Monsignor Wagener’s missionary spirit to live on in new award
By Franz Klein
LA CROSSE – It has been said that the late Monsignor Anthony P. Wagener was not a man to compromise. He didn’t compromise in living his priesthood, and he didn’t compromise in his defense of life. Neither did he compromise when it came to supporting the missions.
For this reason, said Father Roger Scheckel, current director of the diocesan Office of Missions and the local chapter of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the diocesan priest who died in 1994 is the namesake of the new, annual Monsignor Anthony P. Wagener Award for Missions.
The first individual and institutional awards were given out Oct. 1 during a special luncheon at Blessed Sacrament Parish in La Crosse. The event took place in a recently dedicated pastoral center that also bears the name of the longtime Blessed Sacrament pastor.
Eulogizing Monsignor Wagener after his death in 1994, Monsignor Bernard McGarty called Father Joseph Walijewski Monsignor Wagener’s “alter ego in Peru’s barrios.” The flipside of the same coin, Monsignor Wagener was the engine that drove the missions here in the “campos” of La Crosse.
“He and Father Walijewski were the great collaborators in the missions,” explained Father Scheckel, recalling how he once complimented a brief, impassioned speech Monsignor Wagener had given to the parish PCCW in the presence of Father Walijewski. “It’s Joe Walijewski,” Monsignor Wagener had replied. “I’m always inspired when he’s here.”
Noting the number of estates the Mission Office is currently receiving from people who knew Monsignor Wagener, Father Scheckel said it was the intrepid, firm pastor who “was able to instill throughout the diocese a missionary consciousness that has born the fruit of people remembering the missions.”
“Somebody plowed that field, and it was Monsignor Wagner,” Father Scheckel said.
In 1947, Bishop John P. Treacy appointed Monsignor Wagener director of the office Father Scheckel now heads, which is responsible for the diocese’s missionary outreach. When Bishop Treacy begrudgingly released Father Walijewski to service in Bolivia soon thereafter, the bishop told him he wouldn’t be receiving a priest’s salary.
It was then-Father Wagener who prevailed upon the bishop to allow Father Walijewski to begin taking up Lenten Mite Box collections, a practice that continues to this day.
Responsible for the early development of the diocese’s missionary outreach, Monsignor Wagener continued his efforts afterwards as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish, where he was assigned in 1967. Even after Monsignor Wagener’s death, the La Crosse parish served as Father Walijewski’s base of operations in the diocese.
Speaking about Monsignor Wagener at the awards luncheon, Dave Reinders reflected on how many people the priest had inspired. “I know how perfectly he loved the missions and believed in giving to the missions,” he said in his remarks.
Reinders first came to know Monsignor Wagener several years before he was assigned to Blessed Sacrament, when the priest was building Roncalli Newman Center, the edifice that houses Catholic outreach to the students of what is now the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He and Mary Jo Reinders – currently Father Scheckel’s secretary in the Mission Office – were one of six couples for whom the monsignor played matchmaker while at the college.
He recalled how Monsignor Wagener had gotten him a job at Aquinas High School. “One day I was with monsignor and was lamenting how hard it was,” he said. “I had five days left until the end of the month and I had $10. I guess I was looking for a little sympathy. But monsignor said, ‘Get out the $10 and give it to the missions.’ I told him, ‘Monsignor, I can’t do that.’ He said, ‘That’s because you don’t have enough faith.’”
While Reinders kept his $10 that day, he said Monsignor Wagener wouldn’t have. At the end of every month, he related, the priest gave any balance in his checkbook above $1,000 to the missions. “So that’s the way he lived his life,” Reinders said.
Some members of Monsignor Wagener’s family were also among the approximately 110 people who gathered Oct. 1. A niece, Sister Judy Wagener, SSND, spoke fondly about her uncle.
Also offering a few words was the priest’s only living brother, Lars Wagener, who came all the way from Louisiana. “I want to say how proud I am of him and his memory,” he said.
Although he has passed away, another Wagener sibling, Conventual Franciscan Brother Aloysius Wagener, was a big part of Monsignor Wagener’s support for the missions, according to Father Scheckel.
Serving in Zambia while Monsignor Wagener was pastor at Blessed Sacrament, Father Scheckel said Brother Aloysius would send native artifacts to his brother, which the priest would pass on to the parish households most generous to the missions.
“There are probably no less than 30 or 40 homes around Blessed Sacrament that have a carved figure in them,” Father Scheckel said.
“I really found his giving to be a profound witness,” added Father Scheckel, who, in addition to his duties in the Mission Office, is pastor of St. James the Less, La Crosse. “He always taught me, ‘Father, when you run a parish someday, if your parishioners are generous to the missions, you will have no problem with your own finances.’”
“That’s been true for me here at St. James.” Father Scheckel added.