The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 6, 2000 Issue
Local News

Elizabeth Ministry priest dies

Fr. Kurt Gessner offered many people hope, help

By Jeff Kurowski
Compass Assistant Editor

Joining the priesthood was a difficult decision for Fr. Kurt Gessner, OFM Cap. He grew up in a close, loving family strong in traditions and feared there would be a void in his life if he never had children of his own. Little did he know he would find the loving family spirit he desired in his "adopted family," Bruce, Jeannie, Angie and Becky Hannemann, the Franciscan Capuchin family and in his ministry.

On Sept. 24, Fr. Gessner, 69, died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with his brother, Capuchin Fr. Glenn Gessner, a missionary in Nicaragua, and the Hannemanns by his side.

"We weren't ready to lose Kurt," said Jeannie Hannemann. "But we are thankful for the preparation God gave us and the beautiful dying experience. My daughter Becky said, 'He not only taught me about life, but also taught me about death.'"

In 1980, after suffering a heart attack, Fr. Kurt stayed with Bruce and Jeannie. He would later become affectionately known as "Uncle Kurt" to Angela and Becky.

"A real testimony of his love of children is the fact that our children's friends all wanted an 'Uncle Kurt,'" said Jeannie. "He would take Angela for stroller rides and she always had a flower for me when they returned. When he had to use a wheelchair, she pushed him and he would pick a flower for me. Their love for one another had come full circle."

In 1991, Fr. Kurt and Jeannie collaborated through Elizabeth Ministry, an international outreach to families during the joys and sorrows of the childbearing years. They conducted retreats, seminars and workshops throughout the United States.

"We acted as God's chosen instruments," said Jeannie. "We connected with people and met bishops all over the country. We had a powerful relationship. In my eyes, this man was the closest expression of the living Christ."

"I feel privileged to have been with him at the bedside of a family whose baby died during the night," she added. "He helped with the healing process through his love and support. He was an awesome man."

Fr. Kurt served in various ministry positions throughout his life. A recovering alcoholic, he began a ministry with alcoholics performing a countless number of interventions through his work with Community Alcohol Services Incorporated (CASI). He spent the majority of his ministry years in the Fox Valley, including serving as an associate at St. Bernard Parish in Appleton. In the Milwaukee Archdiocese, he developed the first diocesan Hispanic parish in Racine with his brother.

"The Hispanic people were very dear to his heart," said Jeannie. "People always came first in his life. He was very creative and never did anything practical. He never kept regular hours. Kurt was a very unique man."

Fr. Kurt, who celebrated his 50th anniversary in the Franciscan Capuchin family in August, was also well known for his gift of storytelling.

"He would tell my daughters Jesus stories every night," said Jeannie. "He was a gifted speaker. He always shared two points with people. He would say 'You have dignity and worth beyond measure,' and 'If you want to find Jesus, all you have to do is look at the person closest to you.' He challenged people to engage in life and live for the moment while embracing the past."

The Mass of Christian Burial was held on Sept. 28 at St. Joseph Church in Appleton with Fr. Dan Fox, provincial, officiating.

"It was overwhelming," said Jeannie. "We found ourselves consoling others. There was standing room only. Many of my children's friends were there. They knew how much he cared about them."

"I feel horrible that he is gone, but I feel blessed to be so close to him," she added. "He leaves a personal family legacy and a universal legacy through his ministry."

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