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(Editor’s note: Six archdiocesan priests are celebrating their 50-year jubilees in 2008. This week, we feature Father Francis Eckstein and Msgr. Harold Knueven. We will feature Fathers Herman Lutz, Joseph McNally, William Munshower and Harold Ripperger in upcoming issues of The Criterion.)
Father Francis Eckstein grew up across the road from St. Nicholas Parish, a small country parish in the hills of Ripley County in southeastern Indiana.
When he was ordained a priest 50 years ago on May 3, 1958, he had hopes that he might one day be the kind of pastor of a country parish that he had admired as a boy.
“They really mingled well with the local people,” Father Eckstein said. “They’d be driving along the road and see a farmer out in the field [and] stop and visit … [or] see if they needed any help.”
But for nearly 40 years after his ordination, Father Eckstein didn’t see much of the countryside, ministering instead in Indianapolis and in mid-sized cities and towns, such as Richmond, Connersville and Bedford.
His dream wasn’t fulfilled until he was given his last pastoral assignment before he retired when, in 1995, he was named the pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Osgood and St. Mary Magdalen Parish in New Marion, both in the Batesville Deanery.
Now, in retirement, he provides sacramental assistance to St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Milan and St. Pius Parish in Ripley County. He lives at St. Charles Parish, just miles away from his old family home.
“I’m as happy as a pea in a pod,” Father Eckstein said. “It’s an ideal arrangement here for me. I’m close to home, and I still go down to the home place and mow the yard and garden. And when I don’t have anything to do here, I’ll go down and sit on the porch or on the swing.”
Although it took a long time for his country parish dream to become a reality, Father Eckstein accepted in humility wherever he was assigned.
“He was always willing to go where the archbishop asked him to go,” said Msgr. Harold Knueven, one of Father Eckstein’s ordination classmates, who grew up less than 10 miles away from him in New Alsace.
“He doesn’t speak out too much. He listens a lot. He shares his ideas when he’s asked to speak, but he doesn’t really promote himself too much.”
Eleanor Oberle, a member of Holy Family Parish in Richmond, got to know Father Eckstein in 1960 when the priest was an assistant pastor there.
Ever since then, she and her husband, Ron, have maintained a close friendship with Father Eckstein, whom she praised for his “down-to-earth ways.”
“He’s a farmer at heart,” said Oberle. “He’s a man of the earth [from] a small town.”
Father Eckstein grew up the middle child in a family of five boys and four girls.
According to Verena Federle, a younger sister, Father Eckstein always took the lead when he and his siblings would play Mass in their family’s farmhouse.
“He was always the priest, and we were always the servers,” said Federle, a member of St. Paul Parish in New Alsace. “He would use sliced potatoes for holy Communion.”
His parish priests often encouraged him and the other young boys at St. Nicholas to consider becoming a priest, especially, he said, when they would come to the parish’s two-room schoolhouse in the 1940s to pass out report cards.
Father Eckstein eventually entered Saint Meinrad Seminary in 1946.
Although it took decades for him to return to his southeastern Indiana roots, Father Eckstein still sought to “mingle well” with the people he ministered to wherever he found himself.
He always looked to parishioners first for the priorities in his ministry.
“I think that’s kind of what’s held me in there,” Father Eckstein said. “It was meeting the needs of the people, and the people were the ones that were kind of laying out the path.”
Oberle has seen this quality in her friend for nearly 50 years.
“He just relates to people on their very basic needs and just feels what they’re feeling,” she said. “He’s cried with us. He’s laughed with us. He’s not afraid to be right there with you. He’s ready to give you what you need.”
What Father Eckstein has learned in giving himself to fulfilling the needs of those he serves is that, in the end, he finds fulfillment as well. It is something he said is good for young men today who might be thinking that God is calling them to the priesthood.
“It’s a very fulfilling and satisfying kind of life,” said Father Eckstein. “You’re really touching people’s lives in good times and in bad.
“If you want to feel at the end of the day like you’ve accomplished something … I would encourage them to look at [the priesthood]. I’ve been very content, very happy. I thank the Lord for the vocation that I have.”
Parents: Amand and Mary (Federle) Eckstein
Parish where he grew up: St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County
Seminary: 12 years at Saint Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad
Hobbies: Gardening, fishing and hunting
Favorite author: Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser
Favorite Bible verse: “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mt 16:26; Mk 8:36). †