Father Felix Eckerman SVD, the oldest Divine Word Missionary in North America, died at Techny on Sept. 13 at age 100.
“We lost a holy man and a great missionary,” said Father Provincial Quang Duc Dinh SVD. “He was a man of faith, joy and enthusiasm. We can rejoice, knowing that he now experiences the fullness of happiness in eternity.”
A pioneering missionary in India for more than half a century, Father Eckerman was the last surviving member of one of the largest ordination classes in Techny history. As a student during World War II, Father Eckerman saw the first overseas assignments of many of his older classmates postponed. The changing political dynamics after the war, however, gave opportunities to Father Eckerman and his classmates.
Born in Las Animas, Colo., in 1920, and raised in Akron, Ohio, he was the eldest of Catherine (nee Steinbach) and Felix Eckerman Sr.’s seven children. His interest in becoming a missionary dated back to his childhood when he heard stories of missionaries abroad and his cousin who pursued religious training with the Divine Word Missionaries.
At age 14, he enrolled in Divine Word Seminary in Girard, Penn., and continued his formation at St. Mary’s Seminary (now Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center). He was ordained to the priesthood in 1947. Father Eckerman became a priest the same day that India became a country. Their histories would be linked for the next 51 years.
Father Eckerman arrived in India in 1948, shortly after the country gained independence from Great Britain. He spent three months in Bombay (now Mumbai), learning Hindi before being sent on his first assignment in Barwani, located in central India.
In Barwani, he served the assistant to Divine Word Father Wilhelm Wuellner and ministered to Bhils, the Tribals who were the original inhabitants of the land.
He often traveled the remote and often treacherous roads between villages on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He and Divine Word Father Jerome Ziliak, a classmate also assigned to work in India, had the foresight to buy a pair of motorbikes while still at Techny. They practiced riding them around the campus.
After seven years of missionary ministry in Indore and Mhow, Father Eckerman was asked by the Divine Word Generalate in Rome to become novice master for the region.
His first major decision as novice director was to move the novitiate to an abandoned mission station in Khurda. He did this to build unity among the novices who came from states throughout India and had their own customs, specialty foods and languages.
Father Eckerman served as novice director for 12 years. He then became rector of the Divine Word Seminary in Poona (now known as Pune) in 1968. When asked to remain rector for another term, Father Eckerman said no. He believed Divine Word priests and brothers born in India should have an opportunity to take over. Many of the younger generation of Divine Word Missionaries in India expressed their gratitude.
Father Eckerman chose to celebrate the golden jubilee of his ordination in India, but after that, he wished to go back to his birthplace. He had missed the funerals of his parents and brother, who died in 1990, and longed to spend time with his sisters.
In 1999, Father Eckerman returned to the United States and served five years as chaplain to the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters in St. Louis before retiring to Techny in 2006.
Father Eckerman was preceded in death by his parents; two sisters Cecilia Barich and Victoria Foley; and a brother, Joe Eckerman. He is survived by three sisters, Sister Irene Eckerman OP, Mary Kay Goodley and Terry Falter, and many nieces and nephews.
His funeral Mass will be on Friday at the Divine Word Residence Chapel. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, attendance will be limited to Divine Word Missionaries who live at the residence. He will be buried at St. Mary Cemetery at Techny.
For those unable to attend the funeral because of COVID-19 restrictions, Father Eckerman’s funeral Mass will be live streamed at https://youtu.be/073GHqAiDhc.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Eckerman can be made for the care of retired and infirmed missionaries and sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.