Many of the men then-Milwaukee Archbishop Albert Meyer ordained to the priesthood, and even more of the students he supervised at Saint Francis Seminary, have died.Then-Bishop Albert Meyer says goodbye to a gathering of priests and seminarians at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis, as he prepares to leave to become bishop of Superior in 1946. (Catholic Herald file photo submitted courtesy Milwaukee Archdiocesan archives)

Fr. Edward Eschweiler, however, is unique among archdiocesan clergy. Fr. Eschweiler served as a priest in the archdiocese during the entire time the Milwaukee native was archbishop, after spending some of his seminary years with Msgr. Meyer as his rector.

Ordained in 1948, Fr. Eschweiler remembered the eventual Chicago cardinal in an email to the Catholic Herald.

“While he was the rector at Saint Francis Seminary and I a student, he offered me the opportunity to go to Catholic (University) in Washington,” the priest wrote. “Some years after my ordination he twice offered me extra-parochial positions and was most gracious in emphasizing that he wanted to know MY preference. In each case he kindly accepted my choice of remaining in parish ministry.

“He was an imposing figure: tall (6’ 4”), obviously very brilliant and his deep spirituality was without doubt. After he left for Chicago, I followed the events at Vatican II closely and saw that he was emerging as a leader in the American hierarchy there before his early death (at age 62).”

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Cardinal Meyer legacy lives: Former Milwaukee archbishop remembered 50 years after death

Two additional senior priests of the archdiocese reminisced via telephone about Milwaukee’s seventh archbishop.

“I was just ordained a year and (assigned to a parish) in Sheboygan and I was downstairs printing the bulletin,” Fr. Erwin Matt recalled of a fateful day in 1957. His pastor, Fr. Bohumil Wilimek, “was a joker” and Fr. Matt understandably thought Fr. Wilimek was joking when he said Archbishop Meyer was on the phone for him. Assured the pastor wasn’t kidding and wondering what sort of trouble he could be in, the young priest took the call.

Indeed, the archbishop was on the line. 

Cardinal Albert Meyer is greeted by several nuns as he arrives at the Pabst Mansion, Milwaukee, in this undated photo. (Catholic Herald file photo submitted courtesy Milwaukee Archdiocesan archives)

“He said, ‘Fr. Matt, I’d like you to teach at the minor seminary. Would you do that for me?’ I said, ‘Of course’” – even though “shocked” by the request and even though Fr. Wilimek in the background was urging him to “say no.” However, “you didn’t say no to the archbishop,” Fr. Matt explained nearly 60 years later.

Fr. Matt, who had studied to be a teacher at Marquette University before becoming a priest in 1956, taught English to seminarians for 23 years, until De Sales Preparatory Seminary closed its doors. About midway through his teaching years, Fr. Matt encountered his former archbishop, by now heading the Chicago archdiocese as a cardinal, during a celebration at the Milwaukee seminary.

“He was a very, very shy man and he was sitting all alone,” Fr. Matt remembered. “He saw me across the room and motioned me to come to him. He asked me, ‘How do you like teaching in the seminary?’ I couldn’t believe he would remember a nonentity like me!

“He was always very kind to me, a wonderful, wonderful man. He and Msgr. (William) Groessel  (like Cardinal Meyer, a seminary instructor and rector) were very good friends and they were both very saintly men.”

Teaching aspiring priests proved a beloved assignment for Fr. Matt. Interestingly, in both undertaking that ministry and delighting in it, the priest was following in the footsteps of the prelate who’d ordained him.

“People said that he was a brilliant, brilliant teacher,” said Fr. Matt of the cardinal’s days in a classroom.

Fr. Donald Zerkel, ordained by Archbishop Meyer in 1957, belonged to the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist Parish and attended its grade school following a move from Chicago with his family. As an acolyte, he assisted in services at which the archbishop presided.

The archbishop “was very well-respected,” Fr. Zerkel said, and that respect extended well beyond Milwaukee. Had Cardinal Meyer lived longer, “he probably would’ve been nominated as pope,” in Fr. Zerkel’s estimation – not likely elected, but perhaps penciled in on various cardinals’ ballots.

The senior priest remembered a couple of lighthearted meetings with the prelate. In the summer of 1956, Don Zerkel was installing telephones at the major seminary.

“Archbishop Meyer was walking through – the new wing was being constructed,” he related. “He stood behind me as I was working and he said, ‘I could never do that!’” 

The archbishop’s acknowledging the soon-to-be-priest’s facility with phone wiring “made me feel pretty proud,” Fr. Zerkel remembered, especially when he reflected that the acknowledgment had come from the scholar who had translated St. John’s epistles for the Confraternity Version of the Bible.

Months later, Fr. Zerkel and two of his transitional deacon classmates sang the Passion, something of a staple of elaborate pre-Vatican II Holy Week services such as that one at the cathedral with Archbishop Meyer presiding. 

“‘Thank you very much, you did a fine job,’” the archbishop told the deacons afterward. 

To Deacon Zerkel, who as narrator had sung the largest part, he added, “‘You were nervous, weren’t you?’”

The priest conceded the archbishop’s long-ago observation was right on target.