Brother Paul Wilhelm
By Father John S. Rausch
The radio whispered muffled strands of Auld Lang Syne as the temperature dropped inside Our Lady of the Fields Seminary in Cincinnati. When Brother Paul Wilhelm reported to Brother Mike Springer on New Year's Eve in 1969, he was shaking his head looking at the seminary's boiler. Their job was to restore heat to the building.
They eventually found a problem with the centrifugal switch that kicks on the boiler. With screwdrivers and wrenches, they tackled the motor piece by piece. About the time the New Year of 1970 arrived in Hawaii, priests, brothers and seminarians awoke to the clanging of pipes signaling the return of steam heat. Two sleepy brothers stumbled into morning prayers amidst the warmth of God's praise.
Brother Paul represented that kind of community member people relied on. He was a hands-on, can-do, hammer-and-nail religious who built over 30 houses for low-income people, plus worked on numerous churches and Glenmary buildings. Auto mechanic, draftsman and electronics repairman, Brother Paul slowly surrendered his manual skills to a neurological problem that finally caused his death on April 1, 1999. Along life's journey his sense of humor, gentleness and commitment to God's will as a dedicated brother outshone his sharply honed technical skills.
Born on a farm in Mascoutah, Ill., Brother Paul was the fifth of eight children. The simple things of life brought him the most pleasure: fishing, hunting, hiking, biking and playing cards. His eagerness to learn earned him an associate's degree from the Ohio College of Applied Science and Architecture. Later he mastered auto mechanics. His work skills spoke loudly about his care and exactness. He meticulously looked after tools, oiling machinery for periodic maintenance and never putting away a shovel without first washing off the mud.
His sense of humor spilled over into all facets of life. A prankster, Brother Paul enjoyed surprising people by disguising gifts, like wrapping a pocket knife in a huge box. Other times, he overwhelmed folks with his simple spirit of generosity. A delivery man surprised Brother Larry Jochim with an unordered package. After working for a few weeks with Brother Larry, Brother Paul had bought him an expensive angle drill for electrical work for future jobs.
Another time, Brother Terry O'Rourke and he were building a house for a poor family. They needed to haul some stone up a steep hill. Taking turns, one would pull the wheelbarrow with a rope tied around himself while the other pushed. Later Brother Paul used a small inheritance to buy a tractor.
Brother Paul's tenacious spirit showed itself in various ways. Once, while he and Brother Terry were nailing down decking and racing the weather to avoid rain, Brother Paul nailed his foot to the floor with the nail gun. He excused himself, got a tetanus shot, then returned shortly to finish the job.
Through most of his religious life, Brother Paul suffered from health problems. In 1972 he got up to read the Epistle at Sunday Mass, but stood at the lectern unable to speak, as though he had had a stroke. The diagnosis was a brain tumor. Surgery saved his life but, long term, his condition slowly drained his motor skills. Over the next 27 years, he lost the ability to do fine drafting work; in the end, he could not write his name.
His journey through illness revealed to him the mystery of life. His simple spirituality reminded him of patience. Without patience, he would say, "You'd never make a farmer."
A man of convictions and the highest integrity, he faced death fearlessly: "I see death as another step in the journey of life. I enjoyed my life and accept death as a blessing. I am open to God's blessings in death as I received God's blessings in life."
Skills come and go, but for those who knew him, the simple spirit of Brother Paul with his radiant smile hammered home the Gospel.