ST. PAUL, Minn. — A roadside bomb in Iraq took Father Timothy Vakoc’s mobility, one eye and some of his brain functions, but it didn’t end his priestly ministry.
“You are still a priest — this bed is now your altar,” Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore, then archbishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, told Father Vakoc during his hospitalization at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2004.
Prior to his death on June 20 — the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and only the second day of the papally called-for Year for Priests — the 49-year-old priest continued a ministry that began in a Minneapolis parish and continued on battlefields in both Bosnia and Iraq. He was the first Army chaplain injured during the war in Iraq. His funeral was held at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn., on June 26, and he was laid to rest at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Mary Ann Kuharski, president of ProLife Across America, recalled when he first came to her parish, St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, Minn., as a young associate pastor in 1992.
“He was at our parish for less than a year,” said Kuharski, “but he was quite a character. He loved our large family and would stop over unannounced. He was known for his practical jokes.”
She also recalled the last Mass he celebrated at the church as a visiting priest, just prior to his deployment to Iraq.
“He came down off the altar and scooped up a baby in the front row from its mother’s arms,” said Kuharski. “He gave a homily on the importance of family life, love and children, cradling that baby the entire time. It was beautiful to see this priest in white robes holding the baby as he walked up and down the aisle.”
On the battlefield, soldiers were drawn to Father Vakoc like a magnet. According to Father Stan Mader, a fellow Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis priest who was ordained the same year, Father Vakoc served as a chaplain in Heidelberg, Germany, in Bosnia for eight months, at Forts Carson and Lewis, and then Iraq, where he was injured on the eve of the 12th anniversary of his ordination.
Both Father Mader and others talked about Father Vakoc’s “intentional presence.”
“He went to Iraq to provide an opportunity for peace,” said Father Mader, who delivered the homily at Father Vakoc’s funeral. “He’s not a war hero. He was a priest, and he answered the call to minister to people in danger of death.”
“Soldiers spoke of his intentional presence in the heart of the Iraq war,” said Kuharski. “He would tell Catholic and non-Catholic soldiers, ‘I’m here if anyone wants to talk, for confession, or if anyone needs a priest.’ Then he would go sit on top of his jeep, read and wait. The guys would come like flies.”
Fellow military chaplain Father John Echert recalled seeing Father Vakoc after he was injured, when he passed through Landstuhl Medical Hospital in Germany.
“Army chaplains are close to the troops that they minister to,” said Father Echert, pastor of St. Augustine Church in South St. Paul, Minn. “They are embedded with them and live the life of a soldier. They face all the same dangers and hardships. The only difference is that they are noncombatants.”
The Altar of the Bed
Vakoc spent nearly two years in rehabilitation and long-term care units at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Minneapolis before being moved to the St. Therese Care Center in New Hope, Minn.
Kuharski frequently visited him there, where he was receiving 24-hour care.
“I had non-Catholic nurses tell me that when they went in the room there was a presence,” said Kuharski.
“He loved to give blessings,” she recounted. “You’d pour the holy water over his hands and bend down. He would make a sign of blessing on your forehead. I always felt like I was receiving more than I was giving him.”
Father Echert was also a frequent visitor, often celebrating Mass at the facility on Fridays.
“I would stop in to visit him and pray a decade of the Rosary with him,” he said. “He communicated electronically. By pressing a button, he could communicate certain frequent sentences. More often than not, the sentence was ‘God bless you.’”
“He continued to serve as a priest of Christ and was able to be wheeled into the chapel where he could quietly concelebrate Mass,” said Father Echert. “He was a very powerful witness to his fellow residents at the Catholic retirement home.”
At the end of the funeral Mass, Archbishop John Nienstedt of Saint Paul and Minneapolis thanked his caregivers, specifically members of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace for their care and support.
Members of the St. Paul-based order spent time weekly with Father Vakoc, praying and visiting with him, helping him with his physical exercises, and bringing him to a Bible study.
Brother Paul O’Donnell witnessed Father Vakoc’s ministry.
“There was a whole network of people that he brought together — his caregivers, parishioners, friends from the military, fellow priests, others who wanted to spend time with him or ask for his blessing,” said Brother O’Donnell. “Because they saw what he was enduring, people were able to accept their own crosses and burdens in life.
“He taught others how to be more loving, compassionate, giving. He was a witness for life in this day and age when it’s so easy to terminate life or say that life isn’t worth living if it’s like that. God used him as an instrument of healing and peace.”
Just weeks prior to his death, Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Auxiliary Bishop-elect Lee Piché went to the nursing home to celebrate Mass with Father Vakoc. He found Father Vakoc in a wheelchair wearing his ceremonial stole.
“For me, that was a very powerful sign of him still wanting to be a priest,” said Bishop Piché. “Even though he was incapacitated physically, he was still at heart a priest.”
At the funeral, Archbishop Nienstedt noted that when Father Vakoc enlisted in the Army Reserves while a seminarian at St. Paul Seminary, he signed the enlistment papers on the altar in St. Mary’s Chapel.
Said Archbishop Nienstedt, “He knew that his life would require sacrifice.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.