Former prisoner of war’s chance meeting leads to priesthood

Father Arthur Vogel has been a priest of the St. Cloud Diocese for nearly 60 years. But had it not been for a chance meeting in a train station in Frankfurt, Germany, he might never have been a priest at all.

Father Arthur Vogel
Father Arthur Vogel

Father Vogel’s vocation story began in his home town of Wiesbaden, Germany, and was very much influenced by the events of World War II. Born in 1923, he was 10 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power.

That’s when life changed drastically for him. Friends would suddenly not come to school, their families fleeing Germany and the Nazis. He was bullied into joining the Hitler Youth organization, he said, although he didn’t agree with what they stood for.

It was at that time, too, that the Nazis stopped all religious education in the public schools. Priests, ministers and rabbis had been coming into the schools for two hours a week to teach.

“Our priest, Father Lawrenz Wüest, fixed up the basement so we could gather there, but most kids didn’t come,” he said.

“It was very risky, too. Almost every time we met, the Hitler Youth was waiting outside to beat us.

“I probably wouldn’t be a priest if I hadn’t had such happy memories of Father Wüest,” he said. “The way he taught us, the way he preached and talked to our family left a good impression on me.”

When he was eventually forced to join the Hitler Youth his father was very upset. He said, ‘You will not go to the Hitler Youth. You are our child, not Hitler’s child,’” Father Vogel said.

Arthur Vogel Sr. was very vocal about his opposition to the Nazi Party and refused to join it. He even left his job as a streetcar driver for the city because as a city worker he was expected to join the party, Father Vogel said.

The Hitler Youth met on Sunday mornings, at the same time Father Vogel and his two younger brothers, Willy and Helmuth, would have gone to the children’s Mass. Before that, his parents made sure the boys attended Mass regularly and helped Father Wüest as altar servers.

At 18, he was drafted into the German Army and was sent to Holland for basic training.

“It was really bad,” he said. “I got through it by trusting in the Lord and not taking things too seriously.”

His company was sent to Tunisia in Africa when the U.S. invaded there. They were attacked by British forces and he and another soldier were taken prisoner on Easter Sunday 1943.

“We didn’t have anything to eat or drink for days,” he said. He and his fellow soldier, a man named Hans, tried to sneak out and get water from a nearby creek and were shot at.

He was transferred from camp to camp, where he did menial labor, and never had enough to eat until he was eventually turned over to the U.S. Army in Algeria, near the Moroccan border.

“We got the first good meal when we were turned over to the Americans,” he said. “We were allowed to shave and we had little tents — two to a tent — and it was just like a five-star hotel. It was just like heaven after sleeping in ditches and not being able to shower or change clothes.”

He and other prisoners were put on a ship for a 21-day trip to the United States, eventually coming to a prison camp in Aliceville, Alabama.

While he was at Camp Aliceville he met and became good friends with fellow prisoner Helmut Gatzsche. Gatzsche wanted to be a Lutheran minister, and the two had long conversations about religion.

Father Vogel is pictured above during his time in a prisoner of war camp.
Father Vogel is pictured above during his time in a prisoner of war camp.

There were no chapels or chaplains in the prison camps, but there was a great need for services for the Catholics and the Lutherans, Father Vogel said. “Eventually we conducted some services, as much as we could conduct a service,” he said. “Helmut had a tiny Bible. He would read a passage and we would talk about it.”

“One day Helmut said, ‘Art, why don’t you become a priest?’ Me, a priest? I don’t think so, I said. When I get home I’ll go back to the same place I worked before the war.”

After nine months in Alabama, some of the prisoners, including Father Vogel and Gatzsche, were moved to Fort Dix in New Jersey.

They were only there for a short time before they were able to volunteer to work on a large farm near there cutting, pruning and cultivating apple trees. When that work ended, they were transferred to a job at a factory that made Heinz Ketchup.

When the war ended, Father Vogel was at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. The German prisoners were not released right away.

At that camp, Father Vogel also met another key player in his vocation journey, Sgt. Frank C. Smith, the officer in charge of the prisoners of war. Smith was very good to the young prisoners, who called him “Schmitty,” a Germanization of his last name.

“He put himself in our shoes,” Father Vogel said. When the Army wanted the prisoners to work more than eight hours in a day, Smith would insist that they were fed another meal so they had the energy to work.

Smith helped Father Vogel and Gatzsche set up a chapel in Camp Kilmer. They were able to use an empty barracks, wood and other supplies they needed. Gatzsche was a carpenter and with the help of some other prisoners, built an altar with a tabernacle, candle holders and pews with kneelers. The finished chapel could seat 200 and Smith was very proud of it, often taking visitors to see it.

Father Vogel, who by that time was working as the prisoner representative in the camp’s headquarters, spent much of his time arranging church services, he said.

When they received news that Smith was to be transferred to a base in Germany, there was much sadness in the camp, Father Vogel said. “Lots of the guys cried when he left.”

In 1946, Father Vogel was transferred to yet another camp, but this time it was to prepare for the journey home. He boarded an American destroyer bound for France and then made his way back to Germany where he was given money and a train ticket to Wiesbaden.

When he arrived he couldn’t believe the destruction and what the war had done to his town. He still tears up talking about what he saw. “We were just shattered when we saw it,” he said.

Poverty and hunger had always been a problem, but it broke his heart to see hundreds of people lying along the railroad tracks, he said. “I saw sad-looking people without a home and kids asking us if we [had] something to eat for them.”

He was relieved when he returned to his home — the building was still there and his parents and younger brother Helmuth were home. His brother Willy was killed just a few months before the war ended.

Father Vogel, center, poses after his first Mass in his hometown of Wiesbaden, Germany, in June 1957. (Photos courtesy of Father Arthur Vogel)
Father Vogel, center, poses after his first Mass in his hometown of Wiesbaden, Germany, in June 1957. (Photos courtesy of Father Arthur Vogel)

He went back to work while he looked for a seminary to attend that was not destroyed in the war. He finally found one named Clemensheim, a short train ride away.

After studying there a year, the economy had worsened and German money had lost almost all of its value, he said.

“The good sisters [who worked at the seminary] … came and said they had no more food for us,” he said. He decided to leave the seminary and return home.

He went to Frankfurt to catch a train home, but realized when he got there that the last train for Wiesbaden had already left. He tried to sleep in the station, but couldn’t. He awoke at 2 a.m. and watched people coming off the late trains.

“And then something I consider very providential happened,” he said. “I was just watching people and here comes Sgt. Smith! We were delighted to see each other.”

Father Vogel told him he had given the seminary a try but had to leave because of the financial situation.

Smith — now Major Smith — took that information and sent a letter to a friend of his, Pete McCarty, in New York.

A short time later, Father Vogel received a letter from McCarty asking if he would be interested in continuing his seminary studies in the United States. McCarty and a few friends would finance his trip and find a place for him to study.

When he arrived in the United States, a few days before Christmas 1949, he stayed with McCarty.

A friend of McCarty’s son, Father William Furlan, who was a member of the Friars of the Atonement at the time, was working on a book about the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and was there when McCarty was talking about finding a bishop that might sponsor Father Vogel.

Father Furlan said he would ask St. Cloud Bishop Peter Bartholome, who was very receptive to the idea. He thought it would be good to have a German-speaking priest because some of the older people in the diocese still wanted to do confessions in German.

So Father Vogel started studies at St. John’s University and Seminary in Collegeville in 1950.

He struggled at first, not knowing any English and taking notes in German shorthand. By the time he was ordained he could speak English well enough to preach homilies at Mass.

He was ordained June 1, 1957, and celebrated his first Mass at the Poor Clare Monastery in Sauk Rapids, he said. He then celebrated a second Mass at St. Raymond Church in Lynbrook, New York, and a third at his home parish in Wiesbaden, Germany.

Father Vogel served at parishes in Long Prairie, St. Wendel, Belgrade and St. Stephen — his longest assignment at 18 years. He retired in 1994 but filled in where he was needed until just recently.

The 93-year-old priest, who lives in the Waterford Apartments at Country Manor in Sartell, enjoys talking about his story to groups when he’s invited.

“When I look back on my life, God has guided me in wonderful ways through thick and thin,” Father Vogel said. “There were many tough spots and many reasons that I should no longer be living, and yet here I am. God has been very good to me.”

About Dianne Towalski

Dianne Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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