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Priest will retire after 85th birthday, but hopes not to slow down
On Thursday, June 13, the Rev. George Welzbacher turned 85 years old. He’s been a Roman Catholic priest for 62 years, most recently at St. John’s Catholic Church on the East Side. And with the closing of St. John’s on June 30, he’ll be going into retirement, nominally at least.
Though he’ll be moving into senior housing owned by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, he intends to keep busy, helping out at a St. Louis Park church among other things.
“I don’t feel 85,” he says. And he doesn’t really look it either. As he talks about his long career, he speaks with lively hand gestures and says that other than a creaky hip, he’s physically fit.
“I still feel the same as I did 20 years ago,” he says.
He would have been happy to remain at St. John’s indefinitely.
An early calling
Welzbacher says he knew he wanted to be a priest since he was about 6 years old. The East Side Catholic priest had his appendix removed as a young boy and recalled having regular visits from a local St. Paul priest in the Highland neighborhood where he grew up.
Those visits were “the greatest thing on earth” for a lad cooped up in a hospital room, he says.
So in high school he went into a seminary program, followed by an additional eight years of seminary studies. He was ordained in 1951 and has been at it ever since, assigned to churches mostly in St. Paul.
He’s seen a lot in his years. He recalls being in Berlin in 1962 about a year after the Berlin Wall was erected, and seeing the dramatic contrast between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and democratic West Berlin. While the west side was “vulgar and honky tonk, but full of life,” he recalls, the Communist east zone “was dead ... with very few cars.”
He remembers loudspeakers mounted on trucks competing for attention on either side -- on the east side a loudspeaker burst out saying how much better it was in East Berlin, while a West Berlin truck was “belting out the loudest, hottest jazz you can imagine.”
A few years later, he was in Chicago working out of a Catholic church in a poor African-American community on the far west side. He recalls being there when on July 10, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a rousing speech at Soldier Field that was followed by race riots throughout Chicago’s communities of color.
After the speech, folks in the community “gutted many public schools,” he says. But they left the Catholic school and church he worked at untouched. On more peaceful days at the church, he recalls neighborhood kids coming to hang out on the steps of the rectory where he lived, to chat with priests and belt out songs.
In all, he spent about 12 years in Chicago, and has been in the Twin Cities ever since. His last six years have been at the East Side’s St. John’s Catholic church.
“It has been a very happy pastory,” he says.
Tom Smolik, an East Sider and longtime attendee of St. John’s, says Welzbacher’s presence has been very welcome at the church.
“We’re really blessed to have him as a pastor,” he says. Welzbacher was “extremely adept at taking (a Gospel) and putting it in a very understandable and sometimes profound way.”
“He’s really a priest’s priest,” Smolik says.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.