Fr. "Rocky" Reichel, OFM
A spirited celebration of life
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Fr. William Reichel, OFM, had so much personality, "Any room he was in, he dominated," said Jill Chasto.
Whether you knew him as "Bill" or "Rocky", his irrepressible spirit enveloped everyone around him. At Rocky’s Oct. 5 funeral his presence was keenly felt, his wit and warmth evoked in the poignant sharing of stories by friars, family and friends at St. Clement. And it reverberated in song as choir members from Good Shepherd Parish sang soulfully on behalf of one of their most popular preachers.
Deacon Jim Jones, a friend for 40-plus years, met Bill at Good Shepherd, where his no-nonsense style endeared him to parishioners. "He’d be doing a homily and say, ‘Judy, will you wake up your husband back there?’ He was joking all the time," Jim said. "You never knew what he was going to do." One week Jim got up to preach and found his homily missing. "We have technical difficulties," he announced to a laughing crowd. Bill had made off with the papers and left them on the sacristy garbage can.
An emotional Jim Crosby could cite the day he met Bill – Oct. 28, 1991 – because "it changed my life." He heard Bill read the Gospel story of the blind beggar of Bartimaeus and then ask listeners, "How many ways can we be blind?" As Jim said, "It turned my life around."
Celebrant Fr. Jeff Scheeler’s most vivid memory of Rocky was a harrowing experience they shared. In 1989, both were in El Salvador for a Central American ministry program when six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered. "Our Franciscan guide pulled us into a chapel and said, ‘We’re concerned for your safety.’ They sent us to Guatemala City," Jeff said. Later, "We were told the funeral was held in that same chapel. Such a powerful story; that was a connection we shared" and relived in the telling.
Relatives talked about Bill’s German-born parents William and Maria, who immigrated to the States in the 1920s. "Fr. Bill has been a part of my life since I was born," said nephew Fred Westermeyer, a frequent visitor in his uncle’s final days. In 1938 when the Reichels re-visited Germany with their young son, "Bill’s dad was arrested by German police because he refused to say ‘Heil Hitler’ or give a Nazi salute." Fortunately, authorities accepted his American passport as authentic and let him go. Back in the States, the Reichels were investigated by the FBI when a rascally Rocky, then 5 years old, was seen marching down the street, giving the Nazi salute he had seen in Germany.
Many knew him as a grown-up version of that playful kid.
Fr. Paul Desch,OFM, a fellow resident at St. John the Baptist Friary, is a talker, as was Bill. "I’m really gonna miss him a lot," Paul said. "He had these little zingers, boom! And the next minute he would show that big heart of his." Disappointed he could not have a dog at the friary, Bill turned his attention to squirrels. "He just loved animals. He was a good man, a good man."
Jill Chasto’s goal as a personal trainer was to help Bill shed some weight and boost his walking ability. But after a workout at the gym, she would find him at a nearby pizza parlor. "He liked to eat too much." Though their sessions were both fun and frustrating, "It was my absolute pleasure to know and work with him. He was a treasure to my family."
According to homilist Fr. Fred Link,OFM, "Rocky had great highs. He also experienced significant lows," in part from physical issues. Fred had earlier traded memories with three other friars. "One talked about Rocky’s ministry to Native Americans in the Southwest. Another noted how Rocky loved to preach. Another noted the great devotion Fr. Bill had for the folks at Good Shepherd.
"I asked the guys if they had any idea why Rocky chose the Beatitudes" for the Gospel reading. "Someone jokingly reminded me of the movie, Life of Brian." In one famous scene, listeners two fields away from the Sermon on the Mount heard Jesus’ message as, "Blessed are the cheesemakers? What’s so great about cheesemakers?" Maybe, Fred said, it was Rocky’s way of "wanting to make people laugh." But more likely, "He’s probably saying to us, such is the stuff of a blessed life."
Fred said he "sort of lived" with Rocky twice in 50 years, the first time in the summer of his deacon year at St. Stephen’s in Hamilton where Rocky ministered. Fred recalled "going to confession with him and experiencing his great compassion early in his priestly life." Decades later when St. John the Baptist Friary was Fred’s home base during a sabbatical, he and fellow resident Rocky commiserated over weight loss struggles.
"He was human through and through and wasn’t afraid to let us see that side of himself," Fred said. "Isn’t that why God sent Jesus, to be human through and through?"
Rocky would end sermons with, "‘The Mass is finished but God is not.’ He made others feel loved and touched and completed by God. He spent his life assuring others they were somebody to love. I believe he preached what St. Paul wrote: ‘Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.’ It was his message to me my deacon year and his message 50 years later as a preacher and sacramental minister."
Rocky was a big man, Fred said, "large on the outside, large on the inside, human through and through, easy to identify with, with a heart as big as all outdoors." In death, "May our brother Bill intercede for us and keep us living life with a similar gusto."