The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Reverend Henry F. Gerecke, who devoted his life to ministering to the most vulnerable, marginalized, and culpable members of society, is the final honoree of the 2017 class.
Henry Frederick Gerecke was born in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, in 1893. The grandson of German immigrants, his life was centered from the beginning on the local Lutheran church. In 1913, he enrolled at St. John’s Academy and College in Winfield, Kansas, a Lutheran seminary prep school. After graduation, he moved to St. Louis, where he began seminary studies at Concordia and met his wife, Alma Bender. They married in 1919 and had three sons: Henry, Carlton, and Roy.
Gerecke was ordained in January 1926 and began serving as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, located near St. Louis University. After a decade leading the church, he took over the leadership of City Mission, which was devoted to helping the neediest members of society in the midst of the Great Depression. This new ministry took him to hospitals, jails, and workhouses – anywhere that he felt he could help those who needed it most. Gerecke also widened his ministerial net via his own radio program, Moments of Comfort.
When World War II broke out, Gerecke volunteered for the United States Army’s Chaplain Corps. He was assigned to the Ninety-Eighth General Hospital, an army medical unit that moved throughout Europe during the war. In 1945, the army requested Gerecke’s transfer for a special assignment: he was to serve as the Lutheran chaplain for the Nazi war criminals who were about to be tried at Nuremberg.
Gerecke’s faith, his facility with the German language, and his experience ministering to the incarcerated in St. Louis were all factors in his selection for the post. The assignment was perhaps the most frightening and challenging moment of Gerecke’s life. He had visited concentration camps in Germany, and he understood the atrocities the prisoners had committed. Ministering to them throughout the trials and subsequent executions challenged the limits of Gerecke’s understanding of good and evil, of salvation and forgiveness.
When Gerecke’s military service ended, Randolph County became the beneficiary of his ministry. He and Alma moved to Chester, where he served as the assistant pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church; perhaps even more importantly, he also became the chaplain at the Menard Correctional Center and Chester Mental Health Center. He extended his ministry even further, making regular visits to patients at Chester’s hospital and serving as a chaplain to the VFW and the American Legion.
Gerecke died suddenly of a heart attack in Chester in 1961 at the age of 68. His impact on the prisoners at Menard was so profound that they requested a special visitation so they could pay their respects to their late chaplain. The prisoners even raised the funds to install a lighted cross atop St. John’s School. The cross, recently repaired and rededicated, still shines in Chester today as a reminder of Gerecke’s legacy. Eileen Gordon, the secretary at St. John’s during Gerecke’s tenure there, explained that legacy simply: “When someone writes of Pastor Gerecke, they must write of love, because this, indeed, was the essence of the man.”