Fr. Paul Desch, OFM
He never met a stranger
BY TONI CASHNELLI
A comment from Fr. Hilarion Kistner captured the essence of Fr. Paul Desch. When he and Paul were in Europe in the 1950s, "Wherever we went, he seemed to be able to speak their language."
This was Paul’s gift, the ability to connect with people from every walk of life, at every stage of life.
No wonder the church was packed for his funeral on July 25 at St. Clement. "This is the biggest turnout I’ve seen in a long time," the funeral director confided. Those who came, many from afar, knew Paul as family, teacher, chaplain, pastor, friend – and a friar who sang Ol’ Man River at the drop of a hat.
"He had the most beautiful voice," said a parishioner from Holy Name Church in Cincinnati, where Paul served until failing health forced his retirement. "In the middle of a homily, he’d break into song. It was so joyful."
Several dozen people had something to say during the Reception of the Body. More would have spoken – at least 150 mourners crowded the vestibule – if presider Fr. John Bok had not held the sharing to a half-hour.
‘We are all blessed’
"I knew him from the Newman Center," said one woman, representing many couples. "He married us 30 years ago."
Another whose union was celebrated by Paul said, "I loved his exuberance." When they talked, "You always walked away feeling good."
"He helped us laugh," said a woman whose dying husband received daily phone calls from Paul for two years.
And from others: "He had a special love for the poor"; "He was always whistling"; "He had extraordinary passion"; "We are all blessed to have known him."
"You all have to know how much you meant to him," said Paul’s sister, Mary Sowar of Coldwater, Ohio. "You all did so much for him."
"What a great man. What a life well lived. We will miss him greatly," said fellow friar Tim Sucher.
"I’m delighted to be here, but sad," said Provincial Minister Mark Soehner in his opening remarks for the funeral. "We’ve lost a big person in our lives as a Franciscan community."
Befitting Paul, the upbeat opening hymn – Sing a New Song – set the tone for the liturgy. His family turned out in force, five pews strong, to deliver the readings and present the gifts.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled," homilist Fr. Paul Walsman read from John 14, then eulogized his friend in a personal and powerful way.
"Obituaries have next to nothing to do with death, and everything to do with life," he quoted, walking away from the pulpit. "Wow. Isn’t that the truth."
He made a request. "This is what I’m gonna ask you to do. I know each one of us has cherished Paul’s life, has a reason to be here." Speaking for one group he said, "We are a loving family who grew up with him in Coldwater, Ohio. We knew him when he was coming into his voice. Did he sing Ol’ Man River when he was 10? I know he sang it when he was 20 because I was listening.
"I had the good fortune of being two years behind Paul in formation. At Duns Scotus College he was young, handsome, an athlete. He could do anything. That’s when Paul first came into my awareness. I said, ‘Maybe in two years I’ll be like that, too.’ I never was!"
"At Oldenburg [Ind.] he was a hiker. No hike was too long for this man. Paul and I made a three-dimensional hiking map of the area around Oldenburg with creeks and forests; it was really neat. We sang Ol’ Man River and The Happy Wanderer. This was the Paul I grew fond of and didn’t have a lot in common with. I saw him ordained a deacon, a priest, then he was gone from my life for 60 years" until they reunited at a friary in Cincinnati.
"I would like for us to review that 60 years. We’ll start with family: sisters; brothers; nieces. I’m gonna say ‘family’ and pause, and you’re all gonna say, ‘Thanks, Fr. Paul.’" So prompted, the relatives responded with gusto.
Rallying one group after another, Paul made everyone in the audience a part of the homily. He called on Paul’s students at the minor seminary and Duns Scotus, Paul’s parishioners at Corpus Christi Parish, novices he directed, friends from Holy Name Parish, and communities of sisters for whom he offered Mass.
All were invited to thank Paul verbally, and they did. The final thank-you was reserved for "any friar who knew him."
As for the homilist himself, "I had the good fortune under holy obedience of living with him at St. John the Baptist Friary." Paul Desch was eternally inquisitive, posing questions to his brothers like, "Who are you now that you’re old?" and, "What has life done for you spiritually?"
As his health failed, "He had to give up his car, turn over the keys," said homilist Paul. "That is a heart-ripper when independence is taken from you." Once a week the two Pauls had lunch at Bob Evans, sharing philosophy over toasted cheese sandwiches and chicken soup. "His big question was, ‘What are you reading now?’ We’d get into some good stuff."
Just days before, "I took Paul to the hospital for a procedure for which they found a huge tumor." After surgery, "He was sitting up in bed. We just talked" about their fondness for radio’s Garrison Keillor, the nature of God and being human. "We decided that ‘God’ is a verb, not a noun.’" That night in the hospital, Paul slipped quietly away.
"Are you hearing music?" the homilist asked the congregation. "I think Paul wants us to sing. OK, everybody, we’re gonna do it." He prompted them through several lines from the upcoming Preparation Song, How Can I Keep from Singing?
"Thank you so much," he said in closing. "My sincere sympathy to all of us. Each of us have something in our hearts" as a legacy from Paul.
Like Ol’ Man River, his oversized spirit just keeps rollin’ along.