It became clear to Father Frederick Elskamp that he had a priestly calling because there was no way he would have made it through formation otherwise.
“I kind of stumbled into being a priest,” he explained. “The more time I spent in the seminary, the more I enjoyed it. By the end, there was no doubt at all.”
Fr. Elskamp, a retired priest of the Jefferson City diocese, is quietly observing his 60th priestly anniversary this year.
“In 60 years, you get to know a lot of people and get to love them even if they don’t all love you,” he said. “You come to be very grateful for all of it.”
Always eager to go wherever he was needed, Fr. Elskamp spent time serving in Hannibal, Edina, Perry, Center, New London, Indian Creek, Monroe City, Kahoka, Ilasco, Rolla, Chamois, Morrison, Bonnots Mill, St. James, Rosati, Holts Summit, Jefferson City, Eldon, Tipton and California before retiring in 2016.
“I enjoyed my parishes very much,” he said. “I got to know a lot of people — a lot of very interesting people.”
By his count, he has changed addresses 15 times.
“I keep moving,” he said back in 2012. “I just can’t hold a job!”
Fr. Elskamp was raised in Fulda, a farming town with a strong Catholic community in southwestern Minnesota.
He was the 10th of 11 children born to Frederick Sr. and Agatha Elskamp.
All of the Elskamp children were taught by Franciscan sisters at St. Gabriel School in Fulda.
As a young boy, Fr. Elskamp talked about wanting to be a priest, as did a lot of other altar servers at his parish.
“It wasn’t all that unusual to talk about it back then,” he recalled.
Those plans went dormant until his eighth-grade teacher told him outright. “You should be a priest.”
“I wasn’t thinking about a vocation at that time,” Fr. Elskamp recalled. “I had just sung a really nice part in an operetta, and I really liked the girl I was singing with.”
Fr. Elskamp’s pastor raised concerns about finding a high school seminary for him to attend.
“But lo and behold, just then, a young new priest gets assigned to help out at the parish, who had just come out of the Josephinum,” said Fr. Elskamp.
That is, the Pontifical College Josephinum, a seminary in Columbus, Ohio.
“He said, ‘You can go to the Josephinum!’” Fr. Elskamp recalled.
The future priest’s father’s business was failing, and the family had no money to pay tuition.
The young priest said, “Go anyway. We’ll help you.”
As it turns out, there was no room for any more freshmen in the “House of Joseph.”
Only when a student dropped out at the last minute did Fr. Elskamp get the letter welcoming him to the ranks of those discerning Priesthood.
“I took that as a sign that maybe I am being called,” he said.
Every seminarian at the Josephinum was given a laundry number so his clean clothes would get back to him without delay.
“My mother took my number and sewed it on everything — socks, shirts, handkerchiefs, everything,” said Fr. Elskamp. “She was very good at that.”
Tuition was $100 per year.
“I couldn’t afford it,” he said. “They gave me like a scholarship. I was probably the poorest kid in my class. And that was okay.”
He mowed lawns to earn money the summer after his freshman year, and his older siblings chipped in to help with his expenses.
The following summer, he got a job working on his great-uncle’s ranch in South Dakota.
“There were three bachelors: my great-uncle, a cousin he had working with him, and me,” Fr. Elskamp recalled.
“It was primitive,” he noted. “We took our baths, such as they were, in the river each week before we went to church.”
The following year, the pastor of his home parish needed a custodian.
“So I spent that summer cleaning the church, mowing the lawn and digging a good number of graves in the cemetery by hand,” said Fr. Elskamp.
He often needed a pick-axe to break the hard soil.
“They always talk about ‘6 feet down,’” he noted. “I never went near that far!”
He worked for a construction company each summer thereafter.
“It was everything — concrete, forms, troweling, welding, block-laying, sheetrock, you name it — all that good stuff,” he stated.
“It was fun,” he said. “I learned a lot of skills there that helped me in the Priesthood. I knew a lot about construction and blueprints.”
One for the books
Fr. Elskamp quickly came to love his time in the seminary.
“The more I went, the more I enjoyed my studies,” he said. “Especially Scripture studies: Old Testament and New Testament.”
He immersed himself in language studies, including German, Greek, Latin and English.
“In those days, we studied a lot of language, especially Latin,” he noted. “That really helped me with Spanish later on. It helped me pick it up fast.”
Monsignor Leonard Fick, a Rich Fountain native, taught him classes in English and American literature.
Another favorite professor was Dr. John Kleinz, who taught philosophy.
“One day, he came to class and said, ‘I got a new set of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, so I’m giving the old set away,’” said Fr. Elskamp.
The professor told his students to pick a number between 1 and 1,000.
Fr. Elskamp picked 325, which happened to be the year of the Council of Nicaea.
“He said, ‘You win!’” Fr. Elskamp recalled. “I told him it was my laundry number. He said, ‘If I didn’t have such respect for these books, I’d throw them at you.’”
From MN to MO
Back then, seminarians at the Josephinum were encouraged to consider applying to a diocese where their priestly services would be in greatest demand.
Fr. Elskamp’s home diocese had an abundance of priests, meaning he would likely wind up teaching high school rather than ministering in a parish.
“I didn’t want that,” he recalled.
The Diocese of Jefferson City was created in 1956 out of territory from the St. Louis archdiocese, the former Diocese of Kansas City and the former Diocese of St. Joseph.
“I knew that Bishop (Joseph M.) Marling was scouting recruits for the diocese, because he didn’t have enough priests,” said Fr. Elskamp. “So during my second year of theology, I petitioned to become a seminarian for Jefferson City.”
Bishop Marling, founding bishop of the diocese, was pleased to accept him.
Bishop Clarence G. Issenmann, now deceased, of Columbus, ordained Fr. Elskamp a transitional deacon in 1961.
Bishop Egidio Vagnozzi, now deceased, who was apostolic delegate to the United States, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood on May 26, 1962.
“My whole family came from all over the place — from east and west,” Fr. Elskamp noted.
He traveled back to Minnesota for about three weeks of resting and visiting with family and friends before reporting to St. Mary (now Holy Family) Parish in Hannibal.
Having avoided teaching high school in his home diocese, Fr. Elskamp found himself teaching at the former McCooey High School in Hannibal, the former Holy Rosary High School in Monroe City, and the former St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary high school in Hannibal.
He also served for many years as chairman of the diocesan Liturgical Commission, then as director of the diocesan Diaconate Program, overseeing the discernment and formation of men who were preparing to be ordained permanent deacons for the diocese.
“That involved a lot of time and a lot of driving and a lot of teaching,” he said.
All the while, he retained his love for parish ministry.
Monsignor Donald Lammers, P.A. and several other friends from Fr. Elskamp’s priest support group arrived at his rectory one day for a visit.
They rang the doorbell several times and waited for an answer. Nothing.
“What if he’s dead?” said Msgr. Lammers, who started looking for another way into the locked home.
Panicking, he eventually heaved himself through an open window and in over the kitchen sink.
“Fr. Fred was simply taking a nap and didn’t hear the doorbell,” recalled another member of that priest group, Father Michael Coleman.
The group, which gradually grew, has been a tremendous source of strength and affirmation for its members.
“We pray together all the time,” said Fr. Elskamp. “We support each other, and yes, we sometimes complain about things together. That’s important, too.”
“You’ll do okay”
Fr. Elskamp remains amazed and grateful for the generosity and dedication of so many people he got to work with in parishes, including music directors and accompanists.
One of his favorite songs is “Father, We Thank Thee,” a first-century Eucharistic hymn from the Didache, the Church’s oldest catechism.
“I hope to have ‘Give thanks always’ inscribed on my tombstone,” he said, echoing 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
Although retired from being a pastor, he is still very much a priest. He offers Mass daily and still fills-in from time to time in nearby parishes.
“I pray for the Holy Spirit to continue coming up with His surprises,” he stated.
He’s grateful for any prayers people are willing to offer on his behalf.
“I sure hope people pray for me as I get older,” he said. “I want to continue serving as long as I can.”
He’s convinced that God is still calling young men to the Priesthood.
“I think maybe we’re coming into a new phase,” he stated. “Maybe as the Church becomes more and more — I dare say, persecuted, quite frankly — people might respond as they have in places like Poland and instinctively look toward true values and away from secularism.”
Fr. Elskamp held onto the multivolume Summa Theologica set he got from his college professor until a few years ago, when he placed it on a pick-up table at the Priests’ Day of Recollection.
“They’re in Latin, so they have limited appeal,” he noted.
He doesn’t know which of his fellow priests picked up the books, but he’s happy that they’ve found a good new home.
“I’m getting rid of many things, especially books, because I’m getting old,” he said. “Every priest has books that he really loved. He wonders what is going to happen to the wonderful books. I’ve given some away. I’ll probably give more away.”
If Fr. Elskamp could go back 60 years and say just one thing to his newly ordained self, it would be: “Be prepared for lots of joy, a lot of trials and your quota of suffering. And being prepared, you’ll do okay.”
“That’s what happened,” he said. “I’ve been happy. And what I mostly feel now is gratitude.”