Father Thomas Welk Returns to Roots for Documentary, St. Aloysisus Mass

Burke, Allan. "Father Thomas Welk Returns to Roots for Documentary, St. Aloysisus Mass." Emmons County Record, 11 September 2001, 1 -2.

Father Thomas Welk, C.P.P.S., of Wichita, Kansas returned to his home parish, St. Aloysisus, on Sunday to celebrate a special Mass that was taped by Prairie Public Television (PPTV) for a future documentary.

Strasburg native Michael Miller, Germans from Russia Bibliographer at the North Dakota State University Libraries, and Bob Dambach, PPTV Director of Programing and Productions, both of Fargo, were in the area last week to tape footage that will be used in several projects.

Father Thomas will be featured in a documentary on Germans from Russia who immigrated to the United States from Kutschurgan District in South Russia (today near Odessa, Ukraine). Predominately Catholic, they settled in south central North Dakota and north central South Dakota. Father Thomas has researched the Welk family back to the 1600s when his ancestors lived in Germany and France before immigrating to the Odessa region of the Ukraine (Russia). In addition to his genealogical research, Father Thomas has translated many documents for the NDSU Libraries and others and has written extensively about the Germans from Russia.

"We (the Welk family) still have relatives in the Ukraine (Welk ancestral villages of Selz) and Germany, and I have been in contact with them via letters," Father Thomas said.

Two brothers and two sisters from the Welk family immigrated from Russia in the 1890s. They were Ludwig Welk (Lawrence Welk's father), Johannes Welk (Father Thomas's grandfather), Rosina (Mrs. Max) Klein (parents of Lawrence Welk's drummer, Johnnie Klein) and Appolonia (Mrs. John) Ussellman. All but Appolonia, who lived in Allan, Saskatchewan, settled in the Strasburg area. Johannes and his family lived with the Ludwig Welks on their homestead for several years before buying a farm in the St. Aloysisus area east of Strasburg.

Another brother and sister, Bernhard and Theresa, remained in Russia. Bernhard's children wrote to their American relatives in the 1940s to ask for help. They were exiled to Siberia by Stalin and suffered greatly during that era.

Another sister, Theresa, also remained in Russia.

Growing up in Emmons County

Father Thomas is the eighth of the 10 children of the late Leo and Clara (Mastel) Welk, and he grew up on the family farm east of Strasburg and Hague.

His brothers and sisters include Alvin of Philadelphia, Pa., Paul of Chicago, Ill.; Bernadine Catherine (Mrs. John) Reis of Bismarck; Viola (Mrs. Wendelin) Bosch of Linton; Lukas, who died as a baby; Agnes Kaye of Jacksonville, Fl; Jim of Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Tony of Bismarck and Margie Fischer of the Twin Cities.

Father Thomas attended a one-room school, one of four in the Odessa School District, and he studied along with other children in grades one through eight.

"There was an advantage in a country school because you heard the lessons of the classes above you, and you heard the eighth grade lessons for seven years before becoming an eighth grader," he noted.

He was an avid reader throughout elementary school. "I read every book in the school's small library at least three times," he laughed.

Teachers in the country schools at that time "were whoever the school board could hire," he said.

Father Thomas grew up speaking the Alsatian dialect of Germany and, like many other students, did much better with German than English.

The Welks seldom went to town, and Father Thomas remembers the family's annual trip to Hague for the Fourth of July Celebration.

In that era, priests from the Precious Blood Community served all but two (St. Mary's in Hague and Sts. Peter & Paul in Strasburg) of the county's Catholic churches--St. Anthony's in Linton, St. Katherine's in Braddock, St. Paul's in Hazelton and four rural parishes, St. Aloysisus, St. Michael's, Sacred Heart (Rosenthal) and St. Bernard's.

It was discussions with the priests that caused Thomas to think about becoming a priest, and it was their influence that led to his decision (and his family's) to attend a seminary high school in Canton, Ohio.

"It was a tremendous change for me, to go from a one-room school to the prep school many miles away from home," Father Thomas recalled. "I was in the ninth grade with about 100 city kids, and German was my first language."

He said he felt more comfortable with his peers because everyone had to take Latin and none had studied the language prior to high school. "We were all equal," he noted. He enjoyed learning Latin, and his English improved as he studied the many Latin words that are part of English.

Father Thomas said he made his decision to enter the priesthood at a "tender, young age." He said all in his 100-member class had enrolled at the seminary high school with plans to become priests, but only 10 were ever ordained. He said he had redefined his decision by the time he finished high school and was ready to make the lifetime commitment.

After finishing high school, he studied for two years at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Indiana, and then took a year off from his studies as a novitiate. He finished his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Philosophy at Dayton University, Dayton, Ohio, in 1965. He also earned his Master of Arts Degree in Theological Studies at Dayton in 1968. Later, he received his doctorate from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

Father Thomas was the first Precious Blood Priest to be ordained outside of the community's Ohio headquarters. His ordination was performed at St. Anthony's in Linton in 1969 since it was more convenient for his family.

In the 32 years since his ordination, Father Thomas has never served as a parish priest. He spent is first year as a teacher in a Catholic high school in Liberty, Missouri, and then taught 13 years at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. In addition to being in charge of the university's religious activities program and teaching scripture and liturgy, Father Thomas coached skiing, swimming, tennis and softball.

"Obviously, Wichita is flat, so I taught the basics on campus, and we did our skiing in the Colorado Rockies." Father Thomas said, joking that it was a tough assignment.

Father Thomas helped start Wichita hospice program.

Hospice ministry

In 1983, Father Thomas was invited to a meeting where the formation of the Wichita area's first hospice was to be discussed.

"I decided not to go to the meeting and to proceed with my plans to go fishing," he explained. "The fishing trip was rained out, and I got back in time for the meeting."

That was a fateful happening because Hospice, Inc. was formed, and he served on the founding committee, then the board of directors and now on the staff as Director of Professional Education and Pastoral Care.

While he works full time at the non-denominational hospice, his priestly assignment is being the chaplain for the sisters who operate Newman University.

Hospice, Inc. serves a daily census of 185-220 terminally ill patients and their families, and Father Thomas has worked with over 11,000 patients and countless family members in the past 18 years.

He works with seven other clergy from various denominations to serve the needs of patients and families.

"Although there is now hospice care through the Linton Hospital, our mission is somewhat different because we are in an urban area where it is often the case that patients do not have family members living in the area nor do they have an extended family to help them," Father Thomas explained. "Consequently, our hospice substitutes for the extended family unit by providing physical and clinical support and helps with psychosocial and spiritual issues."

Father Thomas said the end of a person's life is not a denominational issue, and he said death is the one thing modern medicine will never know how to handle.

"Life can be extended, but it always must end," he said. "That is why end of life care is so important as a person lets go of life and transcends into the spiritual realm."

He said while religious beliefs are obviously important, the end of life involves complex issues that need to be addressed and people need assistance at that point with profound questions such as, "Who am I?" "Why do I exist?" "What is the meaning of my life?"

"The real question is how do you face this profound experience and make sense out of it," Father Thomas said, "when death is the door to a great life."

Father Thomas said pain control and providing physical comfort are only one part of hospice care.

"Pain and symptom control are important, but a dying person is miserable without dealing with the end of life on earth," he said.

Father Thomas said the pain with death can be compared with the pain felt by a marathon runner or a football player. "They have pain but also the joy of finishing the race or winning the football game," he said.

He said hospices are important, in part, because "people don't talk about death in our society."

Father Thomas said more people are choosing hospice care for the end of their lives because caring for a terminally ill person in the home is difficult and not always possible.

"Families are not trained in pain control nor are they prepared for the tremendous stress that goes with caring for a patient in the home," Father Thomas said. He said hospice staff assists families with home care.

"It is also difficult for the person who is dying," Father Thomas said. "They may want to be home, but they also worry about being a burden on their families. We try to provide a positive alternative to a home environment."

He said it is as important for families to let go of their loved one as it is, in the end, for the terminally ill person to let go of life.

Father Thomas said a key part of the end of life experience is listening as the patient talks through issues and moves along the natural path from life to death.

"Our staff is trained to listen in a nonjudgmental way," he said. "God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason--so that we can listen twice as much as we talk. Our job is to do a lot of listening."

He said there is no right or wrong way in death, and it transcends worldly religion.

"There is no magic formula for death, but hospice staff can assist with the wisdom gained from their experience," Father Thomas said.

For Father Thomas Welk, humble beginnings on an Emmons County farm have led to a ministry of hope for people at the end of life's journey.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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