Let us pray in thanksgiving for the life of Fr. Karl J. Voelker, SJ, who died on December 8, 2020 at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, where he was recovering from a bicycle accident. He was 79 years old. May he rest in peace.
Karl was born in Milwaukee on August 10, 1941. After graduating from Marquette University High School, on September 1, 1959 he entered the former Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus at St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Missouri, and Jesuit College, St. Bonifacius in Minnesota. Karl was ordained on June 8, 1972, made tertianship in 1978, and pronounced final vows in Mankato, Minnesota in 1979.
Karl earned a bachelor’s degree (1965) and a licentiate segree (1967) in philosophy and a master’s degree in history (1968) from Saint Louis University. During Regency he taught history at Creighton Preparatory School (1966-1969). Karl earned a master’s of divinity (1972) and a master’s of theological studies (1973) from Regis College in Toronto.
After ordination, Karl spent two years at Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. When the school closed in 1975, he became the associate pastor at Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Mankato, Minnesota (1975-1981). He returned to Creighton Prep for nine years where he was a campus minster and taught theology.
In 1990, Karl tried his hand at retreat and spiritual direction at Cenacle Retreat House in Wayzata, Minnesota. After six years of retreat work, he returned to Mankato—and his love, pastoral ministry—where he spent 12 years as pastor of Church of Saints Peter and Paul and four years as pastor of the Church of the Gesu (2009-2013). He then graciously accepted the position of minister of the St. Camillus Jesuit Community (2013-2016). At the age of 75 years old, Karl retuned to retreat ministry at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House. In 2019, he was missioned to St. Camillus to care for his health.
Karl was always present to people and delighted in helping others to encounter Jesus. No matter what role he played—pastor, student counselor, retreat director, or minister—Karl cared for a person’s body and soul. The concern and attention he freely bestowed on those he encountered helped many understand—and “sort out”—their conflict and confusion. Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House’s website says about Karl: “Many of those who have experienced his welcoming manner, humor, and grace say they’ve been especially touched by his gift for healing.”
Karl’s care for others included those he did not know personally. He was almost not able to make the beginning of the 1973 school year at Campion because he was jailed for participating in protests supporting migrant farm workers in California. This act of civil disobedience was the beginning of Karl’s desire for—and work towards—social justice for everyone.
Karl, an engaging preacher, often used humor to get his point across. Once at Campion, while he was preaching at Mass during a thunderstorm, as he reached the culmination of his homily to freshmen students (and their parents), he raised his finger to emphasize his words. At that exact moment a thunderclap occurred which shuddered the building. Karl said, “Behold! God affirms what I am saying!”
A quote from Karl on Bellarmine’s website expresses Karl sense of humor and ability to turn a phrase: “Everyone tells me I’m retiring, but I say, ‘I’m already tired’, I don’t want to do ‘tired’ more. So, I say, ‘I’m in unretirement.’ I’m now slowing down to end being tired and to serve from that place.”
Karl was cremated and, when the St. Camillus Jesuit Community can gather together as one, there will be a funeral Mass.