Pastor taught many that ‘you’ve got to love them all’
by Joe Bollig
Topeka — The whole life and 53-year priestly ministry of Father Francis J. Kirsch can be expressed in a single word: family.
He might have followed in the footsteps of his uncle, Father Otto Kirsch, a Franciscan, and become a member of a religious order. Instead, he become an archdiocesan priest, probably to stay close to family, said Msgr. Vincent Kirsch, one of Father Frank’s younger brothers.
But the gregarious Father Frank’s idea of family didn’t end with his rela- tives. Family was his parish, and family was his community.
That community, in kind, turned out in full force Jan. 17 to honor him — so much so, in fact, that the archbishop himself commented on it.
“The incredible outpouring of af- fection and respect for Father Frank Krische demonstrates more powerfully than words,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, “the impact upon so many of the life of one good and faithful priest. I hope the young men present for Father Frank’s wake and funeral are inspired to think about the possibility that God may be calling them to serve his people as a priest.”
Among the multitudes that Father Frank called friends were governors and homeless people, children and seniors, homemakers and business- people, Catholics and non-Catholics — just about everybody and anybody. A nephew’s spouse said she couldn’t go anywhere in Topeka without some- one asking if she was related to Father Frank. A Protestant minister once said, “I love Father Frank!”
“He was such a good role model for compassion, and he could see good in everyone,” said Father Bill Bruning, pastor of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka. “He’d say, ‘Catholic means universal. That means everybody’s coming, Billy. You’ve got to love them all. You’ve got to welcome everybody.'”
On Jan. 12, Father Frank celebrated Mass for the students faculty and staff at Hayden High School — something he really enjoyed. That afternoon, he died of a heart attack while sitting in his chair at home. It was a good death.
From a family heart
Father Frank’s family belonged to St. Joseph, the ethnic German parish in Topeka. His parents were very devout and prayed together, including family rosaries. One thing his parents (and grandparents) prayed for was priestly vocations from their family.
“In our family, priests were held in high esteem,” said Msgr. Krische. “We had a great uncle, an uncle, and three cousins who were priests, and a great aunt who was a Benedictine nun at Clyde, Mo.”
Father Otto Krische, OFM, was a major influence.
“My favorite uncle became a priest,” Father Frank said in a 2007 interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal newspaper. “He really appealed to me as a role model.”
Father Frank’s departure at age 13 for the high school seminary at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, was a great family event.
“Everyone was so proud,” said Msgr. Krische, who was six at the time. “We’d tell everybody that our brother was going to be a priest. We almost or- dained him before he left. We missed himalot. Mom had to pack a lot of clothes in his trunk because he’d only come back for Christmas and the summer. We thought he was the cherry on the sundae.”
Larry Krische remembered that it was a thrill for him to take care of big brother Frank, the seminarian.
“One summer — I don’t remember which one — he broke his leg,” said Larry Krische. “I was the go-to person for getting him water and putting the radio in the window so he could listen to sports.”
Father Frank’s vocation was seen as a great gift to his family and an inspiration to his younger brother Vincent, who also became a priest.
“After [Father Frank] was ordained, Mom and Dad always made [us] kneel so we could receive a blessing,” said Larry Krische. “And when Msgr. Vince was ordained, the two of them would give the special blessing. Even after Mom and Dad passed away, we kept that up.
“The biggest thing I noticed after Frank passed was that Msgr. Vince gave us the blessing, and he was by himself.”
Heart of a pastor
Father Frank served as parochial vicar (associate pastor) and pastor at 11 parishes, but almost half his priestly ministry — 24 years — was spent at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka. He learned of his appointment while on pilgrimage to Rome through a telephone call from the late Archbishop Ignatius J. Strecker.
One who got to know him well was Bill Hund, principal of Most Pure Heart of Mary School from 1979 to 2010. They visited every morning when Father Frank unlocked the church for Mass.
“He was the most visionary, the most kind, the most insightful man I’ve ever known,” said Hund. “He was always very supportive of me. He let me run the school, and he’d help with any difficulties I had. I loved his spiritual direction.”
Father Frank had the common touch, a way of connecting with average folks. “He learned to tell a joke after almost every Mass, and the people loved it,” said Hund. “People saw Father Frank as the pastor who knew how to work with every parishioner.”
Father Frank arrived to find that Msgr. Thomas Culhane, his predecessor, had left a well-run, well-organized parish, said Cathy Mies, parish secretary and parish coordinator from 1978 to 2008.
“He said it took him six months to discern what he was called to do at Most Pure Heart,” said Mies. “And one day, somehow it came to him that stewardship was what Most Pure Heart needed.”
Good stewardship meant not only hitting financial goals, but also a big- hearted embrace of the life of faith.
He loved the parishioners. He loved the people who came to him needing help. He especially loved all the kids at the school. He and Hund would have lunches with students, and Father Frank taught the children a song many (now grown older) still know, “I am a child of God.” He placed a big emphasis on teaching the kids, and the parents, about the sacraments.
He was no micromanager, said Mies. He let people do their jobs, and he was always there to help them and back them up. He was always in charge — slowly.
“He was not a person to make decisions quickly,” said Mies. “If you asked him a question, he’d sometimes say, ‘I have to think about it,’ and you’d think, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go to press with this bulletin!’ It would have to wait. He had to think and pray about it, and consult his parishioners, and then he would make a decision.”
Father Frank gave wonderful homilies, said Sister Ann Moylan, SCL, minister to the sick and dying at Most Pure Heart. With his big, deep, booming voice he hardly needed a microphone. Hospital patients knew when Father Frank was on the scene because they could hear him down the hall.
Sister Ann was a kindergarten teacher when Father Frank asked her in 1995 to start a ministry to the sick and dying. He was always so kind and patient with those who were ill, she said. Sick as they were, he’d often leave them laughing. Sometimes they’d be in denial until they heard from Father Frank that the end was near.
“He told a parishioner who was dying that he’d be in heaven soon and, when he got there, ‘to find me a hole in the front door and pull me through,’” said Sister Ann. “And then they prayed together in German.”
Heart of a mentor
Archbishops learned to trust Father Frank, so his parish became a sort of “finishing school” for new priests.
“He was probably the most laid-back man a guy could live with, and a great teacher by his role modeling,” said Father Bruning. “He really wanted you to succeed, to see you grow in your priesthood. He was always quick to say that you did a good job. He’d say, ‘You’ve done a good job, Billy.’”
Much of Father Frank’s mentoring was informal. Father Frank was a great listener and, at the end of the day, he and Father Bruning would relax in front of the TV and he’d say, “How was your day, Billy?” He also let his associates take risks, like the time Father Bruning started a youth summer enrichment program called Camp Polycarp.
“He said, ‘Give it a try; just don’t let it go in the red,’” said Father Bruning.
Another priest he mentored was Father John Reynolds, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Nortonville, Immaculate Conception Parish in Valley Falls, and Corpus Christi in Mooney Creek.”
“He was a good pastor and a loving man,” said Father Reynolds. “He had a big heart and a deep love for his priest- hood and his parish ministry.”
Father Frank was both generous and nurturing.
“He had a way of making you feel at home,” said Father Reynolds. “The rectory was also your house, not just the pastor’s house. It had a nice, homey feel to it.”
He was always there for a young priest, even years later.
“He was very good to talk to,” said Father Reynolds. “Even until recently, I’d call him. He was one of the guys, if I had a question about a pastoral situation, I’d call to get some perspective.”
Moreover, Most Pure Heart of Mary rectory also became a bit of an IHOP, or International House of Priests, because Father Frank would also mentor foreign priests. He later helped support schools, parishes and orphanages in Guatemala, Ghana and India. Today, in Ghana, there is a Father Frank Krische School.
Father Frank had his priorities straight — and he made sure his associate pastors did, too. As a newly ordained priest, Father Bruning thought he was going to change the world, he said. One day, he came into the parish office after Father Frank told him to take a day off.
“He looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m here to do some work,’’’ said Father Bruning. “He said, ‘Come into my office.’ Like a loving father, he said, ‘Billy, you should take the day off and go see your parents. There are days I wish I could go home and see [mine], but they’re gone now. You won’t have them forever.’”
“So I went home that day,” said Father Bruning. “It’s been five years since my mother’s death, and I’m so grateful that he taught me that Christianity is about relationships — with Jesus and each other.”
Father Frank’s legacy might be the love he taught others how to give.
“Twenty-four hours before he died, we talked on the phone,” said Father Bruning. “He said, ‘Billy, you’re doing a great job. I’m proud of you.’ That’s the last thing he said to me. What more needs to be said? It was the greatest gift he gave me.”