Last of the Wahls: Rock Hill Oratorian served 69 years

The Rev. Joseph Wahl in 2006, on the occasion of celebrating his 50th anniversary of being a priest.
The Rev. Joseph Wahl in 2006, on the occasion of celebrating his 50th anniversary of being a priest. Herald file

When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Rev. Joseph Wahl came to his Roman Catholic parishoners seeking their permission to sponsor a family of Vietnamese refugees who would resettle in Rock Hill.

Members of Rock Hill’s St. Anne Catholic Church, where Wahl served as longtime pastor, rallied around the idea, buying and renovating a home for the immigrants and welcoming them, said member Joe Berger.

In the years that followed, many more Vietnamese immigrants came to Rock Hill, eventually forming a strong core in the church.

Wahl, 86, died Saturday after 69 years at The Oratory in Rock Hill, where he also had served as a provost. He was preceded in death by his two brothers, the Revs. Richard Wahl and Ed Wahl, both priests who also served as longtime Oratorians.

“As someone just said yesterday, the last of the Wahls are gone,” said Berger, a church member for more than 40 years. “Everybody used to talk about how the three Wahls supported this community. And they did indeed.”

Ed was the first, coming from Pennsylvania in 1935, and later starting St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Crawford Road as The Oratory started a ministry for the black residents. Richard followed in 1941, and Joseph came in 1947.

Unlike diocesan priests, who are moved to a new parish by a Catholic bishop every few years, Oratorian priests are residents of the Rock Hill campus for life, Berger said. “You really get to know the person,” he said.

Berger described Joseph Wahl as loving, concerned, pious and personable.

“Father Joseph was the most outspoken,” Berger said. “He would always express himself. If you asked him a question, he would seldom give you a short answer. It was sometimes more than you wanted to hear.”

Richard and Ed Wahl both served in the military as chaplains, but Joseph Wahl found fulfillment in his Rock Hill ministry.

“God knew what He was doing when He called me to be a priest at the Rock Hill Oratory,” Joseph Wahl wrote in an autobiography on The Oratory web site.

“I have felt very fulfilled in my priestly ministry and feel appreciated and loved by the many I’ve literally grown up with,” Wahl wrote.

Wahl wrote that he studied to be a priest at St. Mary’s College in Kentucky for four years, three years at St. Meinard Seminary in Indiana and three more years at the Catholic University of America. He also taught theology at Belmont Abbey in Belmont, N.C., and The Oratory.

Thi Le, a St. Anne member who came from Vietnam to North Carolina on a separate journey, said the refugee group brought by Wahl included about 20 members of the Phan family, one of whom she later married.

“Forty-one years ago, who would have thought about bringing in some refugees, and then feeding them, clothing them and guiding them, and teaching them the language and the lifestyle?” she said.

Thi Le said the family often called on Wahl for help. “There were many people that made that possible,” she said. “But it was the leadership of Father Joseph that made it happen. He embraced us.”

David Boone, who joined The Oratory as a brother in 1951 and attended seminary with Joseph Wahl, said Wahl also led marriage retreats and supported local charities including Pilgrims’ Inn and Project Hope.

“He just had a driving force to keep plugging away and doing things,” Boone said. “If he saw something that wasn’t being done, he’d pitch in and work on it. He was dedicated. He had tons of enthusiasm.”

Pilgrims’ Inn founder Tricia Kuhlkin said Richard Wahl and later Joseph Wahl supported her idea to create the Rock Hill charity to help the poor.

Kuhlkin said Joseph Wahl was supportive of her and her five children during the illness of her husband, Bob, who died at 38. During the illness, when Bob was not working, she said, their Volkswagen broke down.

Joseph Wahl must have heard about the breakdown, Kuhlkin said, because she was told to go to a Volkswagen dealership, where a new car was waiting.

Kuhlkin said she called Wahl and insisted on paying for the car, though he told her it wasn’t necessary. Kuhlkin said she paid as much as she could each month.

When Bob died about a year and a half later, Kuhlkin received a letter from Joseph Wahl with all the money she had paid him for the car.

“The children and you have been through so much,” Kuhlkin recalled Wahl’s note said. “Go on a vacation.”

She and her five children drove to California, she said, “and we just had a wonderful time.”

Kuhlkin said Wahl was driven by what his heart told him to do rather than following a book of rules. “He was just a good, good man,” she said. “God certainly put the right man in our lives at the right time.”

Visitation will be 5 to 6 p.m. Friday at St. Anne Catholic Church, with a 6 p.m. vigil service followed by a reception at the Family Life Center. A funeral Mass will be 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Anne. Wahl will be buried beside his brother Oratorians in a private ceremony at Laurelwood Cemetery in Rock Hill.

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077