'Happy' could be his middle name: The story of Father Felix Eckerman SVD
Father Felix Eckerman served as a missionary priest in India for five decades and as chaplain for the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters for another five years. He has been a Divine Word Missionary for 75 years and a priest for 70. This article was originally published in 2013. We post it again in honor of Father Eckerman's 98th birthday.
Father Felix Eckerman SVD became a priest the same day India became a country. Their histories would be linked for the next half century.
During the evening banquet at Techny that followed Father Eckerman’s ordination on Aug. 15, 1947, word spread that India had gained its independence from Great Britain. The news was significant for Father Eckerman, already assigned to missionary work in India the following year.
Now 93 and living at the Divine Word Residence at Techny, Father Eckerman recalls that he first became interested in India while he was a seminarian listening to talks from former missionaries who had served in the country. His interest in becoming a missionary dates to his childhood. "My mother tells me that when I was going through missionary magazines I said, ‘That’s where I’m going.’"
Father Eckerman was born in Colorado in 1920 to parents of German descent and raised in Akron, Ohio. He would be the oldest of seven siblings, followed by five sisters and one brother. A cousin pursued religious training with the SVDs, which piqued the young Felix Eckerman’s curiosity about the order. When he was 14, he joined the SVD minor seminary in Girard, Pa. He completed his training at Techny. "I did most of my formation work over at the Towers [Techny Towers, formerly St. Mary’s Seminary]," he said. He chuckled before adding, "Mopping a lot of corridors."
Father Eckerman arrived in India in 1948. He spent three months in Mumbai learning Hindi – "Which isn’t enough," he said – before being sent on his first assignment in Barwani, located in central India. He became the assistant to SVD priest Father Wilhelm Wuellner, "a good German missionary," Father Eckerman recalled. "He broke me into that mission work."
In Barwani, Father Eckerman ministered to Bhils, the Tribals who were the original inhabitants of the land. The Tribals of the regions were animists with a belief in the afterlife. "So they were very much open to Christianity," he said.
Father Eckerman traveled the remote and often treacherous roads between villages on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He and Father Jerome Ziliak SVD, a classmate also assigned to missionary work in India, bought a pair of Harleys while still at Techny and practiced riding them around the campus. Father Eckerman found the motorcycle ideal for traveling in remote India, although he confesses to several tumbles along the rut-pocked roads.
He was never seriously injured, though today he blames his bad back on the long-ago spills. "They sort of caught up with me in my old age. I still walk. Sometimes like a drunken sailor, but I still walk, and I’m quite happy about that," Father Eckerman said with emphasis on the word "but."
After seven years of missionary work, Father Eckerman was asked by the SVD Generalate in Rome to become novice master for the region. "I had no preparation for that," Father Eckerman said. "Nevertheless, they asked me to get into that."
He immediately decided to move the novitiate to a remote, abandoned mission station in Khurda. He did this to build unity among the novices who came from states throughout India that had their own customs, their own specialty foods and their own languages. "It was good to get these guys to one place together," he said. "I am happy to know it is still there."
Father Eckerman remained novice master for 12 years when he was asked to become rector of the Divine Word Seminary in Pune in 1968. "Again, this comes from the Generalate," Father Eckerman recalled. "I said, ‘OK, I’ll take a crack at it.’"
When asked to remain rector for another term, Father Eckerman said no. He believed homegrown SVDs needed to take over. "I said, ‘It’s high time we got our Indian boys into these jobs.’ I was the last of the foreign novice directors and the last of the foreign rectors."
Father Richard Vaz SVD was a novice in 1970 when he first met Father Eckerman. Like many Indians who would go through the seminary in Pune, Father Vaz was enthralled by Father Eckerman’s decision to step aside. "As a man of vision, he felt it was time for Indian SVDs to take up the job. … Instead of clinging to the post, he was seeing something beyond."
Father Eckerman became the seminary’s spiritual director and remained in that position for 27 years. "Whoever went to him for spiritual direction, he allowed us to see God for ourselves in his gentleness," said Father Vaz. "He really walked the talk."
Father Eckerman was keen to celebrate his ordination’s golden jubilee in India, and he did so in 1998 wearing a turban instead of a biretta, but after that he wanted to return to America. He had missed the funerals of his parents and his brother, who died in 1990, and longed to spend time with his sisters, including one who was a retired nun. "Ultimately, I said I was the big brother. I’d go back and see my five sisters."
After his return to America in 1999, Father Eckerman spent five years as chaplain to the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters in St. Louis before retiring to Techny.
He still offers spiritual guidance to a new generation of novices and enjoys socializing with them at the Divine Word Residence at Techny. "Today we have bingo," Father Eckerman said. "They’ll be here."
Father Vaz was reassigned from India to the Mission Office at Techny in 2007. He was thrilled to renew his friendship with Father Eckerman. "It has been a long, cherished relationship," Father Vaz said. "Any little thing I can do for him, I do with gratitude."
Every October Father Vaz drives his mentor to Akron to visit his sisters and their families. "They have adopted me into their family as their brother," Father Vaz said. This has upgraded his relationship with Father Eckerman. "We are truly brothers," Father Vaz said. "That is the bond we enjoy at this moment."
When Father Eckerman thinks of India, "I just have memories of good people. I could easily have retired there." He especially recalls the Tribals, their simplicity and happiness. They taught him a lesson in happiness, he said. "That’s one of the important things in life – a need to be joyful and happy." Father Eckerman smiles and notes that his name, Felix, is Latin for "happy." He said, "Even when I cry, I’m still Felix."
Article originally posted: November 11, 2013