Saturday, April 26, 2003

Obituary: The Rev. Joseph Willmes

A missionary to India, Willmes lived to serve

By Rebecca Goodman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Rev. Willmes

The Rev. Joseph Willmes was a man for others.

As a young man he went off to be a missionary in India with no hopes of coming back.

What greater thing could a person do for others?

It was in keeping with the motto of his Jesuit alma mater, St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati: "Men for others."

The Jesuit priest died April 18 from complications of prostate cancer at Santokba Durlabji Memorial Hospital in Jaipur, India.

A Newport native, he was 89.

Father Willmes began his mission in India in 1949. Upon arrival, he immediately began learning the Hindi language, and served as pastor, teacher, rector and headmaster at Jesuit schools, churches and boarding houses in Jaipur, Patna, Bihar and Delhi.

He was a model Jesuit.

"Joe was a very disciplined person in his own religious life and duties," said the Rev. Jerry Drinane, a Jesuit missionary who worked with Father Willmes in Patna. "He was faithful and regular in all his routines and habits. In short, he was an excellent role model for his fellow Jesuits and the students under his care. At the same time, he wasn't rigid or cold - quite the opposite. He was a very genial, friendly and warm person. He had a delightful smile for all."

While growing up in Greater Cincinnati, Father Willmes was an avid amateur photographer. Immediately after arriving in India, he volunteered to teach photography and did so up until just before his death.

Many of his students became celebrated professional photographers, and one of them, Ragubhir Singh, achieved international fame for his work, much of which is in permanent collections in U.S. museums.

The work of Father Willmes, who took pictures all his life, can be seen in Jesuit communities and institutions throughout India.

Born in Newport in 1914, he attended St. Stephen School and St. Xavier High School.

Following his 1933 graduation from St. X, he enrolled at Xavier University and studied for two years before entering the Jesuit novitiate at Milford.

He completed a bachelor's and a master's degree in philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago.

He returned to St. X in Cincinnati, where he taught, directed the camera club and coached the debate team from 1942 to 1945.

Father Willmes completed his theology studies at West Baden College in West Baden Springs, Ind., and was ordained there in June 1948.

He was assigned to the Jesuit Mission in Patna, India, immediately after ordination.

He said farewell to his older brother, Robert, a Jesuit stationed at St. Stanislaus in Cleveland.

He was "gentle, quiet and unassuming and always very interested in other people - our family and his students," said his niece, Marian Ochs of Cincinnati.

"One of the Jesuits in India told us that even in his last days, Father Joe was asking about the students and about the field trip they'd just taken. He was the same way with our family. He kept in touch with us all - even from India."

Father Willmes' funeral Mass was celebrated by the Bishop of Ajmer and 20 concelebrating priests. That the Mass was attended by a large crowd of Catholics and non-Catholics alike attests to the high esteem of those to whom he ministered for more than five decades.

Survivors include nieces and nephews.

Burial was in Jaipur, India.

Memorials: Jesuit International Missions or Jesuit Partnership, 2059 Sedgwick St, Chicago, Ill. 60614.


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