Focus on Fostoria - Mar3005

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Published on 03/30/05 in the Fostoria Focus

Father Burger helped shape Catholic education in Fostoria

By LEONARD SKONECKI
Focus Correspondent

Long ago, a priest came to Fostoria who did much to build up St. Wendelin’s schools. His name was Fr. Benedict Burger.

Fr. Burger came to St. Wendelin in August 1923.

He was born in North Auburn, Ohio, on April 4, 1896. Fr. Burger decided to become a priest when he was 8. He’d fallen desperately sick with pneumonia. He prayed, promising God that if he recovered he would dedicate his life to the priesthood.

At age 13, he was as good as his word. He left North Auburn to attend St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. He completed his studies in 1915, graduating with honors. Then he attended St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati.

He was ordained a priest May 21, 1921, in Toledo. He served briefly at St. Joseph’s Church in Fremont and St. Peter’s in Huron.

Then he came to St. Wendelin. He was assistant pastor under Fr. Ambrose Weber and was also principal of the parish schools. He did much to make education at St. Wendelin a fuller, richer experience.

While at St. Joseph’s College, Fr. Burger developed an interest in athletics. A photograph in a commemorative booklet shows him on the basketball team.

In his first year at St. Wendelin, Fr. Burger decided basketball was a terrific game for young Catholic boys. On Sept. 27, 1923, he held a meeting to form an “Athletic Association.” Basketball became SWHS’s first organized sport. Herman Blaser became the first coach.

At that meeting, orange and black were chosen as the school colors. A year later the colors were changed to gold and black and haven’t been changed since.

On Dec. 14, 1923, SWHS’s basketball team — John McMeen, Phil Degens, Carl Turner, Al Atweis, Austin Weber, John Lee, John Degens, Truman Weimerskirch and Bernard Ackerman — took to the court for its very first game.

They lost to Huron, 30-6.

In his second year, Fr. Burger decided Catholic boys might benefit from football and he organized that team, too.

On Sept. 27, coach Cy Scharf led his team in their first game, a 39-0, lost to FHS.

Needless to say, the inexperienced St. Wendelin teams took their lumps in the early going, but it was said, “Only too well do the members of that first basketball team recall how, during those first trying days when work was hard and satisfaction was small, Fr. Burger was always at hand, offering assistance, advice, and encouragement.”

But sports wasn’t all that occupied Fr. Burger’s energies. It was under his auspices that “The Torch,” SWHS’s school newspaper was established. Gertrude Martin was the first editor.

The first issue of The Torch appeared September 1923. The name was changed to “The Wendelette” the following year.

It was with Fr. Burger as principal that St. Wendelin put on its first class play. “Patricia” was presented June 5 and 6, 1924. Under his direction, the first school library was established in the fall of 1923.
In the classroom, Fr. Burger taught religion, economics and occupational classes.

Fr. Burger didn’t confine himself to parish activities. He joined the Fostoria Rotary Club and was an energetic participant.

In June 1926, he assisted Fostoria High School music director Jack Wainwright in organizing the national band competition held here.

Since 1931, thousands of St. Wendelin students have received their high school education at the building on North Countyline. When Fr. Burger came to Fostoria in 1923, that building hadn’t yet been built. St. Wendelin’s high school, a two-story house, was located on Wood Street across from the Rectory.

Fr. Burger immediately set to work planning for a new building. He even went so far as to have some preliminary drawings made.

Fr. Burger’s stay at St. Wendelin ended tragically after only three years. On July 8, 1926, he organized a trip for the parish’s 14 altar boys.

He took them for a day of swimming and picnicking at Gem Beach on Lake Erie. They arrived at 10:30 in the morning.

Around 4 p.m., Fr. Burger and several of the boys climbed in a row boat and headed out into the lake. One of the boys and Fr. Burger dropped over the side to do some swimming.

Fr. Burger swam a short distance from the boat. Suddenly, he cried out, “Bring the boat, quick! Oh, my back!”

He’d stopped swimming. He raised his arms. Then he went under the water.

He didn’t come up again.

The boys in the boat picked up the one who’d been swimming and paddled for shore as quickly as they could to get help, but it was too late. Fr. Burger drowned.

Eerily, just a week before he died, Fr. Burger was visiting his friend Fr. Williams of Wakeman.

Somehow, they came to talk about different kinds of death.

Fr. Williams said that Fr. Burger told him he believed drowning would be the easiest.

A happier reminiscence illustrates the regard in which Fr. Burger was held. He was at a special Rotary meeting, one where wives attended.

The practice of the time was for each member to rise when his name was called for roll call. At this meeting, each wife stood with her husband when his name was called.

When Fr. Burger’s name was called, he stood and all the women in the room got up with him.
It was a nice gesture to the priest who did so much to shape Catholic education in Fostoria.