaab continued. “He thought every priest should work in a prison. Kind of like the pope, he thought the church should go out and help people.”

Father Bertels was preceded in death by his parents and a sibling, Sister Marie Ann Bertels, SCL. He is survived by a sister, Delores Bolin of Goddard.

The Mass of Christian Burial was held for Father Bertels on April 5 at the Annunciation Chapel at the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth motherhouse. The celebrant was Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. Burial was at St. Joseph Cemetery in Nortonville. Memorials are suggested to the seminary endowment fund of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Funeral arrangements were by R.L. Leintz Funeral Home of Leavenworth.

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