Missionary who left his mark on West Afrocan nation dies at age 97

Father John Harpel, 1917-2015

Harpel,_Father_John_for_webDivine Word Father John Harpel, founder of St. Paul’s Technical School in Ghana, West Africa, and long-time chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Iowa, passed away on July 3 at age 97.

"He returned to the United States in the early 1970s, but the impact of the trade school continues even 60 years after he laid the foundation," said Divine Word Father Mark Weber, who worked as a missionary in Ghana.

Founded in the late 1950s, St. Paul’s is located in Kukurantumi and is one of the best secondary schools for technical trades in Ghana. Charged with the task by the local bishop, Father Harpel overcame the challenges of sparse resources to establish a technical school that would educate young people who could rival their counterparts in the western world.

Born to William and Mary (Rech) Harpel in Glencoe, Minn., in 1917, Father Harpel was one of eight siblings. Inspired by a cousin who was a Divine Word Missionary, the young Harpel decided to become a missionary priest at the tender age of 7. He began his education with the Society of the Divine Word in 1931 and professed religious vows in 1939. Ordained at Techny in 1944, Father Harpel’s dream of serving in another land temporarily went on hold until the end of World War II.

Assigned to West Africa in 1947, he made the move to what was then the Gold Coast (now known as Ghana) the following year. Upon arriving in the high grasslands village of Kwahu Tafo, he built a simple bush hut as his base and spent a year ministering to the people of the parish and a dozen remote outstations and serving as chaplain to an elementary school and a local clinic staffed by Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.

Recognizing his talent, the bishop moved him to a more established parish for a few years before sending him to England for three years of teacher training. While there, the priest earned a certificate of education from St. Mary's Training College in Strawberry Hill, London, and a diploma of education from Loughborough Training College in Loughborough, England.

Returning to Ghana in 1954, Father Harpel taught at St. Mary's Training College in Somanya, Ghana, for two years. Then came the bishop's request, and Father Harpel set to work building the technical school. Armed with mechanical know-how learned in the repair shop at his father's Chevrolet dealership, he built the school from the ground up. That first year, a large, temporary sheet-metal structure was school to 25 students who studied mathematics, carpentry, masonry, auto mechanics, electrical repair and English.

The missionary then scouted out a permanent location for the new school. He chose a site near an established British agricultural station because it had electricity and piped water, and he drew up the architectural plan. The local tribal chief sealed the land acquisition deal with his thumbprint and construction began. Within 15 years, enrollment grew from 25 to nearly 400. During that time, Father Harpel served as principal.

Now that the technical school was on firm footing, the bishop asked Father Harpel to once again work in a parish. In 1971, Father Harpel was named pastor of St. Theresa in Kaneshie, Ghana, where he served for seven years.

In 1978, he returned to the United States and fulfilled administrative and pastoral duties in the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn., including six years as Mission Office director. He could have retired in 1987 at age 70. Instead, he accepted an assignment as resident chaplain for St. Joseph Community Hospital (now known as Mercy Medical Center) in New Hampton, Iowa, until 2011 when, at the age of 94, he finally retired, gave up driving and moved to Techny.

Father Harpel is survived by many nieces and nephews. His wake took place at Techny on July 8 with his funeral Mass at the residence chapel on July 9. He is interred at St. Mary Cemetery at Techny.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Harpel for the care of retired missionaries and may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.