A Milwaukee priest will celebrate his 100th birthday and, though retired, he still concelebrates Mass.
Fr. Edward Eschweiler, who currently lives at Clement Manor, is the oldest priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and will celebrate his centenary birthday on Thursday, May 27.
Born in 1921 at home, Fr. Eschweiler is the youngest of eight children. His brothers Carl and Francis (both deceased) were also priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
“I had two sisters who were members of the School Sisters of St. Francis, two married brothers, and one married sister,” he said. “They have all passed, and I am the only leaf left on the tree.”
Fr. Eschweiler and his family belonged to the former St. Anne Parish on 36th and Wright, and he remembers his mother going to daily Mass for years.
“She started going to early morning Mass when I was old enough to take care of myself,” he said. “When I was in the seminary, she would walk the four blocks to church for the earliest Mass while keeping the communion fast. Then she would walk home, have a piece of toast and return to church for another Mass.”
The family prayed the rosary together often, especially when in the car, as they drove to appointments, shopping, or visiting family and friends.
“My dad was solidly Catholic, too,” Fr. Eschweiler said. “In fact, when my oldest brother entered the seminary, my dad took an evening job in addition to his day job to pick up extra money to pay his seminary tuition.”
While no one coerced the children into a vocation, Fr. Eschweiler explained that his family valued vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Their parents made their children aware that they would be happy if they chose to become priests or religious sisters.
For six years, Fr. Eschweiler attended Saint Francis Seminary, entering during his freshman year in high school.
“I went there until they couldn’t put up with me anymore,” he joked. “Then I went to Catholic University in Washington for six years.”
Fr. Eschweiler was ordained May 29, 1948, by Archbishop Moses Elias Kiley, S.T. D, and served St. Joseph Parish, Waukesha; Holy Redeemer, Milwaukee; St. Scholastica, Bristol; St. Rita, West Allis; and St. James, Menomonee Falls, until his retirement.
“After I retired, I was bounced around for a few months, but after that, I settled in and helped out at Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was a light load. I had a weekend Mass or two and a weekday Mass each week,” he said. “I did this for about 12 years and then helped out at one of those cluster parishes for a few years.”
Born during the reign of Pope Benedict XV and President Warren Harding, Fr. Eschweiler has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the election of eight popes and 17 presidents. The greatest change for him during those years was Vatican II.
“For the Church, there was certainly no bigger change than Vatican II,” he said. “I think it was Providential that Archbishop (Albert Gregory) Meyer issued a number of pastoral letters on three of the Vatican II Constitutions. There was one of Scripture, Liturgy and on the Church. I loved what came from Vatican II and was convinced it was the Holy Spirit. After it was announced, I really became encouraged about it. I was eagerly awaiting whatever it brought.”
While there were moments of fatigue or feeling overwhelmed, Fr. Eschweiler has always been happy with his vocation. Several years ago, when he was helping out at a weekday Mass, he would often preach his homilies between the pews since so few people attended.
“Someone asked me if I would do it all over again,” he said. “The answer was yes, and it still is.”
He has fond memories of a Holy Thursday Mass one year when, instead of focusing on the Eucharist, as is commonly done, he opted instead to focus on the gift of the great commandment of love.
“We had a simple gathering in the parish hall after the Mass with water, wine and a little finger food. There were a lot of people getting together. I stayed until they were cleaning up and engaged in a conversation with a parish couple. While I was talking with them, I was aware of someone out of the corner of my eye,” he said. “When I finished my conversation, the man came up to me and said, ‘Father, I haven’t had a good feeling toward you for a long time, and I don’t even remember what it was about, but tonight I want to make up.’ It made the rest of Holy Week, and we had a good relationship after that.”
Another time, when Fr. Eschweiler was still living in the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center, he was walking down one of the corridors when he saw Bishop Emeritus Richard J. Sklba and stopped to have a brief conversation.
“He kindly asked me how I was, and I told him that I was better than I deserved,” he said. “He said, ‘Of course, everything is a gift. Everything is a gift.’ That was a wonderful thing to try and keep in mind.”
Fr. Eschweiler plans a quiet birthday celebration with friends at a local restaurant.