Monsignor Joseph Senger shows off needlework he received from an orphanage in Ukraine.

Long-Time Dream Fulfilled: Monsignor Senger Wants Youth to Know About Their Culture, Heritage

Cantlon, Cleo. "Long-Time Dream Fulfilled: Monsignor Senger Wants Youth to Know About Their Culture, Heritage." Minot Daily News, 21 December 2002, sec. 1C.

Monsignor Joseph Senger has always wanted to be a priest. He recognized that calling when he was in grade school at Orrin and he convinced his parents, farmers at Orrin raising eight children, to support him through school.

He gave up an important position in Rome to return to being a parish priest in North Dakota towns like Bottineau, Milnor, Knox, Grand Forks and the Velva-Karlsruhe parish.

After more than 40 years actively leading parishes, Senger retired and received the title of monsignor.

Finally there was time and opportunity in 2001 to fulfill a long-time dream, a return to Ukraine and the German Catholic villages there that his family had left a century earlier.

"I wanted to let our younger generations know about their culture and heritage," the priest said. "For instance, many of our people say their parents came from Odessa, but they really lived in small villages."

He said when the Germans settled the area, they were encouraged to stay in villages of their religious heritage, Catholic, Lutheran or Mennonite, to help them feel more established in the new area.

Senger, who lives in Minot and continues to preach in area churches, used his heritage, the tour and memories of his boyhood in Orrin to fill another dream, filming a video about his life, "Personal Reflections with Monsignor Joseph Senger."

The 50-minute video, released this fall by the Germans from Russia Cultural Preservation Foundation, is available at Minot Catholic churches or through the Germans From Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105. It costs $25 plus $4 handling.

In the beautifully-filmed video, Senger shows his home area at Orrin as well as the lush Black Sea region in Ukraine with wonderful stands of grain, ripe cherries and gardens, and the majestic old churches.

"The people live in the village and go out to the fields to work," he said. "Even though the villages are just two or three miles apart, each one had a big church, enough for a thousand people. Of course, families were large."

Today, after decades of Communist rule, most churches are used for governmental purposes, such as machinery storage, rather than religious services. Senger was delighted to be able to say Mass in one of the churches.

"Most people in Ukraine now are not Christian, indifferent to religion," he said.

Because most male German descendants either were drafted or sent to labor camps during World War II, he said the women were left to nurture the elements of culture that remained.

That culture, as translated to the arid plains of North Dakota, was Senger's childhood experience. His "Reflections" video also shows the the beautiful church at Orrin that was the center of his family's life here. He talks about the foods, childhood games, and family traditions he enjoyed before his religious education at Richardton and in Minnesota.

Early years
Ordained in 1954, the young German-speaking priest was sent to serve as secretary and driver for Cardinal Meunch in occupied Germany for 3 1/2 years after World War II. When the cardinal went on to Rome, the young North Dakotan went with him.

"I was there for another year and a half," Senger said, "but I didn't like that as much. In Germany I was a military chaplain, so I was holding two services a week and serving people. Being a secretary in Rome was exciting but not fulfilling."

In 1960 he returned to his home state.

Senger's time in Europe involved a large amount of charitable work, an interest he continues. He had an opportunity to visit a Russian orphanage at Landau, one of the old German villages, which he has helped support for many years.

Dramatic history
"We Germans from Russia are people with a very dramatic history, a century of a closed society in Russia, then 100 years in America. We cherish our heritage and our roots, and culture and religion are closely associated," Senger said. "I hope this video preserves knowledge of those things."

Senger has a granite headstone for the plot where he expects to be buried, but he has another dream, acquiring one of the wrought-iron crosses extensively used by Germans from Russia to mark their graves in America. It is one more symbol of Senger's devotion to the heritage he hopes to keep alive.

Reprinted with permission of the Minot Daily News.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller