Father Joseph Beckman 1921-2021
World War II veteran. Journalist. Advocate for the poor. World traveler. As he approaches his 100 birthday, Father Joseph Beckman, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s oldest living priest, reflects on a life filled with travel and unique experiences, devoted to God and a mission of love.
A native of Hamilton, Father Beckman graduated from the then Hamilton Catholic High School, where he was educated by the Marianists, in 1939. He spent the next three years working at a local machine shop, while discerning a vocation to the priesthood. A Marianist priest rather bluntly told the young man to “get off the fence and make a decision,” recalls Father Beckman. “But, I was about to be drafted, so I decided to go into the Army Air Corps, and if I came back alive, I would go into the seminary.”
At the age of 20, he started training as a navigator aboard a B24 “Liberator.” He flew 44 combat missions out of Guadalcanal, along New Guinea, and into the Philippines. The experiences gave him his first exposure to the plight of the poor in those countries and led to a lifelong interest in writing about world poverty and the Church’s global mission. “The people had serious health problems: elephantiasis, malaria, dengue fever, malnutrition,” Father Beckman said. “Many lived in thatched roof huts, on dirt floors, and without electricity and toilet facilities.”
Throughout his military service, Father Beckman kept a high school Latin book close by as a reminder of his calling. Remaining true to his pledge, he entered the seminary after being discharged from the Army Air Corps and was ordained in 1954. The new priest’s first assignment was teaching at Purcell High School. He went on to serve as a chaplain for the Brown County Ursuline Sisters, and from 1964-71, ministered as a chaplain at Miami University. “This was during the Vietnam War, Kent State, all kinds of unrest,” Father Beckman explained.
Feeling “beat up and burned out” by the turmoil, he traveled to Mexico to study Spanish, and before long, was traversing the globe as a freelance journalist. With his notebook and camera in hand, Father Beckman visited 100 countries over the years, documenting the lives of the poor, listening to and sharing their stories, and interviewing missionaries who ministered among them. More than 65 publications, both secular and religious, including The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Kansas City Star, Our Sunday Visitor, America, Catholic Digest and St. Anthony Messenger featured his articles and photos.
In 2011, at the age of 89, Father Beckman made his 13th trip to Haiti, at a time when the impoverished island nation was still recovering from the January 2010 earthquake that left 300,000 people dead and another 1.5 million homeless. Accompanied by a representative from the Parish Twinning Program of the Americas, Father Beckman’s goal was to see the progress made in Haiti as a result of twinning partnerships with Catholic faith communities in the U.S. The Haitian people hold a special place in Father Beckman’s heart, and he shared his experiences on this journey with The Catholic Telegraph upon his return.
Father Beckman has never served as a pastor but has assisted at various parishes over the years, including St. Rose Church in Cincinnati, from 1995-2017. Now nearing the centenarian mark, Father Beckman said firmly, “I am still deeply interested in helping well- to-do people all over the world to recognize the plight of our millions of our poorest fellow human beings.”
He doesn’t write much anymore but contributes to a variety of organizations dedicated to helping the poor. And, of course, he prays for love, peace and unity in a world that sorely needs it.
“I say Mass every day in my room, and I remember all of you in my prayers,” he said. “I hope God will bless all of us and someday take us to a better world of perfect happiness.”
Father Beckman has some “bothersome health problems, but nothing life threatening,” he said, and still drives his little red Chevy for necessary errands. A self-professed “news junkies,” he keeps up to date on current events and takes an active interest in issues such as racism, immigration, fair housing, and homelessness, just to name a few. His space at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary is filled with books, photos, and mementos from his travels, including a model of the B24 “Liberator,” his aircrew flew in during the war.
“I’ve had a fantastic life,” Father Beckman said. “I’m grateful to wake up every morning and just take things day by day, knowing that God is in charge.”
This article appeared in June 2021 Bicentennial Edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.