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Retired friars share Franciscan spirit at Archbishop Leibold Home

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November 2, 2012

By Eileen Connelly, OSU

Franciscan Fathers Cyprian Berens, 88, and Valens Waldschmidt, 92, may be officially retired from active ministry, but the friars of the Cincinnati-based St. John the Baptist Province are still finding ways to share the spirit of St. Francis and reach out to other residents at St. Paul’s Archbishop Leibold Home for the Aged.

Cyprian Berens (Courtesy Photo_

Their whole lives, in fact, have been a testament to the Franciscan founder. Like St. Francis, they have found great joy in living the Gospel and inspiring others to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.


A native of Terrace Park, Father Berens was one of four children and grew up in St. Andrew Parish in Milford. He went on to attend the then-Purcell and later Roger Bacon High School, where he first encountered the Franciscans. “They struck me as very available men. I was a young punk, but I mattered to them,” he recalled.  “I also read a biography of Francis and thought it sounded more Christian to me than anything else I’d heard.”


With the support of his parents, whom he credits with “maintaining their faith in the tough times of the depression,” Father Berens attended St. Francis Seminary, studied philosophy at Duns Scotus College in Southfield, Mich., and theology in Oldenburg, Ind. He was ordained in 1951.


His ministry initially took Father Berens to central Illinois, where he served as an associate pastor in various parishes. From there, he was assigned to the order’s General Curia in Rome as assistant treasurer and secretary. Next came ministry in formation in the province, followed by another stint in Rome. Over the years, Father Berens also served as head of St. Bonaventure College, a Franciscan institution in Florence, Italy, director of communications for the St. John the Baptist Province, and as the apostolic penitentiary, or confessor, at St. John Lateran Cathedral in Rome.


Reflecting on his ministry over the years, Father Berens, said, “Obedience sometimes means you go kicking and screaming into something and it turns out wonderfully because of God’s hand in it.”


He was assigned to the Archbishop Leibold Home as chaplain in 2003, where his duties included conducting an annual retreat for the residents and administering the sacraments. The relationships he has developed at the home have been a “blessing,’ Father Berens said.


“The residents have led such interesting lives and have such wonderful stories to tell. The whole spirit of the place is very uplifting and caring. The spirit of the Sisters (the Little Sisters of the Poor who operate the home), who are so happy and gentle and their foundress (St. Jeanne Jugan), and the dedication of the employees ensures that the residents are treated with infinite patience and kindness.”


Father Berens celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on Oct. 26, 2011, during Mass at the home. During his homily, he reflected on what the life of priest is like, with the final thought that it is a happy life, one that as a Franciscan, has been spent “living the Gospel and living simply.” After Mass, the home held a special luncheon in Father Berens’ honor.


He retired effective July 1, but continues to preside at Mass and hear confessions by appointment. Father Berens is a cheerful presence as he tools around the home on his scooter, greeting residents and employees with a smile and word of encouragement.
“Retirement is working out very well for me,” he said. “I’m doing reading I’ve been wanting to do and going on field trips with the residents.”


Valens Waldschmidt (Courtesy Photo)

For Father Waldschmidt, who is legally blind, what retirement has meant the opportunity to keep up with current events and reflect on his life as a Franciscan.


“I can see the Holy Spirit in my life,” he said. Originally from a small town in Illinois, one of six children, Father Waldschmidt has fond memories of the friars who were stationed at his parish, calling them his “role models.


A favorite story from his childhood is that of a man who knew Abraham Lincoln: “This old guy gathered kids under a tree and told stories about Honest Abe. Metamora has a courthouse Lincoln often visited during his time as a lawyer with the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Downstairs was a small museum with artifacts from the Civil War, including a table Lincoln used sometime during the 1860 presidential campaign. They had to cut out a piece of it [underneath] so Lincoln’s long legs would fit under it.”


As a teenager, Father Waldschmidt left his family and all that was familiar to study at St. Francis Seminary. “I was homesick,” he admitted, “but it never occurred to me to quit.”


He was ordained in 1947 and assigned as an associate pastor first at the former St. John Parish then at the former St. Bonaventure, both in Cincinnati. Father Waldschmidt then joined the Franciscan “mission van,” traveling throughout the mid-west giving talks and retreats to various groups. In 1969, he became the retreat master at the former Friarhurst Retreat Center in Cincinnati. He went on to become a longtime chaplain at the Pauline Warfield Lewis Center  (formerly Longview State Mental Hospital). He recalls visiting the patients and offering Sunday Mass at the St. Dymphna (patron of those afflicted with mental or emotional illness) Chapel on the center’s grounds. “It was consoling to be able to help the people, to see those who have been plagued by mental disturbance find their way back to be an integral part of society. It was beautiful to see,” he said of his ministry.


Although he retired in 2004, Father Waldschmidt continues to preside at Masses at the center as needed. He also celebrates Mass at the Archbishop Leibold Home and visits the residents regularly. “The Sisters have created a beautiful spirit of charity here,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place to call home and the employees and volunteers are all like family.”


Although he is visually impaired, Father Waldschimdt does let this keep him from perusing a variety of Catholic periodicals and audio books, not only to stay informed, but in an effort to keep his homilies relevant, pastoral and catechetical. He said he has been especially impressed with the high school and college students who volunteer at the Archbishop Leibold Home and makes a special effort to reach out to them. “It’s important to recognize the good young people are doing,” he said. “They have such a strong spirituality.”


For Father Waldschmidt, who has a special fondness for the Prayer of St. Francis, life as a Franciscan has meant “a life of thanksgiving, shared with God, focused on the primacy of Christ, and finding God in all of creation.”


“I’m asking the Lord the buckle my shoe at 92 and I won’t fall out of the cherry tree at 93,” he said with a smile.

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