Father Klimek

Bishop John Paul and Father Bob Cook with their friend, Father Eddie Klimek.

Bishop John Paul and Father Bob Cook with their friend, Father Eddie Klimek.

Eddie Klimek died last week. The obituary identified him as Monsignor Edmund Klimek but it was an honorific he accepted more than appreciated, and no one ever called him Edmund.

I was on my way to the seminary a long time ago when we were introduced. “Tom, you need to meet Eddie,” is how our mutual friend George put it. And so we met.

Our actual paths would not cross all that many times, although when they did he was always very solicitous in asking about my studies or whatever assignment or city I was in at the time, and he always remembered. I kept track of him mostly through George, also a priest not quite halfway in age between Eddie’s final 85 and my modest middle age. In an email or phone call he’d say things such as “Just got off the phone with Eddie,” “Eddie had another funeral,” “I might ride down with Eddie” and, more recently, “Eddie’s dying.”

I wish I’d kept the email where George first reported Eddie’s demise. It was probably about three years ago, maybe about the time George wrote the homily he preached at the funeral. They were artful, heart-felt words, probably better chosen in the buzz of life than in the silence of death. They were words George confidently composed well before the end because the man was too true, too solid, too faithful to warrant editing, not unlike the hope of resurrection that we celebrate at a funeral Mass. It endures.

Eddie may have been declining but he wasn’t dying, at least not really until last month. Up until a couple months ago he was still tending to the pastoral needs of Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire where he was chaplain for 45 years. He lived in an apartment just off the hospital chapel. Someone injured in a car accident, might have found Eddie waiting at the ER when the ambulance arrived. When someone’s mother was going into emergency surgery at 3 a.m., Eddie would be with them. When a child died in a father’s arms, Eddie put his arm around the father’s shoulders. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people could tell these kinds of stories, and they weren’t all Catholic and they may not have believed in God, but they love Fr. Klimek. He didn’t necessarily speak to them about Jesus, but that’s who he was for them.

He was really one of a kind and the last of an era. Most priests, just like most people, don’t want to live in the same place they work. He was always there and he was always on duty. But more essentially the real reason might be that we just don’t have what he had. Even in his final weeks as he became weaker and frailer, before a fall would exacerbate complications and ultimately precipitate his death, he still did his job. His compassion exceeded his stamina.

There’s a chalice Eddie gave me a few years ago, by way of George, that I use for Mass during Advent and Christmas; it’s gold and shiny and lends itself to those seasons. It wasn’t his; another priest had died and passed it on. Still, when I celebrate Mass with that chalice I think of the priest who gave it to me and his tremendous commitment and care, his gentleness and generosity of time and attention, and I pray that I might acquire a bit more of his qualities, and that people might understand when I fall woefully short. TL

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