Friday, September 14, 2007

Monsignor Hessian was the face of God in war's inferno

With strength and grace, the Rev. Patrick Hessian walked easily where he was needed in the spiritual and military worlds.

It took 40 priests, the archbishop, a National Guard honor guard and a brigadier general to give Patrick J. Hessian a send-off Thursday. He deserved it all.

"Father Hessian," we called him back when he was a dashing young priest who enlisted me and my friends to be altar boys at St. James Catholic Church in St. Paul. He spent 10 years at St. James before he joined the Army, driving around in an ancient Model T, honking his horn, breaking up street fights and laying down the law to kids on the corners, without regard to whether they were Catholics, Lutherans or Methodists.

"I'm the toughest kid on West Seventh Street," he said.

I believed him.

Hessian died Saturday at 79 and was buried in his hometown of Belle Plaine, Minn., after a funeral at Our Lady of the Prairie Catholic Church.

He was a paratrooper and a priest; a chaplain in Vietnam who prayed over hundreds of dying soldiers.

In 1969, Hessian was knocked unconscious by shrapnel that almost killed him.

When he came to, he resumed praying over the other fallen.

"When anyone dies, we want our families around us," he told me a few years ago, after celebrating his 50th anniversary of his ordination in 1953. "But when you have an 18-year-old kid, thousands of miles from home and he'd like to see his mother but there's nobody. ... I tried to be the local parish priest for those kids. Their eyes are just pleading with you: 'Help me, help me.' It was awful.

"But I had to be there."

He won a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Distinguished Service Medal and -- his proudest honor -- the Soldier's Medal, given when he disarmed a suicidal young soldier. Hessian got him to hand over a live grenade -- leaving it to Hessian to gingerly replace the pin -- by telling the soldier his mom would be very mad.

It always worked on West Seventh. It worked in Vietnam, too.

Hessian rose through the ranks of Army and church, becoming a monsignor and a major general. From 1982 to 1986, when he retired, he was the Army's chief of chaplains.

"We just revered him," said one of his subordinate chaplains, Howie Krienke, a retired colonel who is associate pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Hopkins. "Hessian was plain and ordinary in the way he acted, but he was an icon. We stood in awe of him. He didn't care if you were Lutheran or a rabbi or Muslim. He treated us all fairly, and honored and respected our traditions."He looked the part," said Brig. Gen. Douglas Lee, an Army chaplain of the Presbyterian persuasion who also served under Hessian and attended his funeral. "He was handsome and tall and looked distinguished. More than that, he kept the faith and kept the focus on spirituality, especially in times of chaos and war. He brought the soldiers to God, and God to the soldiers."

Hessian's authority over 3,000 chaplains of all faiths was hard to explain when he met with the top officer in his other line of command, Pope John Paul II. They had a private audience at the Vatican in 1986 and discovered they had something in common: Each had been wounded (the pope was shot in an assassination attempt). After swapping their stories, the pope asked the chaplain how a priest could be the boss of Protestants and Jews.

Hessian reminded the pope of the story of the Roman centurion in Matthew: "I, too, am a man of authority with soldiers under me."

Then, tapping the stars on his uniform, he said, "You see these two stars? That means I'm in charge."Here I am, a guy from Minnesota, quoting scripture to the pope," he told me once. "I really enjoyed that."

Yesterday, as they carried Monsignor and Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Hessian out of Our Lady of the Prairie, they stopped to cover his plain pine coffin in an American flag in front of a statue of St. Patrick.

The statue came from Belle Plaine's old Irish Church, Sacred Heart, which was razed when the Irish and German congregations combined. Hessian grew up in Sacred Heart parish, and remained close to Belle Plaine. Thursday, it was noted that his funeral was scheduled at his regular Thursday tee time at Belle Plaine's Valley View Golf Club: 11 a.m.

This "Hessian," by the way, was as Irish as a Murphy or O'Halloran. As they carried him out of the church, the organist struck up a familiar tune: "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

I think the toughest kid on West Seventh would've really enjoyed that. StarTribune

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