Pilgrimage to mark 15th anniversary of priest’s death

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

On Wednesday, Aug. 19, people from all walks of life will board a bus at Sacred Heart Church in Sauk Rapids and make the 125-mile trip to St. James Church in Maine Township, where Mill Hill Missionary Father John Kaiser was baptized.

“The world desperately needs heroes,” said retired Father Tony Kroll, one of the event’s organizers. “Father Kaiser was a real hero. A church that doesn’t remember its martyrs is a dead church.”

fr_kaiser

Father John Kaiser

The “Real Hero” tour, in memory of the priest who was killed 15 years ago while serving in Kenya, will leave Sacred Heart at 8 a.m. and St. Mary’s Cathedral at 8:30 a.m. Along the way, the bus will stop at St. Mary Church in Alexandria, where retired Father Bob Kieffer will deliver a short presentation on Pope Francis’ document, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Mass will be held at St. James at 11:30 a.m. with Father LeRoy Schik presiding. It will be followed by a meal provided by the parish community and a drive past Father Kaiser’s childhood home in this western part of the diocese.

For the pilgrims, the drive will likely be smooth and comfortable. Father Kaiser’s trips, however, were never that easy. His last journey was down a remote rugged road between Nairobi and Naivasha, Kenya, in his shabby old Toyota pick-up truck.

Father Kaiser worked for more than 35 years in Kenya fighting for justice, human rights and freedom from government oppression. He advocated on behalf of displaced landowners targeted by political “land-grabs” and assisted abused girls until his life came to a chilling end on that desolate road Aug. 24, 2000.

In his quest for justice, the priest ruffled a lot of feathers when he provided testimony that implicated prominent people in the government. He was dragged from his truck and shot in the back of the head just three weeks before he was set to testify against the government of then Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi. An FBI investigation ruled it a likely suicide. A public inquest that began in 2003, however, eventually ruled his death to be a murder. No one to date has been convicted in the killing.

Father Kaiser, who was born in Underwood near Perham, was a classmate of Father Bill Vos, director of Catholic Relief Services for the Diocese of St. Cloud, when the two attended St. John’s School of Theology-Seminary before Father Kaiser joined the Mill Hill missioners in England.

Later when Father Vos was working in Tanzania, he reconnected with Father Kaiser, who was serving “next door” in Kenya. The friends shared many of the same interests like fishing in Father Vos’ boat and hunting wild game to feed their communities. When Father Vos needed to travel Nairobi, he would often stay with Father Kaiser on his way through.

“He’s a legend there,” Father Vos said. “People there tell stories about him, his hunting prowess, of course, but then also about his fearlessness. He was always defending and standing up for folks. In a way, the church of Kenya continues to lift up John’s life and death as an ecclesial national holiday, to inspire and encourage the entire church to face the serious social challenges as John did.”

Because of his strength both physically and in the face of opposition, the Kenyans dubbed Father Kaiser ”Kifaru Wa Maskini,” or “Rhino for the poor,” because a rhino will charge and stop for nothing when it is disturbed.

Father John Odero, a missionary priest from Kenya who is currently serving the parishes of St. Stanislaus Kostka, Bowlus, St. Edward, Elmdale, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis, and St. Mary, Upsala, knew Father Kaiser while studying at the Kenyan seminary where Father Kaiser taught.

Father Odero, too, remembers him as a man of great strength.

“He would go hunting by himself and carry the animal back to the seminary for all of us to eat. He was also a man who would speak his mind. Once he was convinced that something was right he wouldn’t let it rest,” Father Odero said.

He also remembers Father Kaiser as a builder, always assisting the poor.

“At that time, the government was doing things that were not right,” Father Odero said. “The land [of the poor] was grabbed. There was the misuse of young girls. Those are the things that resulted in his death.”

Father Kaiser was a man not only known in the two dioceses he served — Ngong and Kisii — but in the whole nation. “Even those who never met him, by reading the papers and TV news, people came to know who Father John Kaiser was. He was a national figure,” Father Odero said.

Each year on the anniversary of his death, Kenyan bishops, priests, nuns and people visit the site where he was killed. They have a Mass and pray that the truth will still come, Father Odero said.

“We still need to talk about him,” he added. “He was a missioner who stood for justice and trying to defend human rights. That is important [in Minnesota] as well. And I think that is one of the goals for the Catholic Church. It brings people together, and that is one of the ways of spreading the Gospel. It is difficult to do that when the people you want to deliver the message to are people who are not at peace.”

Father Kroll believes that the more people know about Father Kaiser, the more vocations might be inspired by his life and work.

On the return from the pilgrimage to Maine Township, Franciscan Sister Aurora Tovar will talk about consecrated life, to which Father Kaiser also was called.

The tour will make a final stop at St. Francis Convent, where Father Joe Herzing, pastor of the parishes of Holy Family in Belle Prairie and Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Mary in Little Falls, will address guests on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Laudato Si’.”

“Both of Pope Francis’ encyclicals show the importance of love for the poor,” Father Kroll said. “Father Kaiser was all about caring for the poor.”

The excursion, sponsored by the Sacred Heart Knights of Columbus Council #11346, will conclude with drop-offs at Sacred Heart and St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Other initiatives

In addition to the bus pilgrimage, Father Kaiser’s life and legacy are being remembered in other ways.

  • Last September, friends of Father Kaiser established a fund in his name at The Catholic Foundation — The Father John Kaiser Social Fund — that, once it accrues, will be used for scholarships for people who want to study Catholic social justice.
  • The St. Cloud Mission Office will honor the anniversary of Father Kaiser’s death at the Second Annual Barn Dance at 4 p.m. Sept. 5 at Holy Spirit Church in St. Cloud. The celebration — which also will recognize the mission field as a whole, including the partnerships between the Diocese of St. Cloud and the dioceses of Homa Bay, Kenya, and Maracay, Venezuela — includes Mass with Bishop Donald Kettler, a meal with ethnic foods, music, dancing, campfire and s’mores.
  • Groups in four counties of the diocese have adopted a stretch of road in the Adopt-A-Highway program in memory of Father John Kaiser. They are St. James Parish in Ottertail County, the Sauk Rapids Knights of Columbus in Benton County, the Yorek family of Elmdale in Morrison County and a Stearns County group that includes various people. Father Kroll hopes that eventually there will be a caretaker in each of the 16 counties of the diocese.
  • A Boy Scout troop in Maine Township constructed a permanent memorial that tells the story of Father Kaiser outside St. James Church. Inside the church, a showcase includes some of Father Kaiser’s personal items, including his cane.

For more information about the pilgrimage, call Father Kroll at 320-493-7873 or tonykroll@hotmail.com.

Kenyan seminarian remembers Father Kaiser

Lawrence Otieno Dominic first met Father John Kaiser almost 20 years ago as a young boy at Lolgorian Parish in Kenya. The impact of the life and death of Father Kaiser led Dominic to Tangaza University in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is studying to become a Mill Hill Missionary like his friend and mentor, Father Kaiser. He recently wrote this letter to Kateri Mancini, mission education coordinator for the St. Cloud Mission Office.

Dear Kateri,

Peace and joy of the Lord to you, the relatives and friends of the late Father John Anthony Kaiser and the bishop and all the faithful of your diocese. I am Lawrence Otieno Dominic. I am a Mill Hill Missionary student. I am a fourth year theology student in Tangaza University College. And I have the joy to send many greetings to you, the bishop and to relatives of the late Father Kaiser as we are preparing for his 15th anniversary this year.

I lived with Fr. Kaiser in Lolgorian Parish compound until he left us unexpectedly. That was from the year 1996-2000. I was a young boy and during that time 1 learned more about the life of prayer, hard work, love for the poor and zeal for mission.

A week before his death, I told him about my desire to be a Mill Hill Missionary but he told me that it was a good idea but not easy. I discovered what he meant later when he died the following week. And to be honest I was very discouraged.

After his death, life became hard for me but I felt that Lord was calling me to be a MHM and I joined our society in the year 2006. And I have the joy to write this letter to you and the relatives of Father Kaiser to pray with you during his 15th anniversary and to express my gratitude to Fr. Kaiser for the support that he gave me and the rest of my brothers and sisters in Kenya, and for touching my life and shaping me to be a person the Lord wanted me to be.

I will be ordained a deacon on Aug. 8 and I ask for your prayers on this day. After my priesthood ordination early next year, I will go for a thanksgiving Mass in Lolgorian Parish in honour of Father Kaiser and then I will go to NW Cameroon in June 2016 to serve the people of God in a remote village just as Father Kaiser did.

His life of prayer, availability, love for the poor and the zeal for mission are the gifts Father Kaiser gave me and they are the very ones I will offer to the people wherever the Lord will send me. A big thanks to Father Kaiser, his relatives and all people of your diocese and our Mill Hill Society. May the Lord Bless you entire.

Yours Sincerely,
Lawrence Otieno Dominic