Father Henry had a zest for life, love for people

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

In a formal sense, Father Henry H. Engelbrecht, who died Feb. 18 at the age of 77, was a monsignor – a priest who in 1999 received from St. John Paul II the title of “prelate of honor.”

But relatives, friends and parishioners who attended his Funeral Mass Feb. 22 at St. Henry Church described him simply as “Father Henry,” a pastor who was equal parts loving service and lovable personality.

Father Engelbrecht carried out his priestly duties for the last 20 years despite a variety of physical ailments, which in the end required him to use a personal scooter to get around.

Bonded with those suffering

But even after he left St. Henry Parish in 2006 to become a hospital chaplain, he never let his disability prevent him from serving as a priest, his blood sister, Dominican Sister of Peace June Engelbrecht, said in her words of remembrance.

“He saw his handicap as a blessing because it slowed him down,” Sister June said. “It was a blessing because it allowed him to identify with the needs of the suffering, the people he ministered to.”

Sterling Smith said he went to Father Engelbrecht once to discuss with him some pressing personal matters about a career change, a decision that was causing a lot of stress in his life.

“He listened, and when I was finished, he said to me, ‘Want to make God laugh? Make another plan,’” Smith said. “That drove the point home and (was) the best advice I ever received in life!”

Loved to laugh

The pastor also loved making his parishioners laugh. Shortly after taking over at St. Henry, he celebrated morning Mass without an altar server, so Smith volunteered to pitch in.

“We need to get you an alb,” Father Engelbrecht said. 

After Mass one morning, an elderly woman came up to Smith, thinking he was a priest, and asked him to hear her confession.

“So, I asked her, ‘Is it interesting? … I’m not a priest, but I’d love to listen,’” Smith said jokingly.

When the woman went outside of church to tell Father Engelbrecht what had just happened, Smith said the priest roared with laughter.

“He and I became best friends after that,” Smith said.

Smith said Father Engelbrecht loved poking fun at himself and his challenges in getting around. Another time after a homily, Father Engelbrecht had to use the restroom, which was located outside of the church.

Smith said: “He told me, ‘Go out there and stall … but don’t consecrate the host!’”

That kind of good humor endeared him to his parishioners, said Msgr. John Cisewski, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, who delivered the homily.

“Henry had a great gift,” Msgr. Cisewski said. “He could take lemons and make lemonade. He loved every one of the parishes where he served. He absolutely fell in love with St. Henry. He loved being pastor. It was his heart.”

Father Engelbrecht “adopted” Msgr. Cisewski, a native of Minnesota, as part of Notre Dame Seminary’s ordination class of 1968. Priestly fraternity was a major aspect of his life, and Father Engelbrecht made sure never to miss a party thrown by his fellow priests and always invited everyone he could to St. Henry’s, one block from the Napoleon Avenue parade route, to his Carnival parties.

Sister June said her favorite image of her brother comes from the 25th chapter of Isaiah, where the Lord promises his faithful a heavenly banquet of rich food and wines.

“You all know how he loved parties,” Sister June said. “In fact, one of the last things he said to me was, ‘I want a party at my funeral.’ He’s going to get one.”

Alden Hagardorn, president of the Friends of St. Henry, said Father Engelbrecht was largely responsible for St. Henry Parish overcoming the archdiocese’s announced decision to close the church after Hurricane Katrina.

“As a result of prayer, faith and Father Henry’s spiritual leadership, we feared not, and as a result, we are here today,” Hagardorn said.

Childhood friend Sam Caruso, the former mayor of Slidell who also spent several years in the seminary with Father Engelbrecht, said a joy-filled spirit was with his friend to the end. Caruso and his wife called Father Engelbrecht last Sunday to say they were coming to visit him.

“Just make sure you bring me an oyster po-boy,” Caruso said his friend requested.

Less than eight hours later, in the early morning of Feb. 18, Father Engelbrecht died.

After his ordination in 1968, he served at Resurrection of Our Lord in New Orleans and St. Agnes in Jefferson. He also served as pastor at Nativity of Our Lord in Kenner and was director of  the archdiocesan CYO Office.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org. 

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