From farmer’s son to pioneer: Missionary let providence lead the way

Father Elzear "Al" Gehlen, 1915-2010

Gehlen,_Fr_Elzear_for_webDivine Word Father Elzear "Al" Gehlen, 94, a respected pastor in an African-American parish on Chicago’s Southside during the Civil Rights Movement, died on Saturday, June 12, at Techny, Ill.

Father Gehlen credited divine providence with his life journey, which took him from his parents’ Minnesota farm to the mountains of New Guinea and beyond. Elzear Gehlen was born in Glencoe, Minn., the fourth of Joseph and Catherine (nee Willems) Gehlen’s 11 children.

He was a grade school student when a Divine Word Missionary visited his school and ignited his desire to become a missionary. In 1939, the then-24-year-old Gehlen professed first vows. In 1944, he became a priest, but with World War II raging, leaders in the Society of the Divine Word ceased appointments of newly ordained priests to the missions in the South Pacific.

Instead, Father Gehlen took a course at Alexian Brothers Hospital in Chicago on treating tropical diseases, such as malaria and skin ulcers. His superiors later sent him to Bordentown, N.J., and then Cathedral Parish in Youngstown, Ohio.

In 1947, with the world situation improved, he was assigned to Koge, New Guinea. While there, he built a mission church, school and other buildings needed for the mission station in the mountainous region. He also tamed horses for other missionaries, introduced coffee and peanut crops to the region, and taught the residents how to rotate crops and saw planks from trees.

In 1954, Father Gehlen returned to the United States for back surgery after being thrown from a horse. Upon his recovery, he became assistant pastor at St. Elizabeth, Chicago’s oldest African-American parish, thus beginning the second stage of his career.

During the late 1950s, Father Gehlen coached the St. Elizabeth High School basketball team and led them to two consecutive city championships. In 1957, his team went all the way to win the National Invitational Interscholastic Basketball Tournament.

Later that same year, Father Gehlen joined the staff at St. Anselm. Four years later, he became pastor and served the parish until 1977 when he was assigned to St. Mark in Venice, Ill, which lies across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. After 11 years at St. Mark, Father Gehlen retired and became priest-in-residence at St. Cecilia in Mount Prospect, Ill.

Joann Harper, who graduated from St. Anselm and later returned as a teacher, met Father Gehlen when she was a second grader. "He was the tallest man I had ever seen," she said of the man who stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall.

"He put the fear of God in us," she said with a laugh. "He was a genuine, loving person who cared about the kids and the school and the parish. Everyone looked up to him and respected him."

One of Harper’s most compelling memories of Father Gehlen dates back to 1968 when riots broke out on Chicago’s Southside following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Father Gehlen actively brought together the gangs to bring some peace to the neighborhood," she said. "He was a part of the community, as well as the parish."

Dr. Dorothy Williams, a scholar of theology and biblical studies, also appreciated Father Gehlen’s presence at St. Anselm, where her children attended school.

"He knew how to discipline in love," she said. "He was like a shepherd. His presence was part of his ministry. The children would gravitate to him."

She told of the sports and skating arena that he built so that the children in the community had a safe haven. "To know him was to love him," she said.

Father Gehlen once told a reporter that divine providence led the way. "My life has given me great faith in divine providence," he told the reporter. "Everything seems to work out in the end."

He is survived by two sisters, Joanne Boyle and Claire Speck.

His viewing, wake and funeral will take place at Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center. On Friday, June 18, the viewing will begin at 6 p.m. and the wake service at 7 p.m. On Saturday, June 19, Father Gehlen’s funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m., followed by burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Techny and a luncheon at Techny Towers.

Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center is located at 2001 Waukegan Rd., Techny (Northbrook), Ill. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations for the care of retired missionaries may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.

Return to Main Obituaries page