Rev. Gerald “Jerry” Peter Wilmsen, 86, of Bristol, Rhode Island, passed away Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at the Dawn Hill Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Bristol, after a short illness.
Jerry was born in Chicago on Sept. 17, 1934, the middle of three children born to Peter C. Wilmsen and Pauline K. Rudman. While growing up Jerry moved often in Chicago’s south side, attending a variety of parochial schools such as St. Brendan’s, St. Basil’s, St. Theodore’s, Visitation and St. Agnes. Jerry’s father, Peter, always had a job, even during the Great Depression, working as a fireman for the Chicago school system, stoking furnaces during the school year and, while on hiatus during the summer, working as an operating engineer at a roofing company. Jerry’s mother, Pauline, also earned money as a seamstress.
Jerry Wilmsen experienced his life’s calling to become a priest early on. His Uncle Rudy even made him his own alter so that he could playact being a priest as a young boy with his siblings, Patricia and LeRoy. At the age of 14, he attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary in downtown Chicago for one year.
Jerry had his first contact with the Columbans when he attended a Father & Son Holy Name Society Communion Breakfast at his Chicago parish. Because Fr. Robert Degnan, just back from China, gave such an impressive talk — with the blessings of his Irish pastor — Jerry decided to transfer to St. Columban’s Seminary in Silver Creek, New York, for his remaining three years of high school. From there, he continued his 10-year study as a seminarian in various places such as Milton near Boston, Bristol, Rhode Island, and between 1956 and 1959 at the Columban Mission at Dalgan Park near Navan, Ireland.
The Columban Fathers is a missionary society founded by Rev. (later Bishop) Edward Galvin in Ireland in 1916, who set up a number of missions in many countries where they felt help and spiritual guidance was needed.
Jerry was ordained a missionary priest of the Society of St. Columban at Milton on Dec. 19, 1959, by Archbishop Harold Henry of Kwangju, South Korea. Father Jerry’s first mass was at St. Richard’s Church in Chicago. After his ordination, he was then sent to South Korea, arriving there in November of 1960. Following one year of language study, Jerry was sent as assistant pastor to Cathedral Parish in Chunchon, the first of several assignments, which were to include Mukho, Cheju, Pusan and then Seoul, the capital of Korea.
During his many years of missionary service in Korea (1960 to 1988), Father Jerry eventually began returning to the U.S. on four-year intervals, taking short assignments in the States and visiting his parents and family in Wisconsin. During his sojourns in Wisconsin, Jerry came to love his meditative times experiencing solitary outdoor activities such as hiking, sailing, canoeing and kayaking. Jerry also enjoyed physically working in the woods, whether it be cleaning up brush or making an elaborate tree fort for his nephews. While in the U.S., Father Jerry even took a course in clowning at Daley College in Chicago, going by his clown name of “General Jelly Bean” and incorporating his newfound acting skills into his ministry back in Korea.
In 1988, Jerry answered the call from his mission society to teach in China, preparing by taking a Chinese language course in Taiwan and then earning his master’s degree in teaching English (Tesol certification) as a second language at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont in just 11 months. For most of the next decade starting in 1989, Jerry taught at universities in Wuhan and Guangzhou, China. Since there had been strict government rules against evangelism ever since the Communist takeover in Korea in 1945, Father Jerry was not allowed to preach religion to his students; that is why he could only be in China to serve as a teacher. He was allowed to worship on his own each Sunday but, as far as his students went, he was there to show them love, kindness and to teach them not only English but also good morals and self-confidence.
In June of 1996, Father Jerry took a leave of absence and returned to the United States so that he could be closer to his ailing, 85-year-old mother in Wisconsin. During much of that time, he was stationed at the Columban mission in Grand Prairie, Texas. In 1999 Jerry returned to China, where he spent his final year of teaching English during the 1999/2000 season. Completely retiring from his missionary duties abroad in 2000, Father Jerry took up residence on his family’s property near the Chippewa Flowage, near Hayward, and later moved into the Galaxie Senior Apartments in Hayward.
Father Jerry’s other passions in life included reading spiritual books, painting and taking religious sabbaticals.
During his 15 years in Hayward, Father Jerry spoke about his overseas missions, he filled in as needed as a substitute priest in the Superior Diocese, and he got involved in various causes which he believed in. His spiritual guidance, counseling, ministering, his many acts of taking people to appointments, or just physically assisting those who needed a helping hand have literally been a Godsend to so many both in the U.S. and abroad.
In November of 2015, Father Jerry chose to move to Bristol, Rhode Island, where he lived for the next five and a half years at the Columban Father’s retreat (St. Columban’s). Remaining as active as possible until he was faced by serious health issues, Jerry has touched many lives for the better during his 61 years as a Catholic priest of the Columban Fathers.
Father Jerry is survived by one brother, LeRoy Wilmsen of Hayward; and four nephews, Michael Wilmsen of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, Mark (Denise) Wilmsen of Woodridge, Illinois, John (Brenda) Dettloff of Couderay and Todd (Debbie) Wilmsen of Joliet, Illinois.
He was preceded in death by his parents, Peter and Pauline; his sister Patricia Dettloff; and two nephews, Robert Dettloff and Jeffery Wilmsen.
A memorial service will be held at noon Friday, April 30, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Hayward with Father David Neuschwander officiating. Father Jerry will be interred at St. Mary’s Cemetery alongside his fellow Columban priests in Bristol, Rhode Island.
The family is asking that any donations be directed toward the Missionary Society of St. Columban, P.O. Box 10, St. Columbans, NE 68056.