A funeral Mass will be held this afternoon for the Rev. Monsignor Sebastian G. Menke, who died Sunday at the age of 91. But some of the Quad-Citians who worked alongside him say his legacy will live on for many years to come.
From serving as president of what is now St. Ambrose University to pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, through his work in merging two organizations into what is now the United Way of the Quad-Cities Area and his academic career as a professor of languages and astronomy, Menke established a brilliant reputation.
He was the first professor of astronomy at St. Ambrose, and the school's observatory on the Wapsipinicon River was named in his honor in 1994.
And even though he earned degrees in theology, German, Latin and Greek, he was just as likely to be found fishing or planting flowers as he was to bury his nose in a book.
As president of St. Ambrose, Edward Rogalski now occupies the post held by Menke from 1964 until 1972. Menke, a St. Ambrose Academy and St. Ambrose College graduate, was the one who actually brought Rogalski to the school as dean of students in 1968.
"What impressed me was that monsignor came to my house in Iowa City three times," Rogalski remembered. "He was knocking at my door and asking me to join him in this task. He was deeply spiritual and deeply devoted to his vocation, but he didn't close himself off. He had warm friendships with the Jewish communities and elsewhere. He cut across all of those things."
Rogalski also recalled Menke as a mentor who changed the face of St. Ambrose.
"We had a wonderful working relationship and friendship that developed over time. He was humble and very generous. One of the things he did was to open up our university to the needy, to students who were economically disadvantaged, to the minority communities."
Donald Moeller, the academic vice president, provost and dean of faculty at St. Ambrose, said Menke's leadership took the university through a turbulent period of American history without violence.
"He was around during a difficult time (the Vietnam War era) when there were student uprisings and war protests. He kept things calmer here," Moeller added.
Rogalski said Menke's accessible style made the difference during those years. "He did a lot to help defuse the emotions. We would meet with students at any time of day and night. He even led a protest march here in Davenport — and that was a time when emotions were running very high."
The Rev Marvin Mottet who succeeded Menke as pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral after the monsignor's 1986 retirement, described his predecessor as a man committed to economic and social justice — and the parish.
"Monsignor Menke was the best thing that ever happened to Davenport. He got involved with the neighborhood and turned out the congregation into the neighborhood. In the '80s, everything south of Locust (Street) died, and he kept the parish afloat, the bills paid and the school open. He really loved the parish and gave it his heart and soul.
"He started the food pantry, the clothing center, helped out at the Catholic Worker House and the East Side Development Center. He was very involved in social agencies and racial matters. When he opened the food pantry, there were so many people he had to move it downtown to the Kahl Building. To pay the rent, he took out his checkbook. They asked, You're not paying for this yourself, are you?' He wrote them a check. I don't think he ever got another bill from them."
Mottet remembers Menke as bright and also lots of fun.
"I was in his class briefly at St. Ambrose. He was a fun teacher — humorous, interesting. He was a happy person, and when he would preach, he would giggle."
Those giggles came from a quick thinker, Rogalski said.
"Sometimes he'd be telling a serious story and he would have an interesting quirk of a smile because he was thinking ahead to the next funny thing he was going to say. People would be kind of non-plussed that he had some funny look on his face when he said something serious."
Menke's generosity was extraordinary, Rogalski added.
"He had these otherworldly, humble values. Every month, he would send us a check to support the university, right up to the end. He said his desire was to die penniless."
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