Audio interview with the late Bishop Eugene J. Gerber preserves, documents history
Archivist Note: On May 25, 2011, I had the opportunity to record an oral history by telephone with Bishop Eugene J. Gerber. At that time, he was Bishop Emeritus of the Wichita diocese and was residing in San Diego. He served as third bishop of the Diocese of Dodge City from 1976 to 1982, before being named bishop of Wichita. He died on Sept. 29. The following text includes excerpts from the interview. — Tim Wenzl
Archivist: Let’s start with the announcement that you had been named the third bishop of Dodge City. Do you remember the circumstances of that announcement?
Bishop Gerber: Let me go back on how the circumstances led up to that announcement. In those days, it was not by telephone call that the apostolic delegate, as he was (then) called, that you learned of your appointment. It was by a letter, and it was a pontifical sealed letter within a letter, and you read the letter, and it asked you the question of whether you would respond affirmatively to the appointment that the Holy Father had in mind. And then, what you did is write back with a secret code word. The secret code word for me was: what are you doing to promote religious education? And I wrote back and responded in that vain and that meant that it was accepted. It meant that I was accepting the appointment and then the actual announcement of the appointment came on October the 16th.
A: You succeeded Bishop Marion F. Forst, who had been bishop of Dodge City for 16 years at the time. Did you have an opportunity to speak to him either before or soon after the public announcement?
BG: Immediately after the public announcement, he called me, and the first thing he sent me as a gift was a zucchetto, because as soon as an announcement is made that a priest is being named a bishop, he can begin to wear a zucchetto, that little head piece. So, he wanted me to have one of those right away, and he wanted it to come from him.
A: In succeeding Bishop Forst, did you have any questions for him, or did he give you any advice?
BG: Giving the nature of Bishop Forst, we worked out some of the general principles or the general guidelines for the installation. After that, it was all turned over to the priest under his charge and the lay people who worked so diligently pulling off the installation there. I might add that at that time, there was a change being made for the way in which bishops are installed and ordained. Up to that time, it was not uncommon for them to be ordained in their home diocese and later installed in their new diocese. It was at that time that they were changing to have the ordination coincide with the installation liturgically, and so the ordination took place in the diocese to which the priest was being assigned. There was still an exception made in my case because my mother was an invalid and could not make the trip to Dodge City. So, they deferred to my request to have the ordination in Wichita, and then she attended the installation (at Dodge City) from the sacristy at the cathedral in Wichita and watched it by way of television.
A: So then, in 1982, you were named to succeed Bishop Maloney at Wichita, your home diocese. Do you recall the circumstances of that appointment? You were only a bishop six years, was that a surprise to you?
BG: It was very much a surprise. Let me tell you how I learned of that. By that time, they were either calling you by telephone or talking to you in person. And I was at a Fall meeting of the Conference of Bishops in Washington. The apostolic delegate at that time (since then has become known as the apostolic nuncio) came to me on the floor and he said, “I need to talk to you.” And so we went into a door, and it was like a storage room/mop room, and he opened another door and it was a kitchen. He opened another door and that wasn’t appropriate. He couldn’t find a place, we couldn’t find a place where he could tell me what he wanted to tell me, so he said, “We’ll just talk here.” We were right on the floor and he said, “The Holy Father wants you to become, is asking you to become the bishop of Wichita,” and I said, “Who me?” He looked at my nametag and he said, “You are Gerber aren’t you?” It was a very humorous event, but I was so taken by surprise that I’d be called from Dodge City, number one, and number two, that I would be called back to my home diocese, but that’s how I learned. So that was on the 22nd, I believe, of October, I mean, sorry, the 22nd of November. Providentially, my dad died ten days later, and ten days after he died, my mother died. So, my dad died on December the 2nd, my mother on December the 12th and what added so much turmoil emotionally for me was, first of all, leaving the Diocese of Dodge City. So I was receiving cards and letters in connection with leaving the diocese, then I was receiving letters and cards for coming to Wichita because I knew a lot of people there, then after my dad died, I was receiving grieving letters, condolences and sympathies from people about his death, then my mother dies and the same thing happens when she dies, and then I receive Christmas cards and Christmas letters. So, that whole period of time just became a blur. So many things were happening emotionally that it was only later that I could catch up with my emotions.
A: You were the first of three priest sons from the Wichita Diocese who have been appointed Bishop of Dodge City. The second was Bishop Ronald M. Gilmore, who was your vicar general and moderator of the curia in your chancery there in Wichita. He was appointed to succeed Bishop Schlarman. How did you feel when you learned of Bishop Gilmore’s appointment and that you would be losing your vicar general?
BG: I was not concerned about losing a vicar general. I was pleased that one of our priests was being called to be bishop, and I was pleased that he was being appointed to the Diocese of Dodge City. There is a rejoicing that goes on. I was the Apostolic Nuncio at that time, we had just had the confirmations, the diocesan wide confirmations in Wichita, so we had about I don’t know how many thousand students and after the ceremony, an outdoor ceremony, Archbishop Cacciavillan said: I’m going to go. When we get to the hotel, after about ten minutes, I’m going to be in my room, such and such, and you ask Father Gilmore come in to see me, and five minutes later, after he comes in and sees me, I want you to come in. And that’s how Bishop Gilmore learned of his appointment. So, when I went into the room, there was Archbishop Cacciavillan, Father, then Bishop-elect, Gilmore, and myself. That trio was a nice setting, it was a nice exchange. There was nothing except happiness for the Diocese of Dodge City and for Bishop Gilmore. I didn’t give any thought about losing someone. I’ve always gone to the principle: The best thing you can do for the church is give out of your own need and not out of your surplus, and then you will be blessed. I had learned all of that from the missions in Venezuela, you know, you don’t wait to give out of your surplus but give out of your need, and so that was a viable and life-giving principle that was operative in my heart and in my mind. So it was something that fit naturally into my attitude and my emotions.
A: Now the third son from Wichita to be named Bishop of Dodge City was Bishop John B. Brungardt. And you actually ordained him to the priesthood didn’t you?
BG: I did, through the grace of God.
A: Did you have any part in nurturing his vocation?
BG: To this extent that we would get together with the seminarians every summer, but I would also visit the seminaries every semester. On the occasion of visiting the seminaries where our men were studying, I would visit with each of them individually, take whatever time it took and pursue the reasons for their vocation and what was motivating them, all of that sort of thing that was not only a testing of their vocation, but also an affirming of their vocation. So, to that extent, I had a part in his vocation. What led him from the faculty of Kapaun Mount Carmel at the time to seek the priesthood, I don’t recall exactly, but I knew him on the faculty there before he went to the seminary.
A: Very good. There was one other thing I wanted to visit with you about. You were actually in Rome for an ad lumina visit with Pope John Paul I. You were actually there throughout his pontificate weren’t you?
BG: I was. I was there. The first day after we arrived was his (Pope John Paul I), what is called a Solemn Beginning in St. John Lateran’s (Basilica). And then I was there with Bishop Hanifen, from Colorado Springs, and we were scheduled to have Mass that morning at St. Peter’s tomb, which is several levels under the floor of the Basilica. And we stepped out of where we were living and on our way there it just seemed like all of Italy had been struck by an atomic bomb, it was all quiet and everybody was so subdued and shocked to hear of the Pope’s death. I stayed there during the whole pontificate and the day after the funeral I believe, we left. But it was something to be there during the whole pontificate of the pope and to have been one of the only groups of audiences of bishops that he had received for an ad limina visit. So, I got a chance to visit with him personally, and an interesting point that might be appropriate here is: he liked to watch western movies with Italian lines dubbed in, and I said Dodge City, and he lit up like a Christmas tree. With Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke, you know that sort of thing. So it was a delight to meet him and he dismissed all his aides so that he could be alone with us and it was the first time that I had experienced such a close pastoral relationship with the Holy Father. I had been with Bishop Maloney as a priest with Pope Paul VI, a half a dozen times, but it was really something to be a bishop for the first time to be meeting with the pope for an ad limina visit and do so under those circumstances.
A: Very good. Well Bishop, are there any loose ends that we did not touch on that you would like to address?
BG: I would like to talk a bit about living, where I lived. When I went to Dodge City, the chancery that is there now, the chancery actually stopped at the door before you go into the hallway. There was a low number of staff members. Early on, I moved my office into the bishop’s quarters, of what is now I think the chapel, and that became my office. And then as these various diocesan services were developed, I kept moving up and offices kept following up until the building was full of offices and I was living in the attic. The best place that I have ever lived as a bishop was that attic. It was so, it was just a holy place for me. There was no way out except the stairs. So, I don’t remember who, but somewhere along the line, the chancellor and others decided that I needed a rope up on that fourth floor in case there was a fire and I couldn’t get down the stairs. And so they gave me a rope and I said, “Well, now I know that I am fully accepted.” But I just want to underline what a spiritual place it was to live in the attic. I still have an incredible love for western Kansas, for that diocese.