APPLETON — Capuchin Fr. Robert Udulutsch, 89, who built his own casket by hand, died July 23, following a battle with cancer. He was born in Norwalk, Wis., in 1929, the son of Michael and Sophia Udulutsch. He was invested in the Capuchin habit in 1948, professed perpetual vows in 1952 and was ordained a priest in 1956.
Fr. Bob taught art and industrial arts at St. Lawrence Seminary High School in Mt. Calvary from 1957 to 1971. After that, his ministry focused on preaching in Michigan and Wisconsin. He also ministered in the Middle East from 1988 to 1994.
In the late 1980s, Fr. Bob founded a ministry known today as LEAVEN (Limited Emergency Assistance Valley Ecumenical Network) in Appleton.
“He applied (his) many skills and talents to create LEAVEN,” said Mary Parsons, executive director. “Thirty-one years ago, he recognized a problem, envisioned a better community for all people, marshaled the support of multiple stakeholders, responded to the demands of the Gospel to help the needy and built the foundation from which to execute his plans.
“Collaboration and social innovation are terms that are very much in vogue in the nonprofit sector today. Father was a pioneer of both and a prophet of social justice,” she said.
Parsons also remarked on the priest’s impact on the local community, noting that more than 130,000 households have been served in these 31 years.
“In spite of all his amazing qualities and extraordinary accomplishments,” Parsons said, “Father was very humble. He preferred to shine the spotlight on the volunteers, whom he held in high regard. Father once said, ‘LEAVEN will always consider its dedicated volunteers to be the most important piece of its structure and system.’”
Fr. Bob’s last ministerial assignment was as a pastor at St. Mary Parish in Kaukauna (now part of St. Katharine Drexel Parish), from 1994 to 2006. He then retired to St. Fidelis Friary in Appleton.
While at St. Fidelis, Fr. Bob used his industrial art skills to construct two caskets, both from his own design. The first was made from pine and given to his brother, Irvin, who was also a Capuchin friar. His brother died in 2010.
The second casket, completed in 2016, was Fr. Bob’s “bio-friendly casket” — built using scrap lumber, paper, cardboard, burlap and lined with cloth from old Capuchin habits. Overall, Fr. Bob said proudly, it cost him $35.
“As a son of St. Francis,” he told The Compass in fall 2017, “… and as one who was personally moved by Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment (Laudato si’), I hope to lessen my ‘carbon footprint’ with this casket.”
Both caskets carried this verse from St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures” around their sides: “(Praise be to you), my Lord, for Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape. Happy those she finds doing your will. The second death cannot harm them.”
The lids of both caskets also bear an image from a woodcut, by fellow Capuchin Br. Michael Gaffney, of St. Francis dancing with birds.
Fr. Bob was preceded in death by his immediate family, including his brother. He is survived by his many Capuchin brothers with whom he lived, prayed and ministered for over 70 years. The funeral liturgy was held July 26 at St. Joseph Church in Appleton. Interment followed in Mount Calvary, Wis. Memorials may be directed to either St. Fidelis Friary or to LEAVEN.
Mary Parsons said LEAVEN will name a room in its Community Resource Center in Fr. Bob Udulutsch’s memory.