Marathon man

Remembering Msgr. Helidore Mejak, who at 98 was the oldest active priest in the archdiocese — and maybe the country


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.” Heb 12:1 (NAB)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Of the many things that can be said about the life of Msgr. Heliodore N. Mejak, this is true: His priestly vocation was a magnificent marathon.

When he died on Christmas Eve, Msgr. Mejak ended a priestly ministry of 72 years. Remarkably, he spent 63 of those at one parish — Holy Family in Kansas City, Kan. He served under seven popes and seven bishops. At the time of his death, he was reputed to be the oldest active Catholic priest in the United States — and some say the world.

To many Catholics in the urban core of Kansas City, Kan., Msgr. Mejak was a guiding star and a sure landmark in the face of constant, and sometimes disturbing, change.

“You never worried with Mejak around,” said Father Ron Livojevich, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Leawood, who grew up in Holy Family Parish. “We always thought that he’d live forever.”

When one considers that frequent moves for priests have been the norm for many years, Msgr. Mejak’s tenure at Holy Family is remarkable.

Bernice Anzek, longtime parishioner and parish volunteer, says that Msgr. Mejak had several explanations for his long-term assignment.

“I think they forgot about me, so I just stayed on,” he once said.
On another occasion, Anzek said, he explained: “The bishop didn’t ask me to move, and I never asked the bishop to move.” But still another explanation was simplest of all. “I like it here, and I want to stay here.”

Poor immigrant becomes beloved pastor

Stay he did.

Msgr. Mejak was a priest of the old school; the word “retire” was not in his concordance. His was still celebrating Mass at his parish only three days before his death.

“He got to do what he loved to do all his life,” said Father Ron Cornish, a native son of Holy Family. “He would have died if he had to retire. He never wanted to retire. He wanted to die with his boots on.”

Humble origins of a humble man

Msgr. Mejak was born on March 17, 1909, a citizen of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty. His hometown was the seaport of Fiume, now Rijeka, Croatia.

“I can understand Slovenian, but I can’t speak a word of it,” said Msgr. Mejak in a Feb. 7, 2003, interview with The Leaven. “My mother was Bohemian [Czech]; my father, Slovenian. But the official language in [Austria-Hungary] was German, so we spoke German in the house.”

His father John immigrated to the United States first and found work as a tailor; in 1912, the future monsignor, his mother Juliana, and older sister Loretta, left to join him. After they arrived in New York, their meager possessions were stolen, so they arrived in Kansas City, Kan., with just the clothes on their backs — literally.

Heliodore Mejak was only nine years old when his father died. His mother supported Heliodore and his four sisters as a seamstress. In a 2005 story in The Kansas City Kansan, Msgr. Mejak was quoted as saying that “no one was poorer than us,” his mother earning $2 a day. The family raised vegetables and chickens in the backyard.

“[Heliodore] was the man of the house,” said Steven Bader, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Gardner and a nephew of Msgr. Mejak. “I heard stories about the jobs he held outside of school. He worked for a dental lab, making dentures, and he had other odd jobs.”

One of the stories passed down is that at one of his jobs, his employer saw Heliodore eating a cheese sandwich and asked him if he was a Catholic. Heliodore said yes, and was promptly fired.

Msgr. Mejak displayed a precocious, inquisitive mind and skilled hands from an early age.

“I’ve always been very handy,” said Msgr. Mejak in a 2003 Leaven interview. “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.”

Seeds of a priestly vocation

Frieda Bader, Msgr. Mejak’s younger sister, remembers Msgr. Herman J. Koch asking Heliodore at one point why he attended Wyandotte High School and not Catholic High in Kansas City. When Heliodore replied that he couldn’t afford it, Msgr. Koch got him in for free. He was also instrumental in getting Heliodore into St. Benedict’s College, Atchison.

Msgr. Mejak never forgot the kindness that made it possible for him to attend Catholic High. Years later, he established a scholarship at Bishop Ward High School for students who struggle financially.

“Later, when Monsignor Koch thought [Heliodore] had a vocation,” recalled Fraeda Bader, “he came to my mother and told her that if he went into the seminary, he would not be able to provide for the family.”

Even so, she added, their mother consented.

At St. Benedict’s, Msgr. Mejak lived in what was then called Freshman Hall (now Ferrell Hall). When Msgr. Mejak attended a priests’ retreat there in recent years, a Benedictine freshman tried to direct him to his room.

“Young man,” he told the student in his deep, sonorous voice, “I was a student here residing in this room 75 years ago.”

Upon Heliodore’s graduation at the top of his class, Bishop Francis Johannes wanted to send his brilliant young prospect to study theology in Rome. Despite the fact that the young Mejak was an American citizen, however, he had been born in a city that had been taken over by fascist Italy. For fear that the seminarian would have been forced into the Italian Army the minute he stepped off the boat, Bishop Johannes sent him to The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., instead.

“You didn’t go to Catholic University in the 1930s,” said Father Livojevich, “unless you had stellar intellectual capabilities.”

That, the young seminarian had. But, according to the story Father Livojevich was told, what Heliodore didn’t have was a suit.

As he was getting ready to leave for Catholic Univeristy, in fact, Msgr. Koch asked the young seminarian, “Heliodore, where’s your suit?”

“I don’t have a suit,” the young man replied. “I can’t afford one.”

“Go see my tailor,” replied Msgr. Koch. Heliodore went on to wear this one and only suit for four years, ultimately wearing it out.

The future priest was just shy of earning his doctorate at Catholic University when Bishop Johannes called him home to Kansas City, Kan., for ordination to the priesthood and pastoral service.

A marathon of priestly ministry

For nearly 10 years after ordination, Msgr. Mejak’s priestly vocation followed the normal course of pastoral assignments. Then, in 1944, he was assigned to Holy Family Parish in Kansas City, Kan., one of several “national” parishes in what was then the Diocese of Leavenworth, so-called because they served specific ethnic communities. Holy Family was the Slovenian parish.

There, said Msgr. Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., and homilist at Msgr. Mejak’s funeral, “he devoted his many talents — not only as priest and teacher and counselor, but as carpenter and craftsman, watchmaker and chef and electrician — to the growth of this parish community.”

Skilled and self-sufficient

Msgr. Mullen was not exaggerating.

“Msgr. Mejak was the parish carpenter and plumber,” said Father Livojevich. “He designed the school and parish hall — actually did the blueprints.”

For many years, in fact, Msgr. Mejak was practically a one-man show. He mowed the lawn, shoveled the snow, maintained the buildings, and fixed whatever needed fixing. He answered his own phone and door. He ordered all supplies. He typed the parish bulletin.

Naturally, the pastor’s talent and thrift saved a lot of money for the parish.

“He was always proud to tell his fellow priests and parishioners that Holy Family did not have a paid staff — all volunteers,” said Anzek. “We had no debt. We always had money in the bank to take care of problems, and he was always proud of that. He was very proud of that. All the bills were paid on time.”

A traditionalist, but not a rebel

Msgr. Mejak was a traditionalist, but not a reactionary. He was slow to accept some, but not all, of the changes that came to the church after the Second Vatican Council. He always had a reason for what he did — or didn’t do.

“I am old and traditional,” said Msgr. Mejak in a 2003 story in The Leaven. “I believe in old- fashioned things.”

Even though he was said to be among the last priests, if not the last, to regularly celebrate the Mass in Latin, he stopped more than 30 years ago.

“He said it as long as the bishop allowed it as the norm,” said Father Cornish. “Once Bishop Strecker said it had to stop being the norm, he stopped. He was not a rebel in the conservative sense.”

He kept the altar rail and continued to distribute the Eucharist as people knelt there, until his infirmities forced him to distribute it to people standing in a line. He had no lay readers until a few years ago, when failing eyesight forced him to. He never allowed female servers and ignored the shaking of hands at the sign of peace.

“He was a traditionalist, but he always backed it up with intellectual reasons,” said Father Livojevich. “He was sometimes painted as a die-hard traditionalist, but he wasn’t like that, and he bent to practicality. I kidded him once, saying, ‘Aren’t you getting a little liberal? You’re letting women read.’

“And he said, ‘I had to. I can’t read anymore.’”

Little things mean a lot

People who knew Msgr. Mejak remember the little things that made him so endearing. He loved jellybeans and he loved to cook (he made a great chili). He loved opera and knew many librettos. He liked model railroading and made intricate miniature trains from scratch.

He loved to go to the parish social hall whenever something was going on. He loved to go on vacations with his fellow priests — sadly, fewer as the years passed. He enjoyed playing cards with the more senior members of the presbyterate.

And he loved to spend time at a family-owned spot at Gardner Lake. He loved birds, and made sure his parish volunteers watered and fed them regularly.

His pastoral approach was firm and no-nonsense, and marked by intelligence, care, and common sense.

“Fidelity, sturdiness, commitment — those qualities influenced the way he lived, as well as the way he was as a priest,” said Mary Ann Grelinger, a member of the St. Rose Philippine Duchesne Latin Mass Community of Kansas City, Kan., and the author of a biographical article on Msgr. Mejak that was published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review magazine in 2006.

“He was someone you could rely on,” she noted. “He wasn’t going to lean, regardless of the direction [the wind was blowing].”

Father Livojevich agreed.

“He espoused the Gospel to a ‘T’,” he said. “When he said ‘yes’, it was yes, and ‘no’ was no. He didn’t beat around the bush.”

Despite his many talents, however, Msgr. Mejak was not entirely a man for all seasons.

He “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” confided Steven Bader. And in a 2003 interview with The Leaven, Msgr. Mejak himself admitted to falling far short in another department.

“I’m a lousy preacher,” Msgr. Mejak stated bluntly. “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.”

Running the race to the finish

Msgr. Mejak lived alone and was largely self-reliant almost to the day he died. As his infirmities grew over the years, he had to make concessions and adaptations. He began to rely more on parishioners to be his legs and arms, although he was always in control.

For example, deteriorating eyesight caused him to rely on lighted magnifying goggles when he celebrated Mass. When even these failed to bring the Lectionary and Sacramentary into focus, he enlarged the Gospels and Mass prayers on a photocopying machine.

“I work that [photocopy] machine to death,” he once said.

He also relied heavily upon his memory.

“I memorize the prayers and the Gospel the day before,” he said in a 2003 Leaven article. “The Gospel is no problem after all these years, but sometimes the prayers are difficult.”

Indeed, Msgr. Mejak had the week’s prayers and Gospel readings all photocopied and ready to go for the week leading up to New Year’s Day. As far as he was concerned, he had plenty of race left in him.

The Lord, however, had other plans, and Msgr. Mejak was called home on the vigil of his favorite feast day, Christmas.

His parents, John and Juliana, and two sisters — Helen Mejak and Lory McGowan — preceded Msgr. Mejak in death. He is survived by his sisters Vera Clifford of Mission, and Frieda Bader of Prairie Village; nephews Steven Bader of Gardner and Father Denis McGowan, CP, Osaka, Japan; a niece, Mary McGowan Wald, of Livonia, Mich.; and other relatives.

A funeral Mass was celebrated on Dec. 31 at Holy Family, followed by burial at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Kansas City, Kan. The family asked that instead of flowers, contributions be made in the name of Msgr. Mejak to the scholarship fund he established at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan.

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