By Dan Russo
St. LUCAS — Almost 75 years after Chaplain Al Schmitt was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, his remains finally made their way home Oct. 5 to St. Lucas, the small tight-knit community where he was born and raised. On the temperate fall afternoon, a flag draped coffin sat before the altar at the church where the young priest, the first chaplain to die in action in World War II, was baptized.
An honor guard led by Lt. Brian Lewis of the U.S. Navy and including members of the Chaplain Aloysius Schmitt American Legion Post 691 in St. Lucas escorted the body to the parish. Family members and mourners filled the pews ahead of a Mass of Remembrance concelebrated by Archbishop Michael Jackels; Father Kyle Digmann, pastor of St. Lucas Parish; and several other priests of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
After the Mass, a reception in the parish hall brought together many people who had personal connections to Father Al, including many relatives, such as Dan Schmitt, one of the chaplain’s nephews.
“I remember when he was leaving for the Navy,” said Schmitt. “I was 4-years-old. He came to my dad’s place. I remember him driving in the yard with some fancy little car … I was all dressed up in my blue overalls. He picked me up and he messed up my hair.”
Father Schmitt came from a large family of 10 children, including his brother Matthew, Dan Schmitt’s father. The nephew said the priest’s parents and siblings endured a tragedy when Father Schmitt died, and would be comforted to know his uncle’s remains were found and returned.
“We heard all the stories about Father Al all our lives,” said Schmitt. “I think they’d be very happy to know he came back.”
In his homily, the archbishop recounted the chaplain’s heroism on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese torpedoes struck his ship, the USS Oklahoma. Father Schmitt found a porthole that he used to assist in the evacuation of a dozen men, foregoing his own chance at escape in order to save others.
“Father Al’s life ended as he lived it, giving himself to others,” said Archbishop Jackels, calling his actions “the ultimate sacrifice.”
The archbishop then related the chaplain’s conduct on the sinking ship to the way Jesus gave up his life to save all.
“Father Al followed Christ,” said Archbishop Jackels. “Perhaps a good way for us to honor Father Al’s memory and console those who mourn … is for each of us, in our own way, to imitate him as he imitated Christ.”
A contingent of fourth degree Knights of Columbus from Davis Assembly 271 in Ossian lined the procession into the Mass. About 32 members of the local American Legion Post participated in the Mass, some of whom acted as pallbearers.
Lee Stammeyer, a founding member of the post, has fond memories of the chaplain.
“Father Al was a friend of mine, but he was 12 years older than I was,” said the 95-year-old. “When I was in first grade, he was starting his seminary training. I stayed with my grandmother in St. Lucas during summer vacation and (Father Al and I) played checkers. He was a prince of a guy. He liked to read. He was always smiling.”
Stammeyer led a rosary before the memorial Mass. The “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” were also said in German before the liturgy, the language Father Schmitt “learned at his mother’s knee.” The prayers were indicative of the deep ties to German-American history Father Schmitt and the St. Lucas community have. Stammeyer mentioned that Chaplain Schmitt’s story is part of the St. Lucas Historical Society’s German-American History Museum and Heritage Center that is located across the street from St. Luke Church.
The veteran said he was somewhat disappointed that the chaplain’s remains would not be buried in St. Lucas, but he believes they will do good at their final resting place in the chapel of Loras College in Dubuque, Father Schmitt’s alma mater.
“I also realize he might be an influence on young people there,” said Stammeyer.
Father Digmann greeted many people at the reception, some of whom had traveled long distances to be there. He reflected on the impact taking part in the memorial Mass had on him and on the community at large.
“As a priest, I am inspired by Father Schmitt’s example of sacrifice and service to others,” he said. “Father Schmitt was no ordinary man or ordinary priest. He was willing to go above and beyond his normal duty to serve God and country. This has planted a desire in my heart to be more. I think it is easy for any person to settle or be complacent. Father Schmitt is a shining example of what happens when we truly strive to go above and beyond. Father Schmitt has encouraged me to live my priesthood with greater service and sacrifice for God and his people.”
A key part of the chaplain’s legacy in St. Lucas and beyond is his ability to inspire others, according to Father Digmann.
“Father Schmitt has had a profound effect on his home parish and native area,” he said. “So many people heard stories about him when they were young. I think he has instilled a sense of pride in all who are born and raised in this area, which is very conducive to growth in virtue and holiness.”
One of the people who heard those many stories about the chaplain growing up was Kathleen Drilling of St. Luke Parish.
“As a youngster growing up, the photo of (Father Schmitt) was always on the dresser,” she said. “He was first cousin to my daddy. His mother and (Father) Al’s mother were sisters. My daddy said that he loved him. It came from the heart and they were the same age. They had a special bond from being cousins.”
Pat Meinert, a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Basilica Parish, traveled from Dyersville to attend the Mass. Her husband, Bob, is related to the chaplain through his mother.
“My brother was a Vietnam vet who served during the Tet offensive,” she said. “I think we should honor the service people. I’m so glad we had a good crowd. I think one of the greatest works of mercy we can do is go to funerals.”
The event had a special significance for the many military veterans who attended, including Father Mark Murphy, pastor of the Holy Rosary Cluster, a group of parishes in Elma, Alta Vista, Lourdes, New Haven and Riceville. Father Murphy served on a submarine in the Navy before entering the seminary. He recalls long voyages that could last months at a time.
“When I was in the Navy, I always thought of coming back home,” recalled the priest. “Before the Mass I was looking down at the chaplain’s casket from the sacristy and I thought, ‘He’s finally home.’”
In 1944, bodies from those killed in the attack were recovered and buried as “unknowns” in a Hawaiian cemetery. In 2003, one of the caskets was dug up and five crewmembers were identified using sophisticated DNA technology. The chaplain was among 429 sailors and Marines that died on the USS Oklahoma. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that the rest of the caskets would be exhumed and an effort to identify the unknown bodies would be made. DNA samples from the relatives of Chaplain Schmitt were key to the identification process. The family was contacted in June when the military told them that they had received a positive DNA match, according to Dr. Steve Sloan, who worked with officials in the process to identify his great-uncle.
Witness Editorial Assistant Jill Kruse contributed to this article.
Photo caption: Lt. Brian Lewis of the U.S. Navy holds the folded flag that was draped over Chaplain Schmitt’s coffin in the back of St. Luke’s Church in St. Lucas Oct. 5. He is flanked by members of Father Aloysius Schmitt American Legion Post 691 in St. Lucas and other veterans who attended the memorial Mass. (photo by Dan Russo)