By Joe Bollig
LAWRENCE — Father Richard Wempe was a man of holy simplicity and poverty in death as in life. It was difficult even to find a photograph for his obituary.
Father Wempe, 88, died on Feb. 25 at Lawrence Memorial Hospital a few hours after he fell at home. His funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Peter Cathedral in Kansas City, Kan., on March 1, and he was buried at Holy Family Cemetery in Alma.
Father Wempe — usually known as Father Dick — looked at three locations for as simple and poor a burial as possible, said Father Al Rockers, the funeral Mass homilist.
“Three quiet, isolated places on the edges of our archdiocese where there would not be a requirement for a concrete vault,” said Father Rockers.
Furthermore, he wanted to be buried in the manner of Trappist (Cistercian) monks and his model Blessed Charles Eugene de Foucauld.
“He wanted to be buried on a board and lowered into an open grave, and let Mother Earth have his body back, as [did] Blessed Charles,” said Father Rockers.
Father Wempe was born on March 26, 1924, to Anthony and Clara (Myers) Wempe in Seneca. He had two brothers and one sister. The family belonged to Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and the children went to the parish elementary and high schools.
Father Wempe graduated from Sts. Peter and Paul High School in May 1942. He studied pre-engineering from 1942 to 1943 at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1943 and did his basic training with the 75th Infantry Division in Alabama. Next, he served with the 66th Infantry Division, known as the Black Panthers, from December 1944 to April 1946. The division fought primarily in France; he was a sergeant in the headquarters company.
“Father Dick saw the face of hell,” said Father Rockers. “He worked behind the lines, but saw thousands of people dying, civilians everywhere displaced, and orphaned and starving children.”
The war had a tremendous effect on him, leading him to embrace pacifism and oppose nationalism. He also developed a love for Paris and would return in future years.
The young soldier was discharged from the U.S. Army in April 1946 and returned to the United States. He attended St. Benedict’s College in Atchison from 1946-1947, then undertook studies for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver from 1947 to 1949. He earned a degree in philosophy, and then continued his studies from 1949 to 1953 in Rome. He studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University and resided at the Pontifical North American College. Because he spoke neither Italian nor Latin, said his niece Barbara Kolom, his studies were a challenge to him.
Father Wempe was ordained a priest on Dec. 20, 1952, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome and went on to a series of pastoral assignments in the archdiocese. In 1972, he sought and received permission to minister to poor and homeless men, and founded the Shalom Catholic Worker House in downtown Kansas City, Kan., now operated by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
By then a confirmed pacifist, the soldier-turned-priest also created a “peace library” and supported conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War.
“I had just completed alternative service as a conscientious objector and I heard about a priest who was a pacifist,” said Michael McGrath, a member of Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Kan. “I was never able to find one when I was working with my draft board, so I decided I must meet this man.”
Rupert Pate, a Vietnam War veteran, was an instructor at Fort Leavenworth Command and General Staff College when he first met Father Wempe.
“He was a man of very few words, and he very much believed in prayer,” said Pate. “He believed not only in private prayer, but that we should pray in community and as community. He wrote a series of little guides to daily prayer that he distributed himself.”
He was contemplative by nature, a man of deep prayer and spirituality, said Sister Barbara McCracken, OSB, who worked with him at Shalom House.
“He was a good priest, and faithful,” said Sister Barbara. “He loved the church, and he loved his time in Rome as a seminarian. He got a sense of the worldwide church ahead of Vatican II, and he completely supported the reforms of Vatican II. . . . He was really convinced that nationalism was a sin and [believed in] the Catholic Worker conception of countering militarism.”
Father Wempe partially influenced and inspired Father Michael Hermes.
“I learned a lot how to pray from him,” said Father Hermes, pastor of Holy Name Parish and president of Bishop Ward High School, both in Kansas City, Kan. “He taught me how to pray in the quiet and listen in the silence. It was an important help to me for discerning a vocational call.”
- July 1953: Associate pastor, Blessed Sacrament Parish, Kansas City, Kan.
- May 1956: Associate pastor, Holy Trinity, Paola, and St. Michael Parish, Wheaton
- Oct. 1956: Administrator, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Onaga
- May 1957: Pastor, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Onaga
- June 1959: Resigned to enter religious life with the Cistercian monks near Ava, Mo.
- Sept. 1959: Returned to archdiocese and appointed associate pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Kansas City, Kan.
- April 1960: Pastor, Holy Family Parish, Alma, and St. John Vianney Parish, Eskridge
- Aug. 1963: Pastor, St. Rose of Lima Parish, Kansas City, Kan.
- March 1969: Pastor, Sacred Heart Parish, Paxico
- Aug. 1970: Pastor, Holy Trinity, Paola
- July 1971: Resigned as pastor for ministry to the poor
- Nov. 1979: Pastor, Annunciation Parish, Frankfort, and St. Columbkille, Blaine
- July 1980: Director, Shalom House, Kansas City, Kan.
- July 1989: Pastor, Sacred Heart Parish, Baileyville
- July 1990: Retired from active ministry