Franciscan

Fr. Valens Waldschmidt, OFM

BY TONI CASHNELLI

Age was just a number for the province’s senior friar

For most people, longevity is a blessing and a curse.

Fr. Valens Waldschmidt never saw the down side.

He was sharp and funny, curious and kind, typically called "remarkable for his age." The senior friar in the province, Valens died Jan. 28, a few weeks before his 97th birthday. But he never seemed old, according to the friars, friends and family who gathered for his funeral Feb. 1 at St. Paul’s Archbishop Leibold Home in Cincinnati.

Legally blind in later life, Valens "read" books on tape and avidly followed current events. "He never let his eyesight stand in the way of trying to learn or caring about others," said volunteer Hugh Lynch. When Valens’ legs failed, he made his rounds in a wheelchair to offer residents comfort and conversation, rolling off the elevator while singing My Darling Clementine or whistling the theme from Doctor Zhivago. "He would touch their hands and calm them," said Carol Gallegos, a nurse who retired from Leibold Home in 2012 but continued to visit Valens.

"Even if you couldn’t see him, you could hear him," said Fr. Dan Anderson, referring to the most distinctive voice in the province. Up to the end it was deep, resonant, stentorian, perfect for the Mission Band preaching Valens did so ably in the 1950s.

"I loved to hear him talk," said Fr. David Kohut, who drove Valens to appointments. "He’d say, ‘Put the radio on,’" but David would decline, urging Valens to tell him a story. "He had something to say all the time. I learned a lot driving him to the doctor."

"Deeply spiritual"

Valens was the voice of authority among his relatives, some of whom drove from Chicago and the Waldschmidt hometown, Metamora, Ill., to be here. Years ago, "Mom said we had to be on our best behavior when he visited because he was holy," said Valens’ niece, Doris Waterworth. "He could tell God if I didn’t behave."

The family benefited from his considerable talent with a camera. "I doubt we would have any family photos at all without Fr. Valens," said Susan Waldschmidt, sister of Doris.

Tammy Waterworth, Doris’ daughter-in-law, prizes Valens’ final gift. Last December, unable to write greetings, he recorded a reflection on CD for friends and relatives. When the family gathered for Christmas, Tammy said, "Before we did anything else, we put the tape in."

At Leibold Home, "Valens was known as ‘The Voice’," said Fr. Cyprian Berens, Chaplain Emeritus. "He wasn’t brilliant, he wasn’t a scholar, but he was a deeply spiritual man." During Valens’ long life, "He had all kinds of experiences that gave him a knowledge of people. Residents here, their attachment to him was very strong." Beset by the fears and ailments that accompany aging, they were assured by Valens, "The first 100 years are the hardest," according to Aundrea Moore, one of his nurses.

Serving "little ones"

Fr. Jeff Scheeler, the celebrant for Mass, welcomed guests to Leibold Home, "a place where Valens dedicated so much energy, a place he loved." He noted the absence of Valens’ sister: "Alma [DeJohn] was not able to join us," although at 101 she still lives on her own in Florida.

Homilist Fr. Fred Link called the reading from the Beatitudes "one of the more common Gospel readings chosen when families prepare the liturgy" for a loved one. In this case, "Valens requested it be read because the people described, those at the end of their rope, those who mourn, are those to whom he dedicated most of his life."

For 27 years and later as Chaplain Emeritus, Valens ministered to the mentally ill at Pauline Warfield Lewis Center, formerly Longview. "Fr. Val faithfully devoted his energy to these little ones, among those most vulnerable in society," Fred said. In a 1986 newspaper interview Valens told a reporter, "I get to know the residents as people….they have a need for love and recognition like everyone else." As Fred said, "He gave them love and recognition and in return found happiness."

In Valens’ last ministry at Leibold Home, he was "telling us and encouraging us to open our eyes and our hearts to love the little ones all around us, even in our own homes, encouraging us to accept the littleness and brokenness in ourselves."

Fred called Valens "a preacher par excellence" in the two major ministries that defined his life as a friar. If he were here, he would "preach today about the importance of putting ourselves in God’s hands as dependent little ones."

A final message

Valens had chosen the second reading from Romans: "Neither death nor life….will be able to separate us from the love of God." Fred said it was his way of "wanting us to know that message and take it with us."

The reading from Isaiah chosen by Fred – "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" – "clearly describes Valens’ vocation, his life as he lived it. The Spirit of the Lord was surely upon him as he brought Good News to the afflicted and bound up their wounds. We honor you, dear Fr. Val, for allowing the Spirit to work through you. Thank you for your awesome example."

Br. Norbert Bertram had told Fred that a few days before Valens died, "He was praying to the Blessed Mother and heard her say, ‘Something good is going to happen.’ And it did."

Valens had the last word. "Listen to him speak, just for a minute," Fred said, and Frank Jasper opened a laptop to play part of Valens’ audio Christmas message. One last time, The Voice resounded throughout the chapel as Valens shared his thoughts about "gifts of nature, beautiful young people, works of art, beautiful old people" and much more.

After Mass, resident Carol Schaljo was asked to describe Valens in one word. Her response was, "‘Joy’. I know friars say it all the time, but there is no better word to associate with Fr. Valens. His homilies were always about beauty, truth and light. Many of us will never forget them.

"He exemplified Francis like no one I’ve ever known. Even unspoken, Val’s message was always love."

Remarkable for his age? He was remarkable for any age.

close