Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Father Hoenig - A Pastoral Tale

Have you ever met a person that, upon looking back, defies all logic? I'm not saying that the person makes illogical decisions, I am referring to the idea that their very being does not compute in your brain? This is the case with Father Hoenig.

I don't know Father Hoenig's first name. Though he was a priest, I've never attended a service he's officiated. I've come to learn of this priest through a professional relationship.

It was a sweltering hot afternoons in early August. It was late in the day, when the sun starts balking at the earth, sending shadows long but refusing to give up it's tenure of torturous heat. At the shop of Leroy Walljasper, we were all befuddled by some persnickety machine that had been commissioned for repair. As we stood back viewing the machine with a contemplative simmer, a little truck rattled into the drive.

Peculiar Pastor

The truck, if it had to be identified by one make or model, would be a Nissan, although the one remaining bumper, hood, and passenger side door would beg to differ. Most of the body used to reflect a navy blue hue, but it had oxidized to the point that a burnt orange crust overwhelmed any color on the trucks once gleaming hull.

The vehicle paused for a moment, unsure as to whether it would lurch forward from it's clutch or give up life indefinitely. Instead, it coughed to a dilapidated halt under an old hickory tree across the lot. Then, slowly and unsteadily, Father Hoenig tottered into view from behind the rusted out machine.

An immaculate version of Father Hoenig's jalopy
He was wearing black dress shoes that had long shirked the title “dress”. They were missing their laces, allowing the tongues to flap wildly as his legs jerked unnaturally out in front of his body. Inside the shoes were fathers naked feet, untethered by socks in the summer heat. He wore navy blue slacks, one leg caught around his knee in the style that LL Cool J made famous in the 80's and 90's. Hoenig's black shirt was unbuttoned but half tucked into his slacks, one shirt tail flapping in the breeze, the other bunched and stretching the cloth across his thin hunched frame. The white priestly collar was sticking out of the neck of his shirt, bouncing with fervor as his shoulders lurched ever closer to the shop.

Father Hoenig's hair was ghostly white, almost as if a wispy milkweed plant had landed on the back of his head and had clung there, ever so meekly, being tousled by the winds of that summer afternoon. One of the man's eyes drooped uselessly to the side, as if it'd jump free of its housing, if the skin surrounding the orb would only relinquish its grasp. I'd later learn that this useless eye was struck blind from complications of diabetes. At the time, however, it was simply one more element of absurdity in a whole collection of flesh and bizarre.

“I've got a mower. working.” the monsignor said meekly as he approached the group of us who'd been observing his pilgrimage across the gravel. His voice was small and shaky, as if he was still working on shaping them as the passed his lips. They reached us with an upturn, making every word a milquetoast inquisition. As my grandfather questioned the elderly man, the story began to appear, but only in small sections. With a long drag from his cigarette, grandpa said through a puff of smoke,

“Yeah father, we can probably get that running 'gain for ya. Bring it by tomorrow and we'll get to workin' on it.”

“God bless you. Thank you. Thank much. God bless you son, for helping me with my...mower.” Father tottered back across the rocky lot, clambered into his pickup, and sputtered into the distance, leaving naught but a plume of white gravel dust in his wake.

“I hope he realizes that I'm still gonna charge him for the thing. Blessings don't keep the lights on, ya know?”

Mowing the Unmowable

The next day, one of the fellas that helps Father Hoenig around the farm brought by the mower. He dropped it off and, tipping his hat, wished us luck.

As we dug into the machine, we found an incredible mess inside. From the looks of it, the mower had been run against something so hard that it not only stopped the blades from spinning, it actually took the alloy shaft that runs the length of the machine, and turned it into a corkscrew. This made our job immensely more difficult. After a few hours of driving the blades off the shaft with a sledge hammer, we retreated to the office to regroup against the twisted adversary. Grandpa lit a cigarette, grabbed a coke from the pop machine, and grabbed the phone.

“Yeah, this' Leroy. What the hell'd he do to this thing? Well, it's twisted up tighter'n a tax collector.”

Grandpa listened for a few minutes, then let out a chuckle. Shaking his head, he imparted the account.

Father Hoenig had a lot of land that, in recent years, he'd either forgotten about, or chosen not to plant for some reason or another. Whatever the reason, he'd remembered these fields on that particular summer and, upon inspection, decided that they needed to be cleared. The easiest way to do that was to hook on to the hay mower and cut through the ragweed and canadian thistles. It should only take a couple hours with this new mower. He was cleaning up the land pretty well, until he ran up against something, stopping the machine dead in its tracks. Rather than investigate this issue, he backed up the tractor, lifted the mower, and came back to the house. When his farmhands went out to inspect, they found what had stopped the machine so abruptly. It was an old moldboard plow.

A possible equivalent of Father Hoenig's adversary
It's not small. It's not unnoticeable. Even with shoulder high weeds and brush, most people would see a plow from the tractor. Most people with two good eyes. Unfortunately, I don't think father had one good eye.

The plow had done substantial damage to the mower, and the project was not fun. A week later, we'd finally gotten everything back in working order for father. He came back to pick up the cutter, and graciously paid grandpa, with a check as well as a blessing.

Curious, I asked grandpa why he called him 'Father'. Was he really a priest? I'd never heard of a priest who was also a farmer, but then again, I'd never met a character like Father Hoenig.

“Yeah he's a retired priest, lives out by Montrose. Used to be the pastor at St. Joe's out there, till they forced'm to retire. Still says a mass or two every now'n again. I guess it's a site.” Grandpa went on to recount the foibles he'd heard. Stories of Father Hoenig asking the altar servers what part of the mass came next, or speaking so quietly and unintelligibly that no one was sure whether they should sit, stand, sing, or kneel. It wasn't uncommon for Father to be late for mass, or forget to show up at all. For that reason, he hasn't been saying many masses any more, which is fine by him, as it gives him more time to farm.

I haven't heard much about Father Hoenig in recent years. I don't know if he's still farming, still driving, or still alive. While I may have depicted him as weak or unstable, I assure you that he was one of the most venerable individuals I met working at Walljasper Construction. He refused to give up, even when it meant pitting himself against 19th century farm machinery.

To this day, I'm not sure I understand Father Hoenig. He was truly an anomalous entity. But maybe that was what is so intriguing.


  1. I love this story. I think you had told me about this guy before, but I laughed-out-loud when I read the part about him having to ask what part of mass they were on! hahahaha... so funny!

  2. Fr. Hoenig was the Chaplain at the Iowa State Pen and even now with the tumor behind his eye he buys old houses in Ft. Madison and rents them to the poorest of the poor for little or nothing. You make him sound like an old idiot and he's not. If you would of actually done research about the man you could have written a better story.

  3. Anonymous,

    Thank you for the background. I have nothing but respect for Father Hoenig, and I apologize if that was not conveyed above. I was merely sharing my own limited experiences with the man and his quirkiness.

    I'd welcome any leads or further information about Father Hoenig, and will post a follow up musing upon hearing from you. Please email me at and we can chat further.

    As a side note, I recently heard that Father Hoenig had been hospitalized. Do you know any of the details of this? No one I spoke to in Southeast Iowa had any details.

    Thanks again for your input. I look forward to hearing form you.