Two careers, happy marriage, eight children, 23 grandchildren, loads of friends — by age 60, Josef Vollmer-König seemed to have it all.
Then his life, as we know it, began.
In the 1940s Josef Vollmer-König and his family lived a week in a forest, avoiding Allied forces after World War II. A child, he knew nothing about the war, except that the thing “bombed out” his school, a tiny one-classroom structure in the middle of the small German town where his father owned a sprawling farm.
Vollmer-König — now in his 80s and serving as the pastor at St. Patrick’s in Lake Highlands — shares photographs of his hometown that he shot with his iPhone 5 on a recent visit. The crisp little image does justice to the expansive green prairies — interrupted only by a few quaint farmhouses and old towering trees — against a shadowy, mountainous backdrop. The Catholic church was the only church in town. Everyone in town was Catholic, Vollmer-König confirms. War ended and as time passed, life — for his family, at least — started its journey back to normal. The town was rebuilt and young Josef learned to cook, became a skilled chef and got a job in a restaurant. He was a good kid, but one itching for adventure. Doesn’t every young person have the itch? Vollmer-König says he thinks so.
He came to the United States to work as a chef in San Antonio, Texas. “I went because I wanted to see the world,” he says. “I planned to stay for a year.” He had a few problems in America, not the least of which was that, at the time, he spoke little English and no Spanish (a hindrance in a Texas kitchen, he learned).
The cooks would good-naturedly tease him and lie to him about the meaning of words. The only one who helped him was a pretty waitress named Ernestine. It did not take long for Josef to fall for Ernestine and she for him. They married in ’61. He joined the Army and remained in the reserves for 25 years. They started a family, which eventually included eight children.
But a sort of revolution — he calls it the “hamburger revolution” of 1966 — would shift the tide for the Vollmer-Königs.
“When cars became popular, drive-ins and drive-thrus and car hops became popular. A chef couldn’t take care of his family anymore. So I decided to change professions.”
He went to machinist school and took a job at General Motors in Dallas, where he worked for 30 years. Around their Oak Cliff neighborhood, Josef was known as the guy with all the kids. “I was the man with the five girls, because my wife didn’t feel like taking them all over the place with her, so I often kept [the girls] with me.”
Josef became a deacon at Blessed Sacrament Church in Oak Cliff; he visited and delivered communion to retirement and nursing homes. This is what he loved to do, he says. Help the hurting and ailing, participate in the Catholic tradition, sing with the choir. Whether in Germany, Rome or Dallas, the Catholic mass was always understandable — each calendar day the mass is rooted in the same Biblical scripture at every Catholic church in the world.
He introduced the art of making gingerbread houses, a remnant of his culinary past, to his offspring and his neighbors. A clipping from a 1969 newspaper shows Josef with one of his prizewinning gingerbread houses. He has a white apron inscribed with “The Gingerbread Man” that he says he bought from a tailor shop two blocks away from the Vatican in Rome.
By the early ’90s, he had a slew of grandkids and was planning for retirement. He and Ernestine figured they would move to Arizona. They both loved its weather and scenery.
But in the summer of 1994, Ernestine became sick. She died of heart failure in 1995. Josef says, “I had to decide what to do with my life.” But first, he says, he had to decide who he was by himself.
He felt the priesthood tug at his heart, he says. But wasn’t that irrational? A 60-year-old man entering the seminary? Becoming a Catholic priest? After all, most Catholic priests were single men who had devoted their whole adult lives to Christ, not retired mechanics with 23 grandchildren.
“But God wouldn’t let go of me,” he says. There was this particular Catholic hymn that, it seemed, played each time Josef entered a church, whether in Dallas or overseas. “Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?” goes the song. “I will go, Lord, if you lead me.” He recalls traveling to Germany for a child’s baptism. “First, there was the song, as usual. Then I opened the missal and there were the words again, in German: ‘Whom shall I send? Here I am, Lord.’ ” So, against the wishes of some of his eight children and 20-plus grandchildren, who really just wanted him around, he joined the seminary, which also included returning to college for basic courses alongside students his grandchildren’s age.
Since he already had taken the necessary preparations to be ordained a deacon at Blessed Sacrament, he spent just four years, rather than the typical seven or eight, in the seminary. “It is not an education,” he notes, “but priestly formation. You are changing your whole life. Priesthood is not a job or career. It is a vocation,” he says. “The other day I had a funeral, a wedding, a confirmation and a baptism — a whole lifetime in one day. I am a part of all of those families.”
“The other day I had a funeral, a wedding, a confirmation and a baptism — a whole lifetime in one day.”
Today Josef, who lived most of his life in Oak Cliff, right up the street from Blessed Sacrament, lives in the rectory at St. Patrick’s. His office overlooks the school and contains both live fish and flourishing plants — some of which he brought home from Ernestine’s hospital room almost 20 years ago. Images of holy figures adorn the walls. Jesus, looking unusually happy, is not just smiling, but “excited,” Josef says.
A plaque that reads, “This is the day the Lord has made!” hangs over his desk. Some days he can still hear Ernestine ask, “Just what are you doing here?”
“I still sometimes question what I am doing,” he says. Once you enter the priesthood, you don’t have all the answers, he explains. You are always learning. He says he knows his mind is not entirely capable of understanding the supernatural. “God is a mystery. There is more than I can ever imagine. When do you stop learning? Never.”
He joined St. Patrick’s in 2007, when he was 70, when most people are retiring, he says, smiling as thoroughly as Jesus in the picture on the wall behind him.
He still manufactures gingerbread houses, and rightly shows off a few photos — they are majestic structures bursting with color and shimmering sugar crystals. A couple of Christmases ago he was paid a few thousand dollars to build gingerbread houses. Of course the earnings went to Catholic Charities.
Having lived a long life already, the German Shepherd (a nickname parishioners gave the priest) understands the value of each day. He knows what is important, member Jennifer Hurt says. Her son was admitted to the hospital last St. Patrick’s Day with appendicitis. Though the church was celebrating its 50th anniversary that day with a massive event attended by several bishops and past pastors, Hurt says, Father dropped it all for her family. “My daughter was at the mass that day and asked a few friends to pray for [her brother]. Father Josef overheard and left the celebration to come to the hospital. He is an extraordinary man.”
But that, says Josef, is his purpose — to share God’s love with those who are suffering, scared or unsure. That comes before anything else.
“He is always loving, always guiding and always giving of himself, “ Hurt attests.
And it is that simple: make life better for someone. “If I go to bed at night knowing I have done that,” Father Josef says, “I know I have done my job.”