The Rev. Msgr. Donald W. Eichenseer
(Friday, May 3, 1935-Thursday, December 22, 2011)
The Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
“Bishop, pray that the Lord will take me before Christmas. In Advent we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming to us. However, this Advent, I have been preparing myself to go to Him!” These were more or less the last words that MONSIGNOR DONALD EICHENSEER spoke to me during our grace-filled last visit on Wednesday morning. Earlier that morning, I learned that he had been transferred from Memorial Hospital to St. Paul United Church of Christ Home in Belleville. He had been placed on hospice care. Initially, looking at a busy calendar, I thought I would visit him Wednesday evening or Thursday morning. Then, following an instinct almost every priest has experienced, I decided to drop everything and go see him at once.
I invited Father John McEvilly, the Vicar General and Father Von Deeke, Administrator of Monsignor Eichenseer’s home parish, St. Augustine of Canterbury in Hecker, to accompany me. We found him fully alert and in a very talkative mood. He spoke in his usual matter-of-fact and straightforward manner. He talked with admiration and pride about the priests with whom he has served in the Diocese and he made frank observations to me about his views concerning the challenges a priest faces when he is called by the Holy Father to serve as the Bishop of the Diocese and head of the presbyterate. He gave his comments a degree of formality when he said he wanted the priests gathered around his deathbed to be witnesses to his words. He then joined in all of the prayers as I gave him absolution, anointed him, and gave him Viaticum. He drank some water and enjoyed a few ice chips. I expressed to him the profound gratitude of the entire Diocese for his more than half century of ministry in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and I assured him that I would ask all of the People of God to accompany him on his final journey with their prayers.
After our prayers together, Monsignor Eichenseer asked everyone to leave so that he could speak with me privately. During the moments that followed, we had one of those rare and remarkable conversations that can only take place between a priest and his Bishop when one of the two is reflecting on his life from the unique perspective of impending death. It was a Spirit-guided disclosure of the existential truth of the words, “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto… Et homo factus est.” I blessed him again and kissed his anointed hands and forehead. For me, the rest of the morning was cloaked in silence.
If I had not known the gravity and the aggressiveness of his illness, I might have thought that I would return to see him again in a day or so. However, I knew better and he knew better. I returned to the chapel at my residence filled with thoughts and feelings about the meaning of this last encounter. I reread several pages on the life of St. Peter Canisius, Priest, Doctor of the Church, and “Second Apostle of Germany,” whom the Church honored that day. Knowing that he was suffering, I prayed that his Christmas wish would be fulfilled.
When the telephone rang at 6:30 on Thursday morning and I saw that the call was from Bishop Stanley Schlarman, our Vicar for Priests, I knew immediately that he was calling to inform me of a death in Advent. Once again, I sought out the Lord in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament in my chapel. I commended the life, ministry, joys, sorrows, failings, successes, and the whole being of dear Donald Eichenseer to the ineffable God who, by the Incarnation of His Holy Word, “dwindles infinity to infancy.” Contemplating the colorful enamel image of the Last Supper on the back of my Tabernacle, I savored the wondrous mystery of the all-forgiving God Who this good priest loved so much and served so well.
I turned over in my heart the words of the Gospel of Luke from the morning’s Mass, thinking of the life and ministry of a priest who was cherished by his parishioners and esteemed by his brother priests. I thought Mary’s hymn was now Don’s, “Magnificat anima mea! My soul magnifies the Lord! And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He has looked upon His lowly servant. He who is mighty has done great things for me. And holy is His name.” Ever since that joyful Saturday, May 27, 1961, when my predecessor, Bishop Albert Zuroweste, imposed hands and called down the Holy Spirit upon him, he has made the Blessed Mother’s hymn his own. For more than fifty years in parish after parish, he celebrated the Church’s Year of Grace for the Christian Faithful, touching hearts, changing lives, and refreshing souls uniquely in the celebration of the sacraments from the Baptism of infants to the anointing of the sick and the dying. (I think particularly of his tender compassion and care for the families of teenagers killed or seriously injured in a terrible automobile accident, pointing out with joy one survivor a couple of years later at Confirmation.)
He was full of gratitude for the opportunity to be God’s “lowly servant” in whatever pastoral ministry the Bishop asked him to serve. He once told me that he found his years during a unique period in the history of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish particularly challenging and fulfilling. I, of course, have only known him during his years of tireless service at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Albers and St. Damian Parish in Damiansville. With great pride he presided over the celebration of the Centennial of St. Bernard, and with a great sense of accomplishment he participated in the dedication of the new altar in St. Damian Church. Though he began to feel weary as his lungs began to fail, early retirement was out of the question. He was very committed to celebrating the Golden Jubilee of his ordination as an active Pastor. And, happily, he did! When it became necessary for him to make use of a special portable oxygen tank to facilitate his breathing, he did so without complaint. When he no longer had the energy in his lungs to even walk down the aisle for Mass, he simply took his place in the sanctuary. Even as his energies were in decline he was always happy to be “a priest forever.” Through that priesthood, the Lord has done great things for him and through him.
I regret very much that I am not able to be personally present with the community of faith at St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Church for the Liturgy of Christian Burial on Tuesday, December 27, the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. I assure all who gather there that I am united with you in prayers for Monsignor Eichenseer. “May the angels lead him into Paradise!” In a special way I wish to express my prayers, support and deep personal sympathy to his brother, Irvin, and to his many nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews, great-great nieces and nephews , and cousins. When Irvin and I spoke on Thursday evening, he informed me that his brother will not only be buried near his dear parents, Victor and Barbara; he will also be buried near his older brother, Wilfred, who was killed in a hunting accident at age 15 in 1932, three years before Don was born! Such “reunions” in eternity are the mystery of life and death.
As I prepare to celebrate the Christmas Mass at Midnight at our Cathedral, I see before me the face of Monsignor Eichenseer as I traced the Cross of Christ on his forehead with the Holy Oils. I hear his words, “Bishop, pray that the Lord will take me before Christmas. In Advent we prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming to us. However, this Advent I have been preparing myself to go to Him!” I saw far more joy than sadness on the serene countenance of a good priest preparing peacefully for his death in Advent.
His faith and our hope make us confident
that for Don it really is Christmas!
Light candles everywhere!
It is Christmas!
Sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo!”
It is Christmas! It is Christmas!
It Is Christmas!
And for Monsignor Eichenseer, our brother
in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, it is Christ-
mas that lasts forever! Amen. Amen. Alleuia!