China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2021/Oct

In memory of Father Elmer Wurth

Maryknoll Father Elmer Wurth, a founding member of the Holy Spirit Study Centre of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, established in 1980, had written a number of articles on the Church in China that were published in the centre’s journal, Tripod. His well-known publication, Papal Documents Related to China 1937-2005, edited by Sister Betty Ann Maheu MM, published in 2005, is a compilation of materials of nearly 25 years of intermittent research. The text is divided into two parts. Part I contains statements of Pope Pius XI in 1937 and successive popes up to Pope John Paul I. Part II is a collection of statements made by Pope John Paul II during his pontificate from 1979 until his death in 2005.

The collection of documents along with their commentaries was intended to be of service to all interested in the Church in China, enabling dialogue and reconciliation with China can be explored, according to the editor of the book. Following is a reflection written by Father Peter Barry MM, also a co-founder of the centre:

Father Elmer Paul Wurth of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers [MM], long-time pastor of St. Anne’s Parish in Stanley, died at his home near Kalida, Ohio, the United States, on October 4. He had recently celebrated his 92nd birthday and had been a Maryknoll priest for 65 years [Sunday Examiner, October 10]. 

Father Wurth was born on a farm outside of Kalida in the Diocese of Toledo on 29 September 1929, the son of Edward and Clare Wurth. He had two sisters, Alice and Rita and two brothers, James and Virgil, all of whom preceded him in death. He attended St Michael’s Primary School in Kalida and Kalida High School.

Upon graduation from high school in 1947, he entered Notre Dame University with aspirations of being an athletic coach and teacher. While there, Elmer was attracted to becoming a foreign missionary. He entered Maryknoll in 1948. After studying at four Maryknoll seminaries, Father Wurth was ordained a priest on 9 June 1956. After ordination, he was assigned to study Latin and Greek at the University of Michigan and obtained an MA in those ancient languages in 1959. He then began teaching those subjects the Maryknoll Seminary in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. 

In 1960, Father Wurth received his first mission assignment to Taiwan. He studied Mandarin and then worked among the indigenous mountain people of Taiwan. In 1966, He was recalled to the US to do promotion work from Maryknoll offices in Cincinnati, New York City and Los Angeles. This involved fundraising and vocation recruitment. 

In 1979, he was re-assigned to Asia, but this time to Hong Kong, where he joined three other priests (then-Father John Tong Hon, a Hong Kong diocesan priest, Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions Father Angelo Lazzarotto, and Peter Barry mm) to establish an institution for outreach to the Catholic Church in China, which had been cut-off from the universal Church since the 1950s.

China itself had just re-opened under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping at a Central Committee meeting in December 1978. Father Wurth was active in contacting many priests and religious sisters who had spent many years in labour camps, as well as writing articles for Tripod, the centre’s journal. During his time at the centre, he published a two-volume work entitled, Papal Documents Related to China 1937-2005 which re-produced statements of the popes regarding China from 1937 to 2005. The book became a work that is much-consulted by Church in China scholars. 

In 1988, Father Wurth began a new chapter in life. John Baptist Cardinal Wu Cheng-chung, the then-bishop of Hong Kong, asked him to become pastor of St. Anne’s in Stanley, an international parish with over 50 nationalities represented among its parishioners. He was successful in uniting three large groups in the congregation: Chinese, Westerners and Filipinos. 

One popular activity was the annual parish barbecue held each November. Because it was close to Christmas, Santa Claus would usually make an appearance, with the pastor sometimes taking on the role. While pastor of the parish, Father Wurth was also the Catholic Chaplain at Stanley Prison and the supervisor of two schools.

In 2014, Father Wurth returned to his hometown of Kalida and was assigned to the Senior Missionary Community. He helped out in his home parish until his death this year.

Whether he was on the missions or at home, Father Wurth attracted many people to the Church. I am writing this obituary on the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time where, in the gospel reading, St Peter says to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you, what shall we obtain?” Jesus answers and says, “There is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters, or mother or father or children or lands for my sake, or for the sake of the Gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age, houses and brothers and sisters and children and lands, along with persecution, and eternal life in the age to come” [Mark 10:28-30]. 

This passage describes Father Wurth’s life very well.  

Father Wurth has certainly heard our Lord’s words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into ‘the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, sick and in prison and you visited me, stranger and you welcomed me…as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me’” [Matthew 25:34-40]. 

On behalf of Maryknoll and myself I want thank Father Wurth for sharing his gifts with us. We ask God to grant him eternal rest. 

 Father Peter Barry, MM