Rest in peace, Fr. Clarence Wiederholt, 93, last of the diocese’s ‘pioneer priests’


CLICK HERE to see a gallery of photos from the Funeral Mass. 

Father Clarence Wiederholt once preached: “There can be no fathoming what glorious things our all-knowing, all-loving God has in store for us after we die.

“We serve him now because we know he wants us to be with him forever.”

Fr. Wiederholt, 93, the last of the priests who were ministering in these 38 counties when the Diocese of Jefferson City was created in 1956, died peacefully on Oct. 27, at Conception Abbey in northwestern Missouri.

The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Nov. 3 in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at the abbey, where Fr. Wiederholt was baptized shortly after his birth in 1930.

Benedictine Abbot Benedict Neenan of Conception Abbey presided at the Funeral Mass, with priests of the Jefferson City and Kansas City-St. Joseph dioceses and several Benedictine priests of the abbey concelebrating.

Father Mark Porterfield, a priest of this diocese who was baptized by Fr. Wiederholt, preached the homily.

“All who knew Fr. Wiederholt knew that he was a priest first, last and always,” said Fr. Porterfield.

“In his priesthood, he was united to our Lord Jesus Christ, the High Priest,” the homilist continued. “And in that union, we have hope, even as we mourn the death of Fr. Clarence.”

Ordained in 1955, Fr. Wiederholt was an assistant pastor at St. Pius X Parish in Moberly, then at St. Lawrence parish in St. Elizabeth, then at St. Patrick parish in Rolla before serving for nine years as a U.S. Air Force chaplain.

Back in Missouri, he served as pastor of what is now Church of the Risen Savior Parish in Rhineland; St. Patrick Parish in Gravois Mills (now in Laurie) and the Mission of St. Philip Benizi in Versailles; St. Mary of the Angels Parish in Wien; St. Clement Parish in St. Clement; St. Joseph Parish in Edina and the Mission of St. Aloysius in Baring; St. Anthony of Padua Parish in St. Anthony and finally Our Lady of Snows Parish in Mary’s Home.

He then served for several years as volunteer chaplain for the cloistered Discalced Carmelite nuns in Jefferson City and as sacramental minister for St. Michael Parish in Russellville.

He lived in Jefferson City through most of his retirement before moving to the infirmary at Conception Abbey earlier this year.

“Being a priest is a blessing far beyond any words can express,” Fr. Wiederholt proclaimed in 2008.

“How I’d love to go back and do it all again!”

“Compassion and understanding”

Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos, who led this diocese from 1997-2018, looked back on Fr. Wiederholt as “the last of our pioneers.”

“I was very grateful that he came back to serve here after his military service,” said Bishop Gaydos. “And he did so with distinction.”

“His passing is yet another reminder that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants,” the bishop emeritus stated.

Gayle Trachsel, who was principal in Mary’s Home when Fr. Wiederholt was pastor there, remembers his sense of humor and concern for people who were sick.

“He touched many lives with his caring and personal personality,” she recalled.

Many took to social media upon hearing of Fr. Wiederholt’s passing.

“Compassionate, kind, caring, loving, forgiving, yet firm and unbending with God’s Commandments — the perfect shepherd for God’s children!” stated Randy Holtmeyer of St. Anthony.

“Thank you for being such a wonderful shepherd,” Laurice Stevens stated. “God bless you for all you did to get your flock to heaven.”

Answered prayers

Fr. Wiederholt was born on Jan. 5, 1930, on a farm near Conception, one of 12 children of the late Valentine G. and Mary B. (Bliley) Wiederholt.

When his parents carried the day-old baby out of the snow and into the abbey basilica, the Benedictine priest there had to chip away at the frozen holy water in the baptismal font, put some into a can and shake it until it could be poured.

From that day forward, Mrs. Wiederholt carried a silent prayer in her heart: that young Clarence would become a priest.

He began to sense his calling at age 7, around the time his older brother died of an infection.

The future priest entered Conception Seminary after eighth grade, continuing his studies through high school, college, philosophy and theology.

On Dec. 21, 1955, in St. Patrick Church in Maryville, Bishop (later Cardinal) John P. Cody ordained Fr. Wiederholt a priest of the former Diocese of St. Joseph, which spanned all of northern Missouri.

Seven months later, upon the creation of the Jefferson City diocese, Fr. Wiederholt became the new diocese’s youngest priest.

One night while serving at St. Pius, Fr. Wiederholt answered the rectory doorbell.

The woman on the porch told him about a visit she had just received in her home nearby. Twice, a man dressed in white came and stood at the foot of her bed, the second time telling her to go to the nearest Catholic church.

She entered St. Pius X Church and immediately noticed the image of Christ above the high altar.

“She said it was the same man who had stood over her bed,” Fr. Wiederholt recalled in 2019.

The priest agreed to give her instructions so that she could become Catholic.

“She was my first convert,” Fr. Wiederholt recounted with awe. “The Lord took care of her and brought her into the Church in such a beautiful way. All I had to do was believe her and give her instructions.”

Fr. Porterfield spoke of Fr. Wiederholt’s belief that everyone he encountered was a gift sent by God.

“And he was not going to return that gift to God without multiplying it,” the homilist stated.

“And raise you up”

Fr. Wiederholt ministered in Rolla while preparing to enter the U.S. Air Force chaplain corps.

Before reporting for duty in June 1959, he went home to spend a week with his parents, stacking his packed belongings onto their back porch.

His mother summoned him in the middle of the following night. His father was having a heart attack and dying.

The priest ran to his hodgepodge of possessions and by God’s grace grabbed the bag containing the Oil of the Sick.

One last time, he administered for his father the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

Mountaintop experiences

In the Air Force, Fr. Wiederholt received some adventuresome assignments, including five Cold War surveillance stations in isolated parts of Alaska.

From a base near Anchorage, he would fly to remote military outposts to provide Mass for Catholics, services for Protestants and Jews, and comfort and counsel to all who needed it.

One night, he headed up Indian Mountain to visit the “top camp” at the mountain’s peak, where a blizzard with 80-mph winds, temperatures of -40 degrees, and feet upon feet of drifting snow moved in.

The wind began to blow the roof off the tank holding the water that was used to heat the complex.

If the heat had failed, everyone there would have frozen to death.

Late that night, all the base personnel gathered in and around the tiny chapel, where Fr. Wiederholt led them in prayer.

As they prayed, the wind began to die down.

In a later assignment, he ministered to Air Force personnel at three U.S. Army installations near Darmstadt, Germany.

That’s when he baptized an infant named Mark Porterfield, who would become a priest of the Jefferson City diocese.

Fr. Wiederholt often referred to baptizing a future priest as “one of the best, most important things that happened to me.”

Wearing o’ the green

As straightforward and direct as Fr. Wiederholt could be with his homilies and teaching, “he was equally compassionate in the confessional,” said Fr. Porterfield.

Fr. Wiederholt often said, “God is perfectly just. But Jesus says, ‘I prefer my mercy.’”

A nephew, Mark Wiederholt, called to mind an instance when God used Fr. Wiederholt to assure the whole family of his constant care.

Mark’s father, Donald, who was the priest’s brother, was scheduled for emergency surgery for pancreatic cancer on Dec. 29, 1973.

“It was about the same time that Father was preparing to say the early Mass for his parish before coming to St. Luke’s Hospital to be with Don and our family,” Mark recalled.

Upon entering the church sanctuary, the priest noticed the distinct medicinal smell of an operating room.

“He was familiar with that aroma, as he often went into the operating room to administer the Sacrament of the Sick to people before their surgery,” Mark noted.

After Mass, Fr. Wiederholt drove for three hours to be with his family.

In the post-op recovery room, his brother asked, “Why did you have your green vestments on when you were here earlier?”

Upon reflection, the priest realized that he had started Mass, wearing a green chasuble, and noticed the operating-room smell at the exact time his brother’s surgery got under way.

“Loved by so many”

Macular degeneration eventually claimed much of Fr. Wiederholt’s eyesight.

He continued offering Mass and praying the Divine Office each day with help from a powerful magnifying glass and a computer that pulled up the daily readings in large type.

Abbot Neenan said it was a privilege to have him in residence at the Conception Abbey infirmary in the last months of this life.

“We were influenced and helped by his presence,” the abbot stated.

Fr. Wiederholt was buried in his family plot in the parish cemetery on the grounds of the abbey.

Family members built his casket.

“Loved by so many more than we know!” stated his niece, Sharon Cowden. “He was so good to so many and shared the words of God with so many, as he was blessed and ordained to do.”