Biography of Archbishop J.L. Wilhelm





            "He was a big man who never made anyone feel small", was the way a friend described Archbishop Joseph Lawrence Wilhelm when he learned of his death on June 25, 1995.

            He describe more than the physical size of the Archbishop of Kingston's 11th Bishop and sixth Archbishop, for he was big at over six feet and well past 200 pounds, but he described also his moral and spiritual leadership as a priest, soldier and Bishop.

            "Built on a Rock", the story of the first hundred years of the Roman Catholic Church in Kingston, gives us a short biographical sketch of the Archbishop from his birth in Walkerton, Nov. 16, 1909, one of nine children of John Wilhelm and Magdalene Ulrich, to his appointment as Archbishop of Kingston on December 1, 1966 and installation is St. Mary's Cathedral, January 25, 1967.

            In between the facts relate to his early education in local grade schools, St. Mary's High School and then to St. Augustine's Seminary, Toronto to begin studies for the priesthood, leading to ordination in St. Mary's Church, Hamilton on June 9, 1934.  He remained in this parish as assistant for two years before going to serve as secretary to Bishop J. T. McNally and then Bishop J. F. Ryan from 1936 to 1940.

            As a high school student "Joe" Wilhelm served in the local militia and received his commission as a lieutenant.  This experience was useful when war was declared in 1940 and a call came from the Canadian Armed Forces for chaplains.  Fr. Wilhelm was among the first to volunteer and enter the Army Chaplaincy Corps as Honorary Captain that same year.  He served as chaplain until demobilization in 1946, after having served in Canada, England, Italy and North West Europe.  He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in rescuing wounded soldiers, and promoted to Honorary Major and appointed Senior Chaplain of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division.

            As Priest and Bishop he kept up his association with the Canadian Militia and was awarded the Canadian Forces Decoration for long and Meritorious service.  At an annual gathering of the Three Rivers Regiment which had fought in the bitter battle at Ortona at Christmas 1943, he suggested a Christmas Reconciliation Dinner at Ortona to which veterans of both Canadian and German troops would be invited as a sign of reconciliation and as a tribute to the many soldiers who died there.

            The idea was taken up by the Regiment and accepted by both Canadian and German authorities.  The first Dinner of Reconciliation was held Christmas Eve 1999, four years after Archbishop Wilhelm died.  He  was given special honour at the dinner and also later at the unveiling of a statue as a sign of reconciliation and as a tribute honouring the many soldiers who had died at Ortona.   

            All of the above covers only a few years in the priesthood and military life of Archbishop Wilhelm.  There were many more years in active priesthood on his return to civilian life.  He studied Canon Law at Ottawa University, receiving his licentiate, served on the Hamilton Diocese's Marriage Tribunal, then became the founding pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Hamilton, completing the construction of the new parish church in the fast growing section of the city.

            But he was to remain pastor of his first parish for only seven years.  In June of 1963 he was named Bishop and was Ordained Bishop on August 22, 1963 at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Hamilton. His appointment was as Titular Bishop of Saccea and Auxiliary to Bishop F. P. Carroll of Calgary.  He spent a busy three years in Calgary, and along with heading up Diocesan Administration and Building Committees, visited every parish in the Diocese and averaged 3,000 confirmations a year.

            Bishop Wilhelm attended all sessions of Vatican Council II except the first.  The Council goal was to be pastoral and bring laity more into the life of the Church.  When he came to Kingston as Archbishop he brought the spirit and goal of Vatican II with him and encouraged priests to renew their parishes by their study and implementation of the Vatican documents on the local levels.

            "Built on a Rock" also covers the activities of Archbishop Wilhelm in implementing the spirit of co-responsibility of priests and laity encouraged by Vatican II.  It led to formation of a Priest's Senate, a Diocesan Pastoral Council and many parish councils, and a new Diocesan Centre to house the growing number of offices.

            Archbishop Wilhelm, whose motto was "To Be All Things to All Men" , was very pastoral in his approach to problems and relationships with his priests.  He enjoyed the company of priests and at gatherings would often quote psalm 133: "Behold how good it is, and how pleasant where brethren dwell as one"!

            In his 18 years in Kingston, Archbishop Wilhelm saw two new parishes organized and several new schools opened.  He was instrumental in the building of a new Regiopolis – Notre Dame High School at a time when some doubted our high schools could be saved.

            But his interests in helping the Church and especially the poor it served was not just local.  He was a strong supporter to a priest friend in Mexico who operated a home for homeless children and wouldn't hesitate to "put the arm" on you to help his friend.

            Archbishop Wilhelm retired in 1982 and took up residence in Belleville where he helped in city parishes.  He kept up his interest in the Diocese and welcomed his brother priests on their visits.  He enjoyed good health until a sudden sickness in 1995 led to a serious operation and death when he seemed to be on the way to recovery.

            At his funeral Mass in St. Mary's Cathedral, attended by several Bishops, many priests and laity, Archbishop Spence summed up Archbishop Wilhelm as the "Good Shepherd" as Bishop and as "a happy, cheerful, hard working and successful priest."

            Going on to speak of his human qualities that endeared him to others he said: "He loved associating with his brother priests, appreciated good food in generous quantities. (Some said he had an automatic arm if a bowl of candies was in sight as he said I really shouldn't').  He played the occasional game of golf without worrying about the score. (He had been known to guide the ball into the hole)."

            'He was" Archbishop Spence concluded, "a gentleman, a priestly man and mainly a priest."

            Archbishop Wilhelm was buried among the deceased priests of the Archdiocese, fulfilling in death his sentiment in life taken from psalm 133 which he made his own: (Behold how good it is and how pleasant where brethren dwell as one)!"


Comments are closed.

  • Upcoming Events

    No notices yet.