by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — Father Thomas Nicholas Hesse did not consider retirement the end of his priestly ministry but, rather, a different phase.
Despite being tethered to an oxygen tank, he loved to celebrate Mass — especially when filling in for a pastor. While in assisted living, he welcomed visitors for counseling and the sacrament of reconciliation.
During the monthly Marian pro-life Mass in Topeka this past October, he told worshipers, “This is the last time God will ask me to carry my cross. And now is the time, I believe, that I will have to stop.”
“His spirit for ministry was strong, but his health was weak,” said Father Joe Chontos, chaplain at the Juvenile Correctional Facility in Topeka. “By staying active . . . he put the focus not on himself and his health, but what he had given his life for — his priestly ministry.”
Father Hesse, 79, died from cardiopulmonary disease on Nov. 26 at Aldersgate Village retirement community in Topeka.
“He was a gentleman and a peacemaker,” said Father Chontos, who knew him since he was a seminarian. “He took life on the light side. In the midst of difficulties and problems, he always found something to smile or laugh about.”
Father Hesse was respectful even in disagreement with others, said Father Chontos. Since saying “I’ll pray for you” could seem condescending, Father Hesse would say, “Let’s pray for each other.”
Father Hesse was born on March 24, 1937, in Paxico. He was the oldest of the eight children of Nicholas and Adelia (Gros) Hesse.
He went to Immaculate Conception Grade School in St. Marys from 1943-1947. The family moved to Flush, where he attended grade school and Flush High School, graduating in 1955. He was a very good athlete, a “terrific tennis player” and Flush High School’s all-time career leading scorer in basketball.
“It was a public school, but the teachers were Benedictine Sisters,” said his brother Larry Hesse, a member of Christ the King Parish in Topeka.
The family lived across the street from St. Joseph Church, and long-serving pastor Father Joseph E. Biehler was a major influence on the future Father Hesse — and everyone else.
“Almost all the social life of the community centered around the church and the school,” said Larry Hesse. “Father Biehler was . . . sometimes affectionately referred to as ‘the sheriff.’”
Tom Hesse was 16 when his father died in 1953, and he became a father figure to his siblings. One evening when the family was watching “Gunsmoke” on TV, he turned it off because it was “too violent.”
“We used to call him ‘the Boss,’” said Larry Hesse.
When it came time for “the talk” about birds and bees for Larry, he heard it from Tom.
“Mom counted so much on Father Tom to shoulder [the load] for our family,” said his younger sister Barbara Hesse. “He was just a kid himself, but he took on the responsibility with honor and grace, and we [younger siblings] looked to him for guidance and advice, as did Mom.”
After high school, Tom Hesse went to St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, graduating in 1963. He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Edward J. Hunkeler on May 25, 1963, at St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas.
Father Hesse had a long and fruitful priesthood spanning 53 years and serving at 25 parishes as an associate pastor, pastor, administrator and sacramental minister.
He became a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain in 1968 and was assigned to the 410 Evacuation Hospital (later the 4204 U.S. Army Hospital). He deployed to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1997.
In addition to his parochial duties, Father Hesse was a chaplain at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing.
From late 1979 through early 1981, he studied at the Jesuit School of Theology, Santa Clara University-Berkeley Campus in California, graduating with a Doctor of Ministry degree on June 30, 1987.
Father Bob Hasenkamp, a retired pastor living in Topeka, was a seminary classmate.
“Father Tom was always a very caring person,” said Father Hasenkamp. “He would schedule himself to help people, especially in his later years, and help other pastors with Mass and confessions whenever his health would allow.”
Father Hesse had a heart full of compassion for the penitent, prisoner, the poor, the unborn and the troubled.
“He was always concerned about the poor,” said Father Hasenkamp. “He worked with youths having problems with drugs. He was very supportive of the Wamego Community Health Ministry.”
Father Hesse was always “looking for the hand of God in things,” and when Project Rescue Amazon Youth (PRAY) co-founder Sally Savery pitched the ministry to him, he immediately gave it his heart.
“[Father Hesse] made two trips with me to Brazil to visit PRAY, and to visit a new religious community that was being founded by Father Gilson Sobreiro,” said Savery, who is now Sister Magdalena of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, PJC. “Father Tom and I traveled from the north of Brazil to the south on a bus ride that lasted several days. What an experience that was! He endured the heat, mosquitoes and other ordeals with courage.”
Father Hesse even helped Father Gilson in the foundation of Sister Magdelena’s order, the Fraternity the Poor of Jesus Christ.
“Wherever he happened to be, that corner of the world became his parish community,” said Father Chontos. “And whether it was one person or a group of people, it didn’t make a difference.”
Father Hesse was preceded in death by his parents and siblings Paul Hesse, Elizabeth Hesse and Nicholas Hesse. He is survived by his siblings Larry Hesse, Topeka; Rosemary Helms-Winter, Flush; Joseph Hesse, Madison, Wisconsin; Barbara Hesse, Olathe; in-laws; and numerous nephews and nieces.
There was a Mass of Christian Burial on Dec. 3 at St. Joseph Church in Flush. Interment with military honors was at St. Joseph Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Wamego Community Health Ministry or PRAY, in care of Campanella-Evans Mortuary in Wamego.