THE STORY OF FATHER VALERIUS MESSERICH OFM
Fr. Valerius Autobiography for the Provincial and the Franciscan Archives
Fr. Valerius Messerich O.F.M.
Fr. Valerius Messerich was born in St. Paul on December 17th, 1919. His name at birth was Urban John Messerich. He grew up at the intersection of Robert and Medota, on a 40 acre farm, in Inver Grove Heights. His father was a truck gardner, and his mother raised the four Messerich children. He worked in the garden as a child. The produce that was grown was sold at the Farmer’s Market in St. Paul. The family needed this money to survive in the Depression, and the price received was minimal. There was no problem with survival however. In his own words, they had plenty to eat, and plenty of trees to cut down for firewood, which was part of how the house was heated besides coal. The family had lots of vegetables, but also had hogs and sheep, and so had meat aplenty. The family actually ran a feeding lot for the fattening of sheep for the South St. Paul stockyards.
Fr. Val’s parents were John and Delphine Messerich. Delphine’s family name was Sitzmann, and she was from Ohio St. on the West Side of St. Paul. Fr. Val knows nothing of how his parents first met, but his recollection of his childhood is that they were a very happy and loving couple and the home was always steeped in the Catholic faith in a deep and holy manner. John and Delphine were accustomed to go to Sunday afternoon devotions in addition to Sunday Mass. The family had lively prayer together. They said the rosary during October and May, and night prayers together during the entire year.
His mother died from cancer in 1936, when she was 49. John never remarried. The death of his mother was very tragic in that her death split the family, and at the time of her death Fr. Val was in the seminary. After Delphine’s death John sold the farm and moved to the city. This was in 1936 also. The family broke up with death of his mother. Fr. Val’s 2 brothers were drafted into the army in 1938. The second World War was already foreseen in those days as coming, and so their draft was associated with that war.
Both of his brothers made it through the war. One brother was a radar technician with a British group, and the other brother was a tail gunner in the air force. This brother was shot down over Luxemborg, Germany, but the Germans that captured them were friendly to the West and so he made it back to England practically by foot! This was in 1944.
The grade school Fr. Val attended was St. Matthew’s in St. Paul. The sisters of Notre Dame,who taught there, were very influential in his vocation to the priesthood. His mother, Delphine was very close to Sister Marella, his fourth grade teacher, and this relationship influenced his going on to the priesthood in a very powerful way. He first felt called to the priesthood in the fourth grade at St.Matthews, and it never left him after that. He was 13 when he went into the seminary, in 1933, as a high school student. It was a Franciscan seminary at St. Joseph’s college in Westmont, Illinois.
In 1939 Valerius entered the Franciscan noviate in Tutopolis, Illinois, having completed the minor seminary work at St. Joseph’s college. The thing Fr. Val recalls most about the noviate is that it included exclusion from all external contact including newspapers, radio, and family. He was completely settled in the novitiate, and his family wanted him to keep on going. In all other regards he thoroughly enjoyed the novitiate and went from there to senior college in Cleveland, Ohio, at our Our Lady of Angels Franciscan seminary. He remained there from 1939 to 1943. In 1944 he began his theology work at St. Joseph’s seminary in Tutopolis. He was ordained in 1946 in Tutopolis by Bishop William O’Conner.
After ordination he was sent to Rome to get a doctorate in Philosophy at the Franciscan university, the Antonianum, in Rome, Italy. It was the Pontifical University. The Vatican was about two and a half miles away. The Colliseum about 4 blocks. The hill called Ara Coeli, a basilica on the top of the Captitaline hill on Piassa Venacia, was the headquarters of the Franciscan Order until confiscated by the Italian government in 1887. At this time it was one of the major churches in Rome. He got involved in Hedmund Husserl’s phenomenology, and that brought him to the University of Lovaine, Belgium. In total he spent three years getting his doctorate in Philosophy.
He received the doctorate in 1951. He was being educated so he could teach in the Franciscan seminary. This he did back at Our Lady of Angels seminary in Cleveland, Ohio, beginning in 1951 after receiving his doctorate. During all of this time he did no other ministry work. He taught philosophy to the candidates in formation.
He taught from 1951 to 1962, when he was called to Rome as the rector of the student priests and doctorate candidates at the Antonianum. In this role he was the religious superior to the 100 to 150 students that were there; all Franciscans from all over the world! As their religious superior he gave them conferences, and spiritual direction. As any superior he guided them in the Franciscan lifestyle. This was after Vatican II, and the wearing of the tonsure was abolished and candidates could wear street clothes. Fr. Val was the advisor on how these changes were put into practice by the seminarians.
As an aside, Fr. Val also went to St. Peter’s in Chicago in 1951, and from then until sometime in 1978 he became involved with the Secular Franciscans at St. Peter’s. It was not his first involvement with Secular Franciscans. That occurred when he worked with a youth fraternity in the Third Order of St. Francis in Aurora. A high school fraternity. In total Fr. Val spent over 20 years guiding the Secular Franciscans there and in various places.
In 1969 Fr. Val voluntarily returned to Sacred Heart Province in Quincy, Illinois. The Provincial at the time, Germaine Schwab, told Fr. Val he could ‘go to Quincy college and teach’, which Fr. Val found to be a ‘brush off’ after his wonderful and special stay in Rome. He was somewhat upset by the whole thing because he had been involved in spiritual formation of students in Rome and to give that up to teach in a college was very difficult. He was not assigned to Our Lady of Angels seminary formation process as he had hoped for. Two weeks after this Germaine died in a car accident. At Quincy college Fr. Val was immediately given a professorship in Philosophy, and he taught philosophy. He was subsequently elected guardian of the friar community by the friars themselves. They continued to live in what was called the ‘friar’s Hilton’, which were the living quarters for the friars teaching at Quincy college.
Following this, in 1978, he volunteered to go to Zaire, Africa to the Belgian friar missions there. While there his primary function was to assist the Belgians in the Belgian missions in Shava, which borders Zambia and Angola. The tribe was the Katanga. These Katanganese people were the focus of the mission.
During this time the Belgians were driven out by the Katanganese consistent with the directives of Vatican II to turn over the foreign missions to the native Church. Basically, the Belgians lost all of their missions there at this time and Fr. Val had to leave too as he was there to help the Belgians run their missions. All foreigners were essentially driven out. What actually happened was that French paratroopers came in and escorted Fr. Val up to the central part of Zaire, that is, Kamina. From there he was returned to the States.
One interesting incident that occurred during this time was when the native troops were arresting the foreigners to execute them. Fr. Valerius and the friars with him were not taken captive and allowed to remain in their dwelling with the commitment on their part that they would have no contact with outside people. They were given this privilege after Fr. Val gave his watch to one of the leaders of the troops which lead the troop leaders to allow them to stay at their residence rather than being brought into the city and executed with others there. Thank you Fr. Val!
After Zaire Fr. Valerius was appointed the pastor of Guardian Angels in Chaska, Minnesota by the Province. Guardian Angels is a Franciscan parish and while there he became re-involved with the Secular Franciscans. He attended their meetings and gave them spiritual direction. After this he was assigned by Archbishop Roach as pastor of St. Mathias in Hampton, Minnesota. He remained there as pastor until his retirement in 2002. He retained his role with the Secular Franciscans.
Fr. Val got further involved with the Secular Franciscans in St. Paul and the Midwest through his fraternity in Chaska. He was appointed as the spiritual assistant to the Regional Council of the Secular Franciscans in the late 80’s when the SFO was being united locally as part of the national regionalization of the Secular Franciscan Order. At this point Richard Morton was National Minister to the SFO, and Bruce Fahey was the appointed regional minister of the SFO for the region, which was named ‘Queen of Peace’ at the first regional meeting of fraternities held in 1990. Father Val became Bruce’s spiritual director at this time, even as he guided all of the SFO functions and processes of the newly formed region.
From 1991 until 2002 Father Valerius was the spiritual director of both the Secular Franciscan Order, Queen of Peace region, and the guiding force behind the Stella Matutina movement within the SFO that ultimately lead to the creation of the private Association of the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis, founded by Bruce and Shelley Fahey, and first approved by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn on October 22, 1996. Fr. Val routinely attended all Secular Franciscan professions during this time and visited all of the fraternities of the Queen of Peace region. He also accepted the first commitments of the first members of the new Association, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, on the feast of St. Francis, October 4th, 1997 at St. Mathias. The first pledges of members to the Rule of 1221 within the BSP occurred on January 11, 2003, with Fr. Val in attendance. These pledges were received by Archbishop Flynn himself. The Association is now in the Official Catholic directory for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Fr. Val is the founding friar guide of the organization.
Fr. Val remained at St. Mathias until he retired and relocated to the friary at Sacred Heart in St. Paul in 2002. He expects to stay in residence at the Sacred Heart friary for his remaining years, although he might consider going to Crowley, Texas.
(This summary was typed by Bruce Fahey in Father Val’s office at the friary on October 20th, 2004. He approved the final draft.)
Also visit the BSP Tribute to its First Visitor at this page: Father Valerius Messerich O.F.M., Our First Visitor