What’s it like to have a missionary in the family? The short answer: it’s a blessing and a sacrifice.
The Warnke family from Regina would certainly know. They had in their family several priests who served in Canadian home missions in a variety of ways – a brother in pastoral ministry in northern Saskatchewan, two uncles in immigration work, a cousin preacher in parish missions throughout Western Canada, and a cousin bishop in the Yukon.
Several members of the Warnke family revealed the depth with which the missionary vocation is a family affair, bringing upon them both blessing and sacrifice. While their immediate response was to express pride in their missionary relatives, their stories revealed at least 3 layers of appreciation. They recognized their blessing to the wider society, within their family and in their own personal lives.
For example, Bernadette, a niece of Fathers Joseph Warnke, OMI (1910-1956) and Noah Warnke, OMI (1903-1967), esteems her uncles who brought thousands of refugees to Canada after WWII. Together, they selected people from refugee camps in Europe and helped them settle in Canada. Margaret, another niece, also expressed her admiration of their work in enabling many destitute victims of war find new homes where they could maintain their Catholic faith and German culture.
Having 2 missionary uncles brought blessings upon the family as a whole. Bernadette stated, “They were just there for us. It was a joy to have them around.” Their presence gave the family a sense of security. She added, “By having 2 uncles as missionary priests we felt we were doing fine as Catholics and were proud of it.” Their uncles’ example confirmed in them the conviction that living their Catholic faith meant serving in generous outreach to other people and extending warm hospitality to all. “We grew up with an attitude of helping other people,” said Margaret. She herself served as a missionary in Peru for 14 years, and upon her return to Canada became actively involved in a parish outreach program in Weyburn. Having adopted a northern community that lacks a general store, her parish for many years has been collecting the necessities of life and transporting them in a 12-hour drive to their northern destination.
On a more personal level, their uncles’ care for refugees had a profound effect on Bernadette’s worldview and spirituality. Fr. Noah’s missionary spirit in particular made a lasting impression on her. “Through him I learned to be open to the Holy Spirit and received the gift of listening.” He also exerted a profound influence on their brother, Eugene. When Fr. Noah became the pastor at Leipzig, SK, one of his first tasks was to tend to the cemetery. That summer, 17-year-old Eugene helped to restore the crosses and later, when he became an Oblate, took to heart the words of his uncle, “The way you treat the dead shows the way you treat the living.” Another lesson he learned from him was the importance of getting to know his parishioners by talking with them, socializing with them and visiting their homes. “He was human. He was a happy priest,” he said.
Fr. Eugene served for many years among Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan in Ile a la Crosse, Buffalo Narrows, Dillon and Pinehouse. His siblings welcomed whomever Eugene brought home from the north. “They became part of the family,” said Bernadette. His brother, Chuck, in Swift Current, SK, respected his big brother for joining the Missionary Oblates. He remembers fondly when he and his wife, Carol, hosted 22 residents of Patuanak in their home on the occasion of Eugene’s ordination. “It was just great!” Mark, Fr. Eugene’s nephew in Sandford, MB expressed a deeply spiritual pride in his uncle’s missionary ministry. Aware that European culture oppressed indigenous people, he appreciated his uncle “for treating them the way Christ would have. I think it’s fantastic. A great work,” he said.
A cousin of the Warnke family, Fr. David Cottingham, CSsR (1940-2013) served in another type of home missionary ministry. Growing up in Moose Jaw, SK he met the Redemptorists there and joined their congregation after completing high school. With degrees in theology, education and spirituality, along with his gifts as a dynamic speaker, he spent over 25 years preaching parish missions throughout Western Canada. His warm smile and gentle heart made him a compassionate channel of the Good News in his preaching and in his ministry as a confessor and counsellor. His sister, Carol, admired him for his ability to offer care and support to people in distress. “He was completely non-judgmental,” she said. “He reassured people that they were deeply loved by our compassionate God.”
Fr. David was also a tremendous blessing to his sister, Mary, in Moose Jaw. She had distanced herself from church practice and it was a desire to get to know her brother better that prompted her pursuit of Catholic faith on a deeper level. She cherished her spiritual conversations with him and appreciated the depth of faith they brought her. Carol stated that their mother was very proud of him. With a chuckle, she added, “She considered him as her ticket to heaven.”
Another cousin of the Warnke family, Bishop Thomas Lobsinger, OMI, (1927-2000) from Brantford, ON served in various missionary posts on the West Coast prior to being named Bishop of the Whitehorse Diocese in 1987. As chief shepherd of a large area with few clergy, he encouraged parishioners to live their baptismal commitment more actively and invited native speakers to lead healing workshops. He chaired the 7-member Northern Bishop’s Conference which proposed that married native men be candidates for the priesthood.
His nephew, Thomas Luciani of Brantford, stated that his uncle had a profound influence on him personally and spiritually. He was proud of him not only because of his position in life, but because, in his words, “Everybody loved him.” Thomas was inspired by his uncle’s goodness and humility. He recalled that Thomas had not wanted to become a bishop. In fact, when he presided at Mass shortly after his episcopal ordination, being rather short in stature, he remarked that he felt silly holding his crozier which was taller than he was! Bearing his uncle’s name, Thomas always felt a special bond with him. Thanks largely to his uncle’s influence, he attends Mass faithfully and prays the rosary daily. “I pray to him every day,” he declared. “He has a strong bearing on my life.”
However, all the family members stated that having a missionary in the family also involved sacrifice. Fr. Eugene’s sister, Bernadette, acknowledged her concern for him being isolated from the family and fellow Oblates. For his well-being she felt it was important for him to experience their love and support. In true sisterly fashion, she expressed her view to his Provincial Superior. When a change came about, the family was enormously pleased that Fr. Eugene could spend more time with them. “We really appreciated his visits,” she said. His youngest brother, Bob from Regina, stated, “It was really cool hearing his stories about the missions!”
Both of Fr. David Cottingham’s sisters expressed their feelings of loss in having their brother leave home at an early age to join the Redemptorists. They felt they really didn’t get to know him during their younger years. It was only as adults that they were able to build a real relationship with him, even though they saw him only briefly during the summer holidays.
The depth of a missionary family’s sacrifice knows no bounds. A veteran pilot, Bishop Lobsinger, along with Br. Hoby Spruyt, OMI, set out for Dawson City in his Cessna Aircraft on April 15, 2000 to celebrate Mass there. Caught in a blinding snowstorm, the plane crashed onto the frozen Fox Lake. Both were killed on the spot.
The Whitehorse newspaper reported that members of the diocese were “engulfed by sadness and grief.” The crowds that packed the downtown Sacred Heart Cathedral gathered in what Sr. Margaret Coyle, SCIC, described as “silent shock.” In Syracuse, NY, Rose and Bill Mailloux, close friends of ‘Bishop Tommy’, were devastated by the news. She said that her husband, a physician and flight instructor, “was destroyed” when they learned that he died in the plane that they had donated to him. “We loved that guy,” she declared. “He was just such a sweetheart.” No doubt she spoke for the Lobsinger family as well when she stated, “His death broke our hearts. We missed him terribly.”
These stories offer a glimpse of what it’s like for the extended Warnke family of Regina to have missionaries in their family. They reveal something of what Archbishop Francis Leo described as the “missionary heart.” Speaking on the feast of St. Philip Neri, patron saint of the missions, he stated, “It is the heart that spreads the love of Jesus in an invisible network that connects us all.”
The missionary spirit seems to be embedded in the DNA of the Warnke family, whose name means Keeper of the Key. In addition to the 5 missionaries mentioned in this article, their immediate and extended family includes 7 other relatives in religious life; 4 Sisters and 3 priests, one of whom was a White Father serving in Africa.
Undoubtedly, the story of blessing and sacrifice in the Warnke family could be multiplied many times in the lives of other families of missionaries. In fact, similar stories have been told countless times over the centuries, going back to the family of the greatest Christian missionary, St. Paul. His sister, a resident of Jerusalem, must have been concerned for her brother’s safety when he was arrested and possibly she sent her son to warn Paul that his life was in danger (Acts 23:16-22). While heeding his nephew’s advice, Paul, impelled by the love of Christ, continued to live as a giver rather than a taker, the attitude that permeates the Warnke family culture. In this spirit, difficulties, said Archbishop Leo, are seen “as opportunities to be stretched in our hearts and to be gifts to one another.” Whether enjoying blessing or enduring sacrifice, Paul, like all true missionaries, was guided always by the Lord’s words to him in troublesome Corinth: “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you” (Acts. 18:9).