Father Dale Wunderlich doesn’t have a vocation story of how he was called to the priesthood, or at least not one that he feels is particularly interesting. But at the heart of his simple story are his Washington roots, the education he received at St. Francis Borgia and Our Lady of Lourdes grade schools, and the influence of both the Franciscan priests and the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
“Way back when I was 6 years old, my grandmother asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said either a priest or a doctor. And that just stuck,” Father Wunderlich told The Missourian.
“I was very, very impressed with (the Franciscans),” he added. “It’s hard to say why exactly . . . but they had a demeanor about them that was very level-headed, down-to-earth, just always there.
“It was comforting to have them around,” Father Wunderlich remarked. “We had School Sisters of Notre Dame, and they were always the same kind of influence.”
Father Wunderlich, 71, celebrated the 45th anniversary of his ordination this year. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest Aug. 3, 1974.
Since then his assignments have been varied, although most of his years as a priest have been spent in education. He has been an instructor, principal and administrator at various schools.
He served as a principal at Valley High School (1979-81); administrator and chief executive of Duchesne High School in St. Charles (1983-92); director of spiritual worship at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury (1993-2005); and spiritual director at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary (1993-2005).
He’s also served as pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish (1995-2004) and pastor at Christ Prince of Peace (2004-08), among other things.
For the last 10 years Father Wunderlich has served as rector at the Shrine of St. Joseph, St. Louis, which is not a parish, but has a membership of people who love and support the historic church. It’s known around the world for a miracle that occurred there in 1864, which makes it a very special and rewarding place to serve, said Father Wunderlich.
Childhood in Washington
Father Wunderlich grew up the oldest of four children, two boys and two girls, but his extended family was quite large. His father, the late Walter Wunderlich, was one of 11 children, and his mom, Florentine, whose maiden name is Engemann, was one of seven.
Father Wunderlich attended St. Francis Borgia Grade School until 1959 when Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School opened, and then because his family lived on that side of town, he was enrolled at OLL for sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
After the eighth-grade, he left for St. Joseph’s Franciscan Seminary High School in Oakbrook, Ill. While that might seem young by today’s standards to be leaving home, it was fairly standard in 1962, said Father Wunderlich.
“There must have been a dozen of us at the train station that day,” he recalled. “Our dads had all gone off to war at 18 and 19 years old, so at the end of eighth grade to be going to seminary wasn’t unusual.”
Father Wunderlich’s brother also became a priest, although he passed away 20 years ago from pancreatic cancer.
Studied Technique of Televangelists, Comics
In 2006, Father Wunderlich received the Great Preacher Award from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in 2006.
In an essay he wrote, “Reflections on Preaching,” he noted that during his first year as a priest, a conversation he had with a couple of young people who weren’t being attentive during Mass left an impression on him.
“I said to them, ‘You don’t seem to be too interested in what is going on here,’ to which they replied, referring to the presider, ‘He doesn’t seem to be too interested. Why should we?’ ”
At that point he realized the importance of “good liturgy done well, conscientious presiding, and the effectiveness of good preaching and the damage that can come about from poor preaching.”
He began looking for good and effective preachers to study and how effective communicators in other fields were successful. A local Baptist preacher whose services were aired on TV and radio caught his attention, and that led him to watch other Protestant televangelists.
More surprising may be the inspiration Father Wunderlich found in stand-up comedians he saw on “Evening at the Improv.”
“Perhaps part of their effectiveness and attraction is that comedians can see the lighter side of truth without a jaundiced eye,” Father Wunderlich said. “Not bad for anyone in ministry!”
Even while he was studying how best to deliver his homilies, Father Wunderlich said a message he repeatedly heard in seminary often came back to him — “You will preach only as well as you pray.
“I understand the goal of a homily to be facilitating a conversation between the Word of God and the congregation before me,” Father Wunderlich said. “With rare exception, I do not write out my homilies. I use a set of notes . . . no two homilies are exactly alike.
“ . . . there is something really ‘sacramental’ about good preaching,” he added. “It is more than one human being trying to communicate something human to other human beings. I try to remember that the substance of preaching, homilizing, is the living Word of God, a devine reality in human signs.”
In those moments when he connects with someone in the congregation through his preaching, Father Wunderlich said he feels like merely a conduit.
“The preacher becomes a channel for the Word of God to do what it wants to do,” he said.
Mass Held Every Sunday, First Fridays
About 12 years ago, Father Wunderlich was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that was related to a bad case of mononucleosis, and he thought that might limit the work he could do as a priest.
But an opening at the Shrine of St. Joseph seemed a perfect fit for him. He wouldn’t have the work of a pastor, because the church doesn’t have a parish, but he could continue saying Mass and doing other sacramental ministry.
Before he accepted the post, Father Wunderlich met with the board of directors — the Shrine is owned by the Archdiocese of St. Louis but leased to the nonprofit Friends of the Shrine of St. Joseph Inc. He wanted to know, “Who gets involved with just keeping a building going?”
“A phenomenal group of people!” he remarked. “They are dedicated, hospitable, very welcoming.”
Mass is held at the Shrine every Sunday at 11 a.m. and every first Friday at noon. That maintains the Jesuit tradition of devotion to the Sacred Heart.
“On all the major feast days, we have 300 to 400 people there for Christmas, same for Easter and the Feast of St. Joseph,” said Father Wunderlich. “And we do about 60 weddings a year.”
The Friends of the Shrine really roll out the red carpet for bridal parties, he remarked.
“For every wedding we have at least two, often four volunteers to help with the rehearsal and the wedding to make sure everything goes smoothly,” said Father Wunderlich.
These are not people who live near the church, but they are people who feel a connection to it for various reasons.
“Forty years ago when the building was about to fall down, Archbishop May didn’t know what to do with it. There were holes in the ceiling and battleship gray paint on the walls,” Father Wunderlich noted.
A group of local businessmen came up with a plan to restore the church, which dates back to the 1840s.
“They went to the Archbishop and said, ‘Lease it to us for $1 a year, and we’ll refurbish it,’ ” said Father Wunderlich.
That was 40 years ago, and it has taken the better part of that time to complete the work, he said, noting much of it was volunteer labor. St. Joseph is the patron saint of laborers, so many (even those of other faiths) contributed to the work for that reason.
Since there are no parishioners, the church has a membership — a mailing list of some 7,000 people — that it relies on. It also holds raffles. But weddings are a big source of income.
Miracle Draws People In
The certified miracle that happened at the Shrine in 1864 is what draws most people to the church, said Father Wunderlich.
Ignatius Strecker was a German immigrant who was injured while working at a soap factory in late 1861. He accidentally struck his chest sharply against a pointed piece of iron. The wound never really healed, and after two years, it had gotten so bad that doctors felt he only had a couple of weeks left to life, said Father Wunderlich.
A traveling missionary preacher named Francis Xavier Weninger, S.J., was preaching a mission at St. Joseph’s Parish in March 1864, trying to promote Peter Claver, a famous Jesuit who had worked among the slaves in South America in the 17th century.
Father Weninger pointed out Peter Claver’s great intercessory power with God, and after the sermon, he blessed people with a relic of Peter Claver. Ignatius’ wife was there, and went home to encourage her husband to come to church, which he did.
“He venerated the relic, and he began to feel better immediately,” said Father Wunderlich. “Went back to work within a week, and that was one of the two miracles that contributed to the canonization of Saint Peter Cleaver.”
The Shrine honors that miracle today by providing a relic of Peter Cleaver for veneration after every Sunday Mass.
Father Wunderlich noted also that a number of Strecker descendants still live in the area and for the last several years they gather at the Shrine around the anniversary date, March 16.
Every week there are between 50 to 100 regular attendees at the Sunday and Friday Masses, said Father Wunderlich. The rest are visitors from all over the country, including pilgrims and tourists, who come for religious events or to seek out the church because of the miracle.
“There are a couple of groups that come up from Memphis, Tenn., every year,” said Father Wunderlich. “We’ve had an Indian Pilgrim group from Toronto. We had a couple in from Montreal who had prayed at the Shrine of St. Joseph in Montreal for a baby., and after they had a baby and named him Joseph, in thanks they came down to Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis. That’s the kind of thing that happens.
“It’s very faith-filled people who are coming,” he said.
Of course, because of the miracle that occurred in 1864, a good number of very sick people also come to the Shrine to pray. They venerate the relic, and Father Wunderlich celebrates the sacrament of anointing as well.
“Anyone who is around there, we impose hands, do the anointing,” he said.
No Plans to Retire
Although he is 71 and his health has been a concern in the past, Father Wunderlich said he feels strong these days and doesn’t have any interest in retiring.
“The Shrine is a wonderful place to be,” he remarked.
He works out regularly and is very conscientious about nutrition. Last January he developed atrial fibrillation (afib), which is an irregular heartbeat often due to poor blood flow. As a result, he had surgery to have five stents put in his heart.
Father Wunderlich makes it out to Washington as often as he can. Typically he comes every Sunday to visit his mom at Grandview Healthcare Center.
Looking back on his career as a priest, Father Wunderlich smiled thinking about all the people he’s met, places he’s been and work he’s been able to do.
“It’s amazing that it’s been 45 years,” he said.