Missionary who escaped Nazis, founded Mexican Divine Word seminary passes away

Father Wilbert Wagner, 1912-2006


The Rev. Wilbert Wagner, SVD, 93, died in his sleep in the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 2006, at the Divine Word Residence in Techny, Ill. He had been a Divine Word Missionary for nearly 70 years and would have celebrated the 66th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on Aug. 15.

Born in Pittsburgh, Penn., in 1912, he began his priestly studies in the United States at a young age but was sent to a seminary near Vienna, Austria, in 1937 to complete his training.

When the German (Nazi) army occupied the seminary, he was first sent to Switzerland and then to Holland to continue his theological studies. When the Germans occupied Holland, he fled with two other seminarians on bicycles to a seminary in Germany that was safe – for the moment. They traveled by train from there to Genoa, Italy, and then boarded a ship to return to the United States.

Father Wagner was ordained in 1940. Because of the unrest caused by World War II, he and his classmates were not assigned overseas. He taught in U.S. seminaries in New York and Pennsylvania, and then served as novice master, directing the spiritual formation of seminarians for 13 years.

In 1962, he was sent to Mexico to learn the language and then to establish a seminary near Guadalajara. He remained in Mexico for 40 years serving as pastor, professor, administrator and provincial leader. He remained active well into his 80s and only returned to Techny in 2003 for retirement and medical care.
He is survived by his brother, Divine Word Missionary Father Lawrence Wagner, who is presently stationed in retirement at East Troy, Wis.

A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Friday at the Techny Residence with burial at Techny’s St. Mary’s Cemetery. 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.

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