On Aug. 1, 1944, Heliodore Mejak said his first Mass at Holy Family Church in Kansas City, Kan. Sixty-three years later, the church is looking for a new priest.
Mejak, 98, died Christmas Day, ending perhaps the longest tenure of a priest at a U.S. parish. Monsignor Mejak may also have been the country’s oldest active priest, according to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
“To be that old and to continue to function and to care for the community, that certainly shows his dedication and his love for his people,” said Thomas Tank, vicar general of the archdiocese. Mejak became a priest in 1935 and served under seven popes.
He will be remembered not only for his longevity but for his staunchly traditional Catholicism and his devotion to his parish, where he was also the church handyman, lawn cutter, financial manager and compiler of the weekly bulletin.
“He was a stellar priest,” said Mary Ann Grelinger, a former parishioner at Holy Family who wrote a 2006 biography on Mejak for a priests’ magazine called Homiletic & Pastoral Review. “He said Mass every day. He never took a day off or a vacation. Most priests do. He didn’t.”
Mejak celebrated Mass until about a week before he died, even though he had become progressively weaker, was losing his vision and used a walker.
“He couldn’t see,” said Kevin Fogarty, a Wyandotte County firefighter who has been attending Holy Family Church regularly for about 10 years. “He wore ‘welding goggles’ with huge magnifiers. When he said Mass, it was obvious he was reciting from memory. He couldn’t read it at all.”
Mejak may be best known for his resistance to changes in the church. Holy Family, a Slovenian parish, drew people who believed as he did. He was the last priest in the archdiocese to stop celebrating Mass in Latin in the wake of the Vatican II church reforms approved in the 1960s.
Mejak did not want laypeople to serve communion and said the host should only be served directly from a priest’s hand, rather than placing it in the hand of the recipient. He wanted people to kneel rather than stand for communion.
When Vatican II called on people to shake hands or hug as a sign of peace during Mass, Mejak ignored it.
“He said the presence of Jesus Christ on the alter should be the focus, not each other,” Grelinger said. “A sign of peace was something that distracted from the Eucharist.”
Kirk Kramer, an editor of the Digital Library of the Catholic Reformation in Virginia, attended Holy Family Church in the 1980s while a student at the University of Kansas. He recalled Mejak’s church as a refuge for Catholic traditionalists.
“His parish, his church was a haven of holiness,” Kramer said. “There was a sense of the sacred and the mysterious and the beautiful at a time when you had to look for that. When you went to Holy Family, you got the Mass of the church, authentic Catholic doctrine and not theological opinion.”
Charles Andalikiewicz, 77, had known Mejak since he was a boy growing up in the neighborhood of the church. Andalikiewicz is priest of Immaculate Conception Church in Louisburg, Kan.
“He was very humble, very loyal and a gentle man,” Andalikiewicz said. “He was also very scholarly.”
Mejak was a train buff who built electric trains in the church basement that he liked to show children, Grelinger recalled. He built the trains using old pictures and drawings as a guide.
Mejak graduated from what now is Bishop Ward High School in 1927. He went to St. Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., and Catholic University in Washington and became a priest in 1935.
He served several churches in Kansas before being assigned to the Holy Family, where he had to learn the Slovenian language.