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Father Robert Wellisch, a University of St. Thomas faculty member for 32 years and a chaplain and pastor to the Hmong community for two decades, died in a car accident May 24 in LeSueur County.
Wellisch, 62, died after his car struck a horse about 10 p.m. in the northbound lane of U.S. Highway 169 about four miles north of LeSueur, the State Patrol said.
A State Patrol spokesman said Wellisch’s car veered through the median and across the southbound lane of Highway 169 before stopping in a ditch. He was alone in the car and was dead at the scene. (He was wearing a seat belt.)
Wellisch was returning to the Twin Cities after spending Saturday in Mankato, where he had taken about 15 youths and their parents from his parish, St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul, for a pre-Confirmation retreat.
Wellisch, a St. Paul native, graduated from Cretin High School in 1958 and summa cum laude from St. Thomas in 1962, with a bachelor of arts degree in English. He went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate, both in English, from the University of Minnesota.
He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1969. He served as an associate pastor at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in St. Paul until 1971, when he joined the St. Thomas English faculty. He held the rank of associate professor.
While at St. Thomas, Wellisch also served as associate pastor at the Cathedral of St. Paul (1974-1976), chaplain at St. Paul’s Priory (1977-1985) and administrator at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in South St. Paul (1980) before his appointment in 1984 as chaplain for the Twin Cities Hmong Catholic Community.
Archbishop Harry Flynn appointed Wellisch as pastor of St. Vincent De Paul, a predominantly Hmong parish, last June. He also was chaplain of the Hmong American National Catholic Association and continued to carry a full course load at St. Thomas while serving the St. Vincent de Paul community.
Dr. Michael Mikolajczak, chair of the English Department at St. Thomas, said Wellisch was an expert in Victorian literature and also taught in the university’s Catholic Studies Department.
“He was gentle, had a quiet wit and behaved with great dignity and grace,” Mikolajczak said. “He taught well and he advised well. Even though he held down two jobs, here at St. Thomas and in the Hmong community, he never used that to beg off any of his faculty duties. He always did his share of committee work and he was proud of being a professor.”
Mikolajczak said Wellisch loved books, music, and recalled his fun side.
“A group of us went to a St. Paul Saints game one night," Mikolajczak said, “and afterwards they put CDs on the field, so the fans could run out and get CDS. We were getting ready to leave and somebody said, ‘Where’s Father Wellisch?’ I said, ‘He went on the CD run.’ That was part of the sparkle in him.”
Va Thai Lo, deacon and administrator at St. Vincent de Paul, has known Wellisch for nearly 20 years. He said Wellisch took his ministry seriously, learning the Hmong language and customs.
“Everybody in the Hmong community admired him,” Lo said. “He would go everywhere to assist families – to their homes, to where they worked and to the hospitals. This is a tragic loss for us.”
Survivors include three cousins – Dale Bowen of Fridley, Alice Bowen of Sioux Falls and Gretchen Myers of Cedar Falls, Iowa.
A concelebrated Mass of Christian Burial was held Friday, May 30, at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church, St. Paul.
Memorials are preferred to St. Vincent’s Parish or the University of St. Thomas, Mail #DEV.
Here is a link to the St. Paul Pioneer Press story about Father Wellisch: http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/5945222.htm