by Daniel Gallio
Sacred Heart seminarians Deacons Todd and Gary Koenigsknecht (pronounced (ken'-igs-nek) are the latest examples of the extraordinary fruitfulness of a single family. The fourth-year theologians and identical twins from the Diocese of Lansing are scheduled to be ordained on June 14 at
St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in East Lansing. When Most Rev. Earl Boyea, bishop of Lansing, lays hands upon them that day, Todd and Gary will become the fifth and sixth priests from the extended Koenigsknecht family.
This priestly hall of fame includes great uncle Fr. William Koenigsknecht (1912-2002); another great uncle, Fr. Julius Hengeshbach (1916-2002); Msgr. Albert Koenigsknecht, MM (1917-1986), second cousin and Maryknoll Missionary; and uncle Fr. Bill Koenigsknecht (b. 1941), a senior priest with the Lansing diocese. All four men earned their undergraduate degrees at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
The twins will be the twenty-first and twenty-second priests who have come from Fowler's tiny Most Holy Trinity Parish, founded in 1881. St. Mary Parish, just eight miles down the road from Fowler in Westphalia, also is a seedbed of priestly vocations, having fostered twenty-two priests since its founding by pioneer German immigrants in 1838.
That is an astounding forty-four priests, including the four priests mentioned above, having been generated by the two small farming communities located just north of Lansing.
What is the source of the Koenigsknecht family's vocational fecundity? Both Todd and Gary agree: the faith-filled example of their parents, Brian and Agnes, is foremost.
Growing up on a dairy farm, I was with my parents 24/7. I watched how they loved each other; how they loved God, Todd recalls. In their very Catholic home, Brian and Agnes would gather Gary and Todd and their eight brothers and sisters together for a weekly family prayer time. The family would recite a decade of the Rosary and read the Gospel passage for the coming Sunday along with a commentary.
By far, Todd's favorite part of the gathering was thanksgiving and petition, when each family member would thank God for his gifts that week. This really helped me to develop the eye to look for God's presence . . . I saw you here, I saw you there, I really thank you for it. Todd believes gratitude especially is important within the context of farming, when you begin to realize how much you rely on God's providence.
I heard my mother and father say over and over, We do very little. It's really up to God.' There's a real beauty to that, knowing we depend upon God for our sustenance, for the farm to survive.
Both brothers agree that the witness of their uncle Fr. Bill Koenigsknecht, oldest brother of their father, Brian, was the second great influence on their vocations.
Gary is the youngest of the twins, born a few minutes after Todd. He recalls as a youngster that Father Bill would take every Wednesday off from his busy parish duties to relax by helping out the family with the never-ending farm work. Father Bill would join brother Brian and the entire Koenigsknecht crew pitching hay, shoveling manure, milking cows, and driving tractors.
Yet, Father Bill made an even greater impression upon young Gary with the spiritual work of praying his breviary, the Liturgy of the Hours every diocesan priest is required to pray daily. I can still see Uncle Bill take an old bucket and sit in front of the pole barn with his breviary. We all knew what he was doingand all of us kids knew to give him room for his prayers, Gary says.
Here was a priest providing a great example of the priestly life lived out, Todd concurs, who laughs when he recalls that there wasn't much quiet time for Father Bill with ten kids running around!
For Todd, the third great influence on his priestly discernment was the witness of Fr. Ray Radamacher, pastor of Most Holy Trinity when the twins were growing up. Altar boy Todd would watch Father Ray celebrate Mass even though Father had a terminal illness that gave him great painand still he was so full of joy and happiness. Todd recalls one Mass when Father Ray slowly bent over the altar to recite the Eucharistic prayer.
You could tell he was in pain. Then I looked to my right and a woman was also watching. She was weeping and I knew why.
Here was a man who was dying. Yet, he was doing what God was calling him to do, says Todd. Here are my parents, running the farm, having ten kids that takes one hundred percent of their timeand also being so loving, so happy.
We had before us these great examples of living out their priestly and married vocations well.
People often ask the brothers, When did you first receive the call? For Gary, it was as an eight-year-old while watching Father Bill walk off alone with his fancy book with the ribbons to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Gary was watching his uncle from the front steps of the house when suddenly the thought came to him: Gary, if you want to get to heaven one day, you should be a priest. From that moment on, the idea kind of stuck with me. This is what I probably would do.
A second calling came around the same time, while praying a favorite prayer before bedtime, Lord, help me to know your will, but if I ever forget to ask, do it anyway! Suddenly, another thought: someday he would be attending seminary. Although Gary resisted the idea as a teenagerdoubting his public speaking abilities, for examplethe calling never left him.
Another defining moment on Todd and Gary's pilgrimage toward the priesthood came, again, from parents Agnes and Brian. They took each son aside separately around their freshman year in high school (as they did with each of their children) and quietly asked, Have you ever thought about being a priest as an option in life?
The answer for both brothers was yes, but, surprisingly, neither brother knew the other was considering the priesthood. From then on, Gary says he had a new context from which to derive support for pursuing the call, from his twin brother Todd; and, he says with a laugh, from the healthy competition between us.
For instance, as a high schooler Gary recalls knowing he should be praying a daily rosary, but wasn't ready yet. Then he noticed Todd praying the rosary before bedtime and thought, Son of a gun, I really have to do it now!
But both brothers acknowledge the real support comes from encouragement not competition. Once we got to seminary, Gary says, just helping each other stay faithful, going to daily Mass and praying the breviary, has been a great blessing during the normal ups-and-downs of seminary life.
Another blessing of support has come from the Blessed Mother, the brothers believe.
To turn to her and say, How do I continue to say yes?' has been an important spiritual approach for Todd. He recalls thinking during his Marian consecration ceremony during his first year at Sacred HeartMary, take all these graces I can ruin with pride. Protect them. Protect me! Gary says his relationship with Mary really came alive during the silent retreat seminarians take after first-year theology.
No doubt, she will protect the Koenigsknecht brothers as they continue along their priestly journey, supported also by the prayers of generations of Fowler and Westphalia priests who have gone before themespecially those of Fathers William, Julius, Albert, and Bill.
Daniel GallioDaniel Gallio is a member of Sacred Heart's Office of Development and Stewardship.