Monday, November 12, 2012

A family eulogy, for my Uncle Maynard

(I had the privilege and honor to offer the family eulogy for Father Maynard Kegler, Catholic priest and my uncle, at his funeral this morning.)

Remembrances have flooded in about Father Maynard’s life.  One thing that has been mentioned over and over again was his loud, merry, infectious laugh.  He was a man who brought joy to this world, from a source deep within.

And there is no question that that same laugh is ringing out now as he watches me stand here and speak.  You see, I am Emmy Kegler, the youngest daughter of Father Maynard's brother Stan, and one of the many children of the Kegler family that Father Maynard baptized during his nearly sixty years of priesthood.  And since I was one of those many children, Father took a special interest in my growth in the faith.  One December when I was very young, when he called from Arizona, I got the chance to talk to him.  “Do you know whose birthday we’re celebrating, Emmy?” he asked me in his patient voice.  “It’s Jesus’ birthday,” I told him with four-year-old confidence.  He responded, “Do you know where Jesus was born?”  “Of course I do,” I said with exasperation.  “In the hay.”

You could hear his laugh through the phone from across the room.

I am only one of the many children Father cared for throughout his life.  So many of us in the Kegler family and in this room were baptized by him, married by him, had their children baptized and married by him.  Many of us in the family had the privilege to call him not formally Father Kegler, but Father Maynard -- and we were honored by that privilege.  We were honored to have a priest in the family, but more so to have a priest who knew how important family was.

Father learned the importance of family from a young age.  Life in Glencoe and Winstead was not elegant or easy, but family made it worthwhile.  The Kegler children learned to be rich in imagination and creativity.  They played leapfrog through the house.   They made up translation games with German and English.They played make-believe church, with Monica and Benilda as the choir, Stanley as the server, and Maynard, of course, as the priest.  Family continued to nurture him as he went to prep school and seminary.  A borrowed cushioned kneeler, begged from a neighbor, brought a host of bedbugs into the house.  Even when Maynard could not come home, his clothing could -- a suitcase full of laundry to be washed, dried, starched, ironed, folded, and sent back to the seminary.

His family’s care and nurture, and Father’s dedication to God, came together when he was ordained and when he celebrated his first Mass at Saint Augustine’s.  Father Maynard’s early days of ordained ministry are filled with beautiful memories for so much of the family:  the dresses made by Monica for Paulette, Jeanette, and Betty; Joanie Amtsbauer chosen as the “little bride” for the first Mass; the ice cream treats afterward, with tiny candy crosses on each one.

Father Maynard’s ministry to the family continued.  He baptized many of the Kegler family children, with Vern helping to coordinate meals afterward.  He officiated many marriages, sometimes for children he’d baptized.  Receiving communion from him meant receiving the body and blood along with his own tangible joy that we were there with him.  The private masses he offered for family were solemn and intimate, and always followed with a potluck and storytelling.

Worship under Father Maynard’s direction was solemn, but not strictly serious.  At one wedding in particular, here in St. Francis Xavier Church, Father had proceeded to the altar to prepare communion.  Unbeknownst to anyone in attendance, a small black bat was sleeping in one of the potted plants around the table.  Something must have woken it, for its little black head appeared, along with little black claws that climbed up the altar cloth, for all the congregation to see.  The bat peeked its little head just above the edge of the table and looked right at Father.  A respecter of all God’s creatures, Father also knew that each animal has its time and place, and he snatched up the service book to shoo it away, while he spoke the words of the Sanctus: “Holy, holy.”.  He was able to finally swat it on the third cry of “Holy.”  The whole event was caught on tape, and eventually submitted to America’s Funniest Home Videos; it was not televised, which only proves that the Kegler sense of humor is a truly unique one.

Father was with us for some of the happiest days of our lives - and also for some of the saddest.  He buried many family members, saying the Mass for his brother Aloysius and for so many fathers, mothers, and loved ones.  His comforting, calm presence made the pain easier to bear.

Father’s warm welcome extended to more than worship.  He and Vern continually opened their home to family and friends.  We were welcomed to the cabin in McGregor and to pontooning on Big Sandy.  Father’s hospitality gave many of us opportunities to visit and explore places we otherwise might not.  He invited us all to share in his love for classical music and the opera.  In all the good times with family, his laugh was sure to be heard, from the time he handed out “white elephant” gifts at Kings House after a celebratory mass, to buzzing around a campground in Arizona on Al’s four-wheeler.

Father’s travels continued beyond his different homes in America.  He and Vern traveled the world, sailing on the Queen Elizabeth 2 across the Atlantic, riding the Orient Express from Hampton to London, watching polar bears migrate near Hudson Bay, and visiting, in the course of their journeys together, all seven continents -- even dipping their toes in Antarctic waters.  They loved cruises, and Father was often a chaplain on them, where he’d spend an afternoon playing bridge with the likes of Omar Sharif.  He was a teacher and mentor to Cardinal George of Chicago, and remained his friend throughout his life.

Throughout his adventures, Father also displayed incredible gifts of generosity and compassion.  He faithfully sent out beautiful, handwritten Christmas cards, bringing warmth and light into our homes during the winter.  He gave gifts that were personal and heartfelt, encouraging us through them to pursue our interests and dreams.  He remembered the forgotten and the poor, ministering to Native Americans on the reservation in South Dakota and supporting HIV/AIDS housing in Minneapolis.  He championed Thomas Anthony Dooley III, physician and humanitarian, for beatification.

Father’s deep spirituality and joy meant that he continued to find family wherever he went.  He was a great light in our lives, and saw the light in so many of us.  He was always open to new people, new ideas, new stories, and welcomed all into his wide embrace.  Many of us remember his gentle kisses when he greeted us and when we left.  Throughout all his life, and through many of ours, his twinkling eyes and contagious laugh made us feel at home wherever we were.

Cousin Yvonne most recently visited Father and Vern this past February.  She remembers going with them to Coco’s, one of their favorite restaurants.  As they crossed the restaurant, Father reached for and took Vern’s hand for support.  It was a tender, poignant moment, and a beautiful sign of the team they truly were as they walked this life.

We have lost a beloved brother, a beloved uncle, a beloved companion, a beloved priest.  When I was four years old, he laughed at my utmost certainty of Jesus in the hay.  I know that he laughs with joy now, his eyes twinkling, to know that we may be just as certain of Father’s presence with us, now and always, because of all the love he bestowed on us in his life.

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