Norbertine Spotlight

Fr. Roderick Fenzl, O. Praem.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since Fr. Roderick Fenzl, O. Praem., last visited Peru.

But his memories remain vivid from having served more than 30 years as a teacher and pastor in the South American country’s capital city of Lima.

“So many wonderful memories, I can’t even begin to tell them all there’s so many,” said Fr. Fenzl, 95, noting his experiences range from meeting Mother Teresa to fending off multiple muggings. “I’ve always said it should be part of formation to get mugged more than once to toughen you up. But everyone was so wonderful and I enjoyed every second of my experiences.”

“The people of Peru were – and still are – a very important part of my life,” added Fr. Fenzl, who still regularly receives messages from former students and parishioners.

As a youngster, Fr. Fenzl never imagined he’d one day reflect on decades spent south of the equator.

Born and raised in the small community of Park Falls in northern Wisconsin, Fr. Fenzl graduated from high school in 1947 and envisioned a career as a pharmacist.

But he felt a calling to religious life in his early years attending St. Norbert College, and in his junior year he committed to pursue life as a member of the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey. Along the way, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. Norbert College and a master’s degree in science education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Fr. Fenzl was ordained as a priest on Sept. 1, 1955 and immediately began teaching at the high school level. He instructed at St. Norbert High School from 1955 to 1958 before transitioning to Abbot Pennings High School from 1959 to 1967.

But his path in life took a nearly 4,000-mile detour one day after school when he strolled past a hallway bulletin board at St. Norbert Abbey.

“I was checking my mail and I looked over at the bulletin board and Abbot (Sylvester) Killeen had put up a letter asking for volunteers,” Fr. Fenzl recalled. “So I said to Abbott Killeen, ‘I’m very interested in going to the mission in Peru, but I love to teach at the high school.’ He told me there’s a school in Lima (Reyna de las Americas) and I could teach there and I would also help at parishes there. So I told him, ‘OK, sure, well why not.’ So he signed me up for the mission and it wasn’t long after that I was on a plane.”

Fr. Fenzl didn’t know a single word of Spanish at the time, but he immediately immersed himself in “learning a new language and learning a whole new world.” He arrived in Lima in 1967 and, for the most part, remained there until 1988. He had two other brief assignments along the way – two months at MacNeal Hospital in Illinois in 1981, and three months at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1984.

When asked about teaching students in Peru who were already well-versed in Spanish, Fr. Fenzl said with a smile and chuckle: “Kids are kids the world over. Our language was still improving, so the kids liked to have fun with us because we weren’t quite as fluent as them. But I felt they appreciated how we were helping them, and I think we made a positive impact in many people’s lives.”

After a nine-month sabbatical bridging 1988 and 1989, Fr. Fenzl served at Santa Maria de la Vid Priory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for nine months. Then it was back to Lima for another decade from 1990 to 2000.

Among the highlights of his time in Peru was meeting Mother Teresa in 1973. He noted that the late Fr. Richard Mulroy, O. Praem., of St. Norbert Abbey invited her to visit and she took him up on the offer. 

“Meeting Mother Teresa was one of the greatest experiences in my whole life,” Fr. Fenzl said.

He shared two entertaining stories involving Mother Teresa, who was canonized by Pope Francis on Sept. 4, 2016.

“During her stay, a couple area priests came to see her after hearing she was in the city,” Fr. Fenzl said. “They asked me where she was and I told them, ‘Look behind you. You walked right past her. She’s down there cleaning the toilets. And if you don’t watch out she’ll give you mops and you’ll be cleaning soon too.’ ”

Fr. Fenzl also recalled that after Mother Teresa spent a few days in Lima she wanted to visit Venezuela but she didn’t have identification cards at the airport.

“People around the world knew who she was so she didn’t need them,” Fr. Fenzl said. “But the ticket taker said she needed one. So instead he asked if I’d vouch for her character. I said to him, ‘Oh, I suppose. I don’t think you have to worry too much about her.’ ”

Summing up his service in Peru, Fr. Fenzl added: “All in all, we were so well received when we were in Peru, and I would like to think the people there were happy to see us.”

After returning to the United States in 2000, Fr. Fenzl served for 10 years at Santa Maria de la Vid Priory before retiring to St. Norbert Abbey in 2011. Over the years he also spent time in prison ministry in both Peru and Brown County, Wisconsin, as well as assisting at St. Willebrord and Casa Alba in Green Bay, among other sites.

As the oldest person at St. Norbert Abbey, Fr. Fenzl is one of only four current members to have been part of the Norbertine Community since the tenure of Abbot Bernard Pennings, O. Praem., the founder and first abbot of St. Norbert Abbey who died in 1955 at the age of 93. Fr. Fenzl took part in Vestitition (1950) and Simple Profession (1952) with Abbot Pennings.

“When we were novices, Abbot Pennings used to say the early Mass and somebody was always designated to help him up to the altar so I did that sometimes,” Fr. Fenzl said. “We liked to serve for Abbot Pennings. The crabby priests, nobody liked to serve with them. But Abbot Pennings was a very fine man. We walked with him and helped him along.”