The Mass celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest had come to an end. The Rev. Earl Rohleder raises both of his arms in a final blessing. “Peace to the whole place!” he joyfully declares.
Rohleder, who marked the occasion with friends, family and members of the Santa Maria de la Paz Catholic Community last Sunday, has built life-long friendships with an eclectic mix of artists, adventurers, and very good cooks that sustained him during decades of service to the Catholic church.
“I don’t know why I stuck with it at points,” he says. “It was just the holy spirit. Me getting down on my knees every day and the friends who helped me through it.”
Rohleder was a high school freshman when he entered St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Evansville, Ind. “I don’t think I had any intention of becoming a priest,” he explains. “I just didn’t want to miss out on that good education!”
His father, Othmar, who was a cabinetmaker, and his mother, Anna Ackerman, supported his decision. Although they raised Rohleder in the Catholic Church, they were happy for him to make his own decision about whether to become a priest.
Rev. Joseph Ziliak, who attended seminary with Rohleder, said it was common for young men from Rohleder’s hometown of Jasper, Ind., to join the seminary for high school.
“We had meals with all of the food groups, and we had time allotted for recreation, for study, for socializing. It was a very healthy and regular lifestyle,” he said.
For Rohleder, who wasn’t so keen on the strictness of seminary lifestyle, it was the friendship and camaraderie that made the experience worthwhile.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from St. Meinrad, Rohleder and six other members of his class were invited to study at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, for a master’s degree in theology.
Rohleder spent the next four years becoming what he refers to as “a world citizen,” and acquiring an extended family that would become a permanent part of his life.
“The Americans were very close,” said the Rev. Paul Ringseisen, who attended seminary with Rohleder in Austria. “They would eat breakfast in their rooms together on Sundays; it was a special occasion of ham and eggs, popped corn, and even ketchup and marmalade.” Rohleder and Ziliak fondly recalled laying out newspaper on a desk and piling the popped corn on it, earning the group the nickname “American barbarians” from Ringseisen.
Rohleder, whom Ringseisen described as “curious, hungry for life and eager to express himself, whether in German or in English,” became close friends with his fellow American and German seminarians.
He was invited home for Christmas with Ringseisen. “I remember him opening up the ice-box every evening,” said Irmgard Ringseisen, Paul Ringseisen’s sister, “and helping himself to whatever he felt like. It was very surprising—something only our father would do! He was just so comfortable, and happy to be a part of the family.”
During their summer vacations, Rohleder and Ziliak toured Europe by motorcycle.
“We got coffee and cigarettes for cheap from military chaplains,” said Ziliak, “and there was a collection at the university of 3-by-5 note cards that the students were always adding to with lists of monasteries and churches where we could stay for free.”
By the time he finished his master’s degree in Innsbruck, Rohleder said he looked around and “didn’t see anything better, so I figured I’d try out the priesthood for at least a year.”
Rohleder was ordained in Innsbruck shortly after the Second Vatican Council, which liberalized some aspects of the Roman Catholic Church, including permitting the Mass to be said in languages other than Latin and greater participation in the ritual by the laity.
“We saw all these changes happening,” Rohleder said, “and we thought we were going to change the world.”
When he returned to the United States to serve inner city parishes in Indiana, Rohleder discovered the limitations of his vocation. “It was hard going during the civil rights movement,” he says. “And at the same time the church was making steps backward from the decisions of the Vatican Council.”
But Rohleder maintained his practice of building close relationships with those around him.
Marylou Ruhmkorff, a friend of Rohleder’s from a church in Newburgh, Ind., recalls the young priest “showing up with his old beaten-up car, and his scraggly hair, and then we just hit it off with him. He liked motorcycles and my husband liked motorcycles, and that was that.”
She traveled to Santa Fe for the anniversary celebrations from her home in Phoenix, Ariz., with her husband Roger, a large tin of homemade biscotti, and a bottle of homemade limoncello made with lemons from her neighbor’s lemon tree.
Rohleder retired to Santa Fe in 2003. He celebrates Mass at Santa Maria de la Paz and is an active member of Pax Christi USA, a national Catholic organization that works to bring about peace through awareness and engagement of the Catholic community.
Rohleder also holds a show two or three times a year where he sells sculptures he creates from scrap metal — he calls them “junk art sculptures” — to raise money for a fund to send young adults to the third world to become, like him, “world citizens.” Gesturing toward his workshop, a space provided by his friend Jody Norskog, he says, “When I’m here, I feel no pain.”
As he shows his friends and family who have come from all over the country and even as far as Germany around the studio, he points out, “You see, it all comes from junk.”
Hopefulness is at the core of Rohleder’s view of the world. For the tour, he’s wearing a T-shirt featuring a take-off of a Corona beer ad that shows the Corona crown but says instead, “Católico Extra. El consumo de este producto causa gozo para el alma” — or, “Católico Extra. Consumption of this product causes joy for the spirit.”
“Right now,” he says, “there is a sort of underground movement going on in the Catholic Church. There are women finding their place in the church all over the world. These people are ex-communicated by the church, but they’re still Catholics. You know, the church will come round eventually.”
Rohleder gestures at the piles of rusted artifacts — old horseshoes, scraps of corrugated tin, old road signs with rust eating away the bright yellow paint. “Yes,” he says, “there sure is a lot of hope out there.”
Arianna Sullivan is a student at Santa Fe University of Art and Design and Earl Rohleder is a friend of her family.