Capuchin Fr. Glenn Gessner, missionary priest, dies

GREEN BAY — Capuchin Fr. Glenn Gessner, 84, died in Appleton on July 4.

He was surrounded by friends from the Fox Valley, both Anglo and Spanish, who crowded his hospital room to “push him to heaven,” as he had asked as his health deteriorated. Men and women, old and young, sang Nicaraguan songs and German lullabies to the long-time missionary — because his first language was German.

Capuchin Fr. Glenn Gessner, pictured riding a donkey on his farewell visit to El Ayote, Nicaragua. (Submitted photo | For The Compass)

After Fr. Gessner’s last jubilee celebration in 2017, “he was just glowing,” said his friend, Jeannie Hannemann. “He said, ‘This was a taste of heaven, what heaven will be for me is where all the people I love know each other and love each other too.’”

Hannemann added that her friend’s “biggest emphasis always was on what he called ‘the God family.’ The Trinity was the God family, but we were all called to be part of that family.”

Fr. Gessner was born in Sheboygan in 1934, to William and Therese Gessner. He was invested in the Capuchin order in 1952 and perpetually professed in 1956. He was ordained a priest in 1960. He began his pastoral ministry at St. Elizabeth Parish in Milwaukee in 1962.

A year later, he was sent as a missionary to Central America, where he served from 1963 until 1972. He returned to Nicaragua in 1986 and his ministry was especially centered at El Ayote, Nicaragua, in the Diocese of Bluefields.

While in Nicaragua, he oversaw the construction of St. Joseph Parish’s church and school, a hospital and clinic and even a radio station. The parish structures were built with help from members of the Fox Valley Mission Group. In 2008, the group helped build the medical clinic. Unbeknownst to Fr. Gessner, they made a plaque naming the clinic as the “Padre Glenn Gessner Medical-Surgical Clinic.”

Fr. Gessner’s funeral Mass on July 7 was livestreamed through Facebook Live to St. Joseph Parish in El Ayote, as was his burial on July 9. According to Hannemann, the livestream was picked up by radio and TV stations across Nicaragua.

The St. Joseph community plans to erect a memorial to the priest on near the parish bell tower. Part of his Capuchin habit will be included. Also returned to the parish was the stole they had made for him, adorned the Spanish words of “Mary’s Fiat.” The stole was with him when he died.

Fr. Gessner had also ministered as a hospital chaplain in Milwaukee for two years, and served at Cristo Rey Parish in Racine until 1986. He had recently retired and returned to the States to live at St. Fidelis Friary in Appleton. He was a missionary for 27 years.

On May 31, Fr. Gessner was present when Elizabeth Ministry dedicated its library as the “Gessner Brothers Library” in honor of Fr. Glenn and his brother, Fr. Kurt Gessner. (Fr. Kurt died on Sept. 24, 2000.) Jeannie and Bruce Hannemann, and the two Capuchin priests, founded Elizabeth Ministry in 1991. Fr. Glenn brought Elizabeth Ministry to Nicaragua and had translated many of their materials into Spanish. He served as a spiritual mentor to Elizabeth Ministry until his death.

Speaking on May 31, Fr. Gessner urged those working with Elizabeth Ministry to “stay close to each other. Don’t build walls between people — we need each other. … What Elizabeth and Mary did, we’re doing all the time. … As Pope Francis says, we’re all brothers and sisters.”

Jenni Vande Hey, who became executive director of Elizabeth Ministry in January, said that she “only met Fr. Glenn the one time, but he had taken time to trade emails with me, which I appreciated, especially being new in my role. He loved to talk about Elizabeth Ministry.”

In one of those emails, Fr. Gessner offered this advice: “Be always joyful, always open to sanctify and celebrate God’s action in us, always grateful to expand God’s kingdom as (did the) Virgin Mary and Elizabeth.”

The funeral Mass was celebrated July 7 at St. Joseph Church in Appleton. Burial was in St. Joseph Cemetery, Appleton. Biodegradable balloons were released at the burial because Fr. Glenn always gave away balloons.