Area Native Father Thomas Welk Inducted into the Newman University’s Hall of Fame

Receives The Thomasine Stoecklein, ASC Spirit Award

"Area Native Father Thomas Welk Inducted into the Newman University’s Hall of Fame." Emmons County Record, 10 December 2009, 1-3.

Father Thomas A. Welk
Surprising Father Tom at the induction ceremony were, left to right, his brother, Al and Donna Welk, Broomall, Pa.; his sister, Agnes (Welk) Kaye of Jacksonville, Fla., (husband, John, was not present), and his brother, James Welk, of Cape Girardeau, Mo.

(Editor’s Note: This story is dedicated to the memory of Viola Welk Bosch, 1924-2009.)

Father Thomas A. Welk, a native of the St. Aloysius community in Emmons County, was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Newman University, Wichita, Kan., this year.

Last summer, he celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination at a surprise party held in Linton in conjunction with Viola Bosch’s 75th birthday. Viola was Father Tom’s sister.

At the induction ceremony, he received the prestigious Thomasine Stoecklein ASC Spirit Award and was specifically cited for his prior contributions as an instructor and coach of men’s tennis, women’s club soft ball, swimming and snow skiing. He also served as chaplain.

"What was especially touching was seeing the growth and development in the student-athletes who were being honored and inducted into the Hall of Fame," Father Thomas said. "Some of them were pretty rough during their student days. Their words of appreciation for the support I gave them during their time at Newman University were very heart-warming."

Having been an excellent athlete himself, Father Thomas shared his talents with others. He helped fund, through the campus ministry, the first women’s softball team and assisted in coaching.

Father Tom Welk is shown here with his brothers and sisters. Back, left to right, Jim Welk of Cape Giardeau, Mo.; Alvin Welk of Broomall, Pa.; Paul Welk of Plainfield, Ill; Fr. Tom Welk of Wichita, Kan., and Tony Welk of Bismarck; front row, Marge Fisher of Minneapolis, Minn.; Bernadine Reis of Bismarck; Viola Bosch of Linton, and Agnes Kaye of Jacksonville, Fla.

Newman University is owned and operated by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC), a religious community which originated in Italy on March 4, 1834, when Maria De Mattias, a young woman from the mountain village of Vallecorsa, Italy, founded the congregation of the Sisters Adorers of the Divine Blood.

In 1983, Father Tom helped create a hospice care facility, which is now known as the Harry Hymes Memorial Hospice in Wichita. Over the years he has published many articles on hospice care.

He continued his studies, receiving a doctorate in 1991 in pastoral ministry and is residing on campus as chaplain for the ASC Community.

Father Tom loves to hunt and fish and is an avid gardener and wood craftsman.

He grew up as one of nine children on a farm east of Hague and is the son of the late Leo and Clara Welk. Father Tom maintains his family ties in North Dakota by visiting his siblings, nieces and nephews in the Emmons County and Bismarck area.

Surprising Father Tom at the induction ceremony were his brother, Al and Donna Welk, Broomall, Pa.; his sister, Agnes (Welk) Kaye of Jacksonville, Fla., (husband, John, was not present), and his brother, James Welk, of Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Other brothers and sisters are Paul and Betty Welk, Brookfield, Ill., Bernie and John Reis, Bismarck, Tony and Sharon Welk, Bismarck, and Margie and Darrell Fischer, Prior Lake, Minn., and the late Viola Bosch of Linton.

Country life

Father Thomas stands next to a banner prepared by his family when the 40th anniversary of his ordination was celebrated in conjunction with his late sister’s 75th birthday last summer.
Father Thomas jokes that his dog, Bailey, insists on visiting Santa Clause during the Christmas season to make sure she gets her doggie treats as a Christmas present.
Father Thomas holds a king salmon he caught near Kodiak Island, Alaska, in July 2008. It weighed a little over 50 pounds. Father Leonard Eckroth, who retired earlier this year as pastor of Sts. Peter & Paul Church in Strasburg and St. Mary’s Church in Hague, was also on the trip.

Father Thomas is the eighth of the 10 children of the late Leo and Clara (Mastel) Welk. He 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. Aloyisus, 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.

Father Thomas has made many presentations on hospice care throughout the country.
Father Thomas visits over the phone with a hospice resident’s family member.

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 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.

Hospice ministry

In 1983, Father Thomas was part of the group that formed the Wichita area’s first hospice, now known as the Harry Hymes Memorial Hospice. It 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 since the hospice was founded.

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.

He 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.

"God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason—so that we can listen twice as much as we talk," Father Thomas said.

Father Thomas and a friend built this sailboat from scratch. It was featured in Wooden Boat, a national magazine. The associate editor flew out from Maine to spend two days sailing with them on a lake west of Wichita.

Printed with permission of the Emmons County Record

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