A life dedicated to serving humanity and his church ended Aug. 6, 2021, when the Rev. Harry Koelker passed away at Stonehill Nursing Care in Dubuque. He saw the sun rise over Kilimanjaro in Africa, climbed Macchu Pichu in Peru, felt the poverty of Zambia, but more than anything, he was a shepherd for his parishioners during his forty-four years as a diocesan priest.
Harry was born June 26, 1942, the second child of Leona (Westhoff) Koelker and Elmer Koelker, a farm family living a half-mile north of the unincorporated village of Petersburg. His parents at that intensely Catholic community spoke German as their first language. The graceful, beautiful Catholic church of Saints Peter and Paul parish dominated the south view from the farm, and the religion it embodied sent its influence into Harry. Children on Petersburg farms were essential laborers, expected to work hard without complaint. Electricity arrived in 1947. Harry milked cows, drove tractors, fed hogs, and baled hay. Father attended eight years of elementary school at the parish school, attending mass six days a week. He developed athletic skills in basketball and baseball. He threw rubber balls against the farm buildings in the summer, and shot baskets in the hayloft in winter, developing a country low dribble from the curved floor boards, and a good left hand because the hoop hung by the barn door, and he could only go left.
During his high school years at New Vienna Saint Boniface, Harry was the point guard and defensive stopper his senior year on a team that went 26-1, losing only to the eventual state champions. Harry attended Loras College in Dubuque, majoring in history. His parents had eighth grade educations. He joined the pre-seminary program there. Harry lettered in baseball. He pitched in a practice game and took a line drive to the forehead that left an imprint of the seams, was knocked unconscious, but resumed practicing. Harry returned to Petersburg in the summers, played baseball for the town team, and once had four hits in one game off a future major league pitcher. He helped start the youth baseball team in Petersburg as a coach.
In 1964 Harry began at Mount St. Bernard seminary in Dubuque. It was rigorous. He helped organize periodic Sunday night parties at the farm in Petersburg and fellow seminarians. Some drank whiskey or beer that his dad put on the table, but Harry never touched a drop, nor did he the rest of his life. After ordination in 1968, Harry began his life’s work, in parishes across the Archdiocese of Dubuque. He knew almost everyone in the northeast quadrant of Iowa. His parishioners energized him. He presided at countless baptisms, communions, confirmations, confessions, weddings, and funerals, the stuff of life for a parish priest. His assignments: Protivin (68-70, teaching at Cresco Notre Dame); Oelwein (70-72, teaching at Sacred Heart High); Bellevue (72-78, teaching at Marquette); Marshalltown and Garwin (78-81); Dubuque St. Joseph ((81-84); Cedar Rapids St. Pius (84-86), Cedar Rapids St. Ludmila ( his first pastorate, 90-03), where he led the construction of a new church; Mason City St. Joseph, (03-07); a second stint at Oelwein and Fairbanks (07-12). He retired due to health reasons in 2012.
From 1986 to 1989 Harry boldly mixed a sense of duty and adventure and chose to join the Missionaries of Africa Associate Program available through the Archdiocese. He was assigned to a rural area of Zambia. He taught high school, coached basketball, and absorbed its poverty and unpredictability of life. Later he returned there on visits several times, and established aid groups for Zambian schools, and trips to Zambia for his Iowa parishioners. International travel fascinated him, South America, Europe, China, and especially Africa. He rarely felt fear when traveling, taking risks that not all of his fellow travelers preferred. Harry went to great lengths to attend the graduations and weddings of his eleven nieces and nephews, and attended their athletic events. He steered conversations to questions about you, not comments about himself. When he talked to you, you felt he was entirely focused on listening. He exercised (playing basketball into his 60’s), watched his diet, and never smoked. In 2012 Harry’s Parkinson’s disease progressed to the point that he had to retire. He then lived at Villa Raphael for several years, where he enjoyed the company of fellow retired priests. As his disease relentlessly reduced his movements, his last years were at Stonehill Nursing in Dubuque.
Harry was preceded in death by his father, Elmer, in 1997; his mother, Leona, in 2007; his brother-in-law, Dave Wedewer; and his nephew, Terry Wedewer in 2020.
He is survived by his sisters: Joan Wedewer of Dubuque; Karen Goldsmith of Kohler, Wisconsin, and her husband Bob; Carmen Mamminga of Omaha and her husband Marv; and his brother Lloyd, of Kansas City and his wife Beth. Many people cared for Harry and deserve thanks. They include: his decades-long priest support group; Father Carl Ries; his priest friends at Villa Raphael; the staff at Villa Raphael and Stonehill.
Visitation for Father was from 2 to 8 p.m., Monday, August 9, 2021 at Reiff Funeral Home, Dyersville, where a prayer service was at 7 p.m. with Rev. Carl Ries presiding. Visitation was also be held after 8:30 a.m. until services.
The Mass of the Resurrection was held at 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 at Ss. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Petersburg, with Archbishop Michael Jackels presiding. The Homilist was the Rev. Tony Kruse, a native of Petersburg. Concelebrating were several clergy from the Dubuque Archdiocese. Burial was at the parish cemetery, where Harry shall lie next to his parents, within view of his ancestors of 150 years, of the church, and of the farm where he was raised.
You are welcome to send beautiful flowers, but we think Harry would prefer, if you wish, a contribution to Saints Peter and Paul Parish. Thank you all for being a part of his meaningful life.
Online condolences may be sent to the family at www.reifffuneralhomeinc.com