Service to the Ghanaian people proved to be a familial mission for one Kentucky family


A Q&A with Laura Schuhmann

Laura Schuhmann made a promise to a dying relative. She told Marie Heckel, her father’s first cousin, that she would publish the book that Marie had labored on for 20 years—the story of Marie’s brother, a Divine Word Missionary who served in Ghana. The book, “Kokoroko: Brother John Heckel’s Singular Devotion to the Ghanaian People for 40 Years,” tells the story of his time in Ghana and his vocation as a religious brother.

What inspired Marie Heckel to write “Kokoroko: Brother John Heckel’s Singular Devotion to the Ghanaian People for 40 Years?

After her brother’s death in 1999, Marie often thought Brother John’s life of service to the Ghanaian people was a compelling story worthy of sharing with the world. His 40 years spent in Ghana were full of major challenges and obstacles but also great achievements and joy.

What can you tell us about her process of writing the book?

Brother John was a prolific letter writer and began a lifelong correspondence with his family and friends from the very first week he spent at Techny in 1949. There are literally hundreds of letters, cassette-tape recordings and photos from his 40 years as a brother and the 10 years he spent in Techny prior to his first mission.

Brother John shared the entirety of his experiences with his family, and they in turn were part of his mission. His sister Marie and their mother Elizabeth assisted in all his endeavors here in the States and were an integral part of his mission. His brother, Brother Rudolph Heckel SVD, also played a role from his post in Rome. Brother John’s mission in Ghana was truly a family effort.

Did Marie travel to Ghana to see his missionary work firsthand?

Marie made her first trip to Ghana in 1961. She was fascinated with all aspects of the people and the culture. She returned to Ghana several times to visit John and to help him in administrative areas and to teach English for a short time to many of the Ghanaian team members on the Wenchi Water Project, which provided clean drinking water for the people in the village. Her final trip to Ghana was in 1999 for Brother John’s funeral.

Marie spent 15 years, on and off, after Brother John died, pouring over all the letters, harvesting the details, highlighting interesting events, making outlines, writing the book in bits and pieces, and finally putting it all together in a rough draft version.  This rough draft had many revisions, additions and subtractions over many years. Marie had grand stacks of letters, photos, and printed portions of her writings and subsequent revisions scattered all around her home.

She often sent out sections to family and friends to get their feedback. In her late eighties, Marie no longer had the capability or technology to publish her book though it was her greatest desire to do so. I promised her that I would make it happen. Marie passed away in December 2019 just before COVID hit. I used the lockdown period to concentrate on putting all the pieces of Marie’s writing together and self-published her book on Amazon. Her life’s goal was finally accomplished, albeit too late for her to truly celebrate while she was still alive.

Did you know Brother John personally? If so, what are your favorite memories of him?

I remember as a young child when Brother John would come back to Louisville on home leaves every 3 years or so; we would have at least one family get-together to visit. He was a very jovial, fun guy. He was always joking around. My favorite memory of him was his rich, belly laugh – he laughed easily and often!

What inspires you about Brother John’s example?

When I was a young adult, Brother John was entrenched in the Wenchi Water Project. I admire how he helped people get access to clean water – something we take for granted here in the States. That project enhanced, improved and saved lives! I was so impressed with his mission that I wrote a paper about him in college.

After getting deeply involved in the process of publishing this book and after reading every single letter and listening to the cassette tapes, I am simply in awe of Brother John’s complete selflessness in serving the people of Ghana and his absolute and total devotion to God. I also learned from his letters what a humble man he was. I can only, now as an adult, appreciate all that he sacrificed – his entire life – to serve others. What an incredible life he lived.

What do you hope readers to gain from reading the book?

This book about Brother John Heckel is an intimate portrait of one man’s remarkable, well-lived life. Not only is this story of Brother John’s inspirational life, it is a fascinating journey into the Ghanaian culture and the brotherhood vocation. Readers of the book will learn about the fulfilling life one can lead by answering the call to the brotherhood. I hope all readers can be inspired by Brother John’s unselfish service to others and learn more about other peoples and the struggles they face. Maybe some will answer the call to serve.

“Kokoroko: Brother John Heckel’s Singular Devotion to the Ghanaian People for 40 Years,” is available on Amazon at: Proceeds of the book will aid Divine Word Missionaries who work in more than 80 countries around the world.

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