In grateful memory of the SVD Congo missionary Fr. Anton Gessler, SVD (April 22, 1938 Friedrichshafen - 15.1.2023 Sankt Augustin)
Fr. Anton Gessler, SVD
* April 22, 1938 Friedrichshafen
+ 15.1.2023 Sankt Augustin
He was a hardworking and creative worker in the Lord's vineyard: organized, precise, versatile, faithful, able to be used anywhere. Nothing was too much for him. He was like that in his pastoral ministry in the Diocese of Kenge, he was like that in his important responsibilities in the SVD Congo/Zaïre province. As director of the publishing house “VERBUM BIBLE”, he stamped the face of the "Divine Word Missionaries" on biblical work in the Congo/Zaire.
His zeal continued when his province of origin brought the 62-year-old missionary back home to serve as editor of the magazine for homily helps known as 'Die Stimulus'.
His confreres said of him: “Whatever he tackled, he did it with a system and always with success!“
Home, youth, school
Born and raised in Friedrichshafen, he remained marked by the lake and the mountains his whole life long. In his infancy, the city was subjected to many attacks by allied bombers. The target was the armaments industry (Zeppelin and Dornier works). Getting an orderly start in elementary school was out of the question. He learned the beginnings of his ABCs and his first steps in arithmetic in the air raid shelter or during evacuations in the countryside.
His father was a shoemaker who owned and ran his own shop. His parents did everything to make their two sons happy and to give them a good start in life. Anton remained very close to his family and relatives all his life.
Very connected for life.
At the age of twelve, Anton left home to enter the SVD minor seminary at St. Johann-Blönried. From there he went on to study at St. Wendel, where he completed his Abitur in 1959.
Training with the SVD missionaries
On May 1, 1959, he and 52 other novices began their novitiate in St. Augustin. But then in September of 1960 the SVD superiors transferred both the novitiate and philosophy to St. Gabriel in Austria. There, under the director of studies P. Vorbichler, the subjects of philosophy, ethnology and linguistics were also well-staffed. A few years earlier Fr. Vorbichler, together with his mentor and teacher P. Schebesta, had done research among the pygmies in the young SVD mission (1951) of the Congo. Both knew how to teach ethnology to their students in a vibrant and memorable way.
In 1962/63 he was sent to the motherhouse at Steyl for a year of student teaching. Anton showed pedagogical skills and he enjoyed teaching. The headmaster at Steyl secretly hoped that Anton would return to the school as a member of the faculty at some later date.
His years of theology studies at Saint Augustine fell during the sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Expectations, longings, and hopes were running high and were awakened in the hearts of many.
On October 22, 1966, together with 25 other SVD seminarians, Anton was ordained a priest in Sankt Augustin by the then Papal Nuncio to Germany, Mons. Corrado Bafile. Three of the newly ordained, (Gessler, Lesch, Wagner), received their first assignments for the SVD Congo mission which was still in its infancy. This mission had only been entrusted to the SVD four years earlier and the new diocese was under the direction of Mons, Franz Hoenen, SVD, as its first bishop. The founding missionaries had achieved a lot in their first decade, especially in building up the school system and in the development of new parishes.
Linguistic preparation for the work in the Congo came to an end quickly when student riots broke out in France. As soon as the news of the unrest arrived in the Congo, students there also took to the streets. The dictator Mobutu solved the problem by promptly putting them in army uniforms.
Bush missionary in Misay-Fatundu
In Kinshasa, the Lingala course was not yet fully organized. But we started. There soon followed a fast Kikongo course in Bandundu. Then off to practice! During this time the bush missionaries also had to keep the elementary schools running and see to it that the teachers were on their toes. Pastoral care was very strongly tied to the work in the schools. Local presence was important. The many mosquitoes in Bolo made life difficult for the new missionary and the swampy terrain of Fankana with its many wooden bridges that didn't always hold up presented real challenges. The young bush missionary found rest and relaxation at the main station in Misay with Fr. Schön, a calming influence.
At that time there was a strong desire for cooperation among the young missionaries. In order to achieve this, the young bishop suggested adding a few rooms to each deanery in order to provide space for regular meetings. Bro. Cl. Wegmann, A. Gessler and G. Lesch soon made the project a reality. Together with E. Nunnenmacher, Anton set about preparing the teachers of the whole area for the Holy Year 1975.
In 1974 Anton Gessler was transferred to Bandundu. He first was sent to the parish of St. Paul, but then was sent to establish the parish of Yezu Kristu - Nto Luzingu in the swampy area of Kwango.
These were difficult years in the epoch of the ascendancy of Mobutu’s dictatorship with its accompanying nationalization of education and foreign companies. A total ban on public assemblies made many pastoral initiatives impossible.
Anton introduced a parish bulletin, first in his own parish, then in all four parishes in the city. For the big feasts, he offered it to all interested parishes in the Diocese of Kenge. With his little Olympia typewriter, he did the typesetting "by hand", as well as the illustrations and layout. Brothers Adolf Stegmaier and Clemens Jansen then took care of the rest in the Edimba printing works. He gradually became an influence on pastoral care in the slowly developing provincial capital situated in the triangle formed by the Kwango-Kwilu-Kasai rivers. Here he put down strong roots, but always remained ready to make new beginnings on other shores.
The SVD province of Zaire
In 1982 his confreres elected him to the provincial council. He dived headlong into the province’s efforts to identify and recruit vocations to the SVD among local youth. To this end, he began publishing the magazine “Prayer and Missionary Service”. This publication was influential in attracting young people to missionary life and work. This little magazine also reached areas where we SVD didn’t work ourselves. In this way, we also were able to recruit vocations from other areas of the country.
During his visit to the Congo in late 1980, Fr. Superior General Heekeren suggested doing more to further the distribution of the Bible. What the publisher ‘Verbo Divino’ in Estella, Spain, is doing for Latin America, he said, we should also be doing for Africa.
At the time, we saw nothing but obstacles in this well-intentioned proposal. The number of confreres in the province had sunk to 15 Brothers and 46 fathers, and seven of them were away in Europe pursuing further studies. The province was also in the process of opening a novitiate and taking over new parishes in Kasai Province.
When the first director of Verbum Bible abruptly left the SVD, G. Lesch, recently serving as a jungle priest in Dekese (Lukenie), was asked to step in. Father Gessler had completed his sabbatical program in Nemi, and had organized the vocations ministry in the province. He did not hesitate to make himself available for this new venture and joined the young publishing house in 1984. He quickly familiarized himself with Verbum Bible and was already able to take charge in 1987. Resting on four shoulders rather than on two, the work progressed well.
Anton learned Spanish and travelled often to Estella, Sprin, to coordinate the orders and motivate the proofreaders. Making good use of his laptop, He always had an entire, well-organized office at his fingertips.
It was the difficult period of the decline of Mobutu regime. There was looting and social, economic, and political turmoil everywhere. The SVD often thought of moving the publishing house to Estella, Spain or to Lomé, Togo.
During these years Fr. Gessler traveled a lot. Almost every year Verbum Bible managed to produce a translation of the bible in a new African language. When Anton introduced his successor in 1999, Verbum Bible was publishing bibles in 12 African languages as well as the Jerusalem Bible in French and in English.
Even more numerous were the editions and languages of the ‘Children's and Young People's Bible’ and the accompanying material for reading and understanding the Bible. Verbum Bible can also be proud of two small bestsellers: "The Lord is my Savior", a biblical prayer book for youth, which E.D. Skweres developed in his Bible center ‘Cebilo’ and the other bestseller: “Read the Bible – but how?”, which came from the pen of Werner Bach, director and co-founder of the Bandundu Bible Center (CAB).
At VERBUM BIBLE, Anton crowned his missionary commitment and zeal, neither of which is likely to be surpassed today. To complete the publication of the Bible in African languages Verbum Bible also produced explanatory materials for liturgy and Bible reading.
“We never expected such success! Good cooperation with the Generalate in Rome, with our confreres in the publishing house Verbo Divino, Estella, and with a number of church-aid organizations made the administration and publication much easier. Cooperation with local priests, with missionaries from other mission congregations and with lay people have made it possible to steadily produce new translations.”
There was a lot of work, a lot of administration, with tedious trips to many African countries, many contacts - but it was also a fulfilling task. Anton Gessler wrote: “Missionaries from other congregations and relief organizations encouraged us and actively supported us! I remain very grateful to them for that!” With all that work, it was always important to him to advertise Verbum Bible in articles and reports in the press in order to obtain solid financing for the work. He succeeded in putting the publishing house on a healthy footing.
He looked back gratefully at the cooperation of his SVD confreres. He was always in the thick of things: when the SVD built up the young diocese of Kenge, when young Africans were formed as Divine Word Missionaries as the SVD decided to make the proclamation of the word of God in the Bible one of their priorities for the whole of Africa.
In 2000, the province was able to give him a young successor with special studies in the field of publishing. Anton introduced him and was soon ready for a breather. He then took a sabbatical in Jerusalem and put it to good use!
Back in Sankt Augustin he took over the editing of “STIMULUS” (“Suggestions”) a magazine to help preachers in the preparation of their sermons. Each issue went through his hands until it was sent to the printer as a finished layout. After ten years, the printed edition was phased out, but the e-publication continues on the Internet
The concept of 'retirement' never occurred to Fr. Anton. With a view to the 100th anniversary of Sankt Augustin he took over responsibility for the house archive and brought it up to date.
With a group of nature lovers, mostly women, he could now devote all his attention to the gardens surrounding the Mission House. No autumn went by without a floral background for a thoughtful Thanksgiving celebration! He also cared for a group of pilgrims to the shrine of Santiago de Campostella in Spain and provided chaplain services for a number of groups to the island of Mallorca, where he found relaxation for body and soul.
The SVD missionaries in the Congo and in Germany are grateful to God for having had Fr. Anton in their ranks. His missionary commitment lives on in the example and witness of young SVDs today.
We thank his family, relatives, friends, and benefactors who accompanied, encouraged, and supported him. Together with him, all of them became in some way Divine Word missionaries in Africa.
We will celebrate the Mass of Resurrection for Fr. Anton Gessler in gratitude to God, his family, and to everyone who has always supported him on Friday, January 20, 2023, at 10:30 a.m. in the church of Sankt Augustin Mission Seminary, with burial in the ‘Klosterfriedhof’ or cemetery of the Mission House following the Mass.
For the SVD missionaries of St. Augustin
P. Polycarp Ulin Agan SVD, Rector,
* With thanks to P. Gerhard Lesch SVD (author)