By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Retired Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia Martin N. Lohmuller, who is celebrating his 65th year of ordination as a priest on June 3, has been a bishop for the last 39 years.
As vicar general in curia under the late Cardinal John Krol, he was the Archbishop’s right hand, heavily involved in all the important events of the Archdiocese. Now living in retirement at St. Cyril of Jerusalem Parish, Jamison, and also looking to his 90th birthday in August, his personal assessment of his most important work was his role in the founding of a hospital and two parishes in the Diocese of Harrisburg, when, as a young priest, he was on extended loan to that diocese.
Born Aug. 21, 1919, the son of the late Martin and Mary (Doser) Lohmuller, he attended the former St. Henry School in North Philadelphia and went on to Northeast Catholic High School.
He’d begun thinking about the priesthood in about the sixth grade. Msgr. William Koenig, whose family lived a few doors away on the 4200 block of Fairhill Street, suggested he leave North after his sophomore year and enter what was then a minor seminary program at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
“If I had to do it over again I would have stayed in high school for the four years,” Bishop Lohmuller said.
At any rate, when he arrived at St. Charles he was the youngest of an incredible 490 seminarians then studying for the Philadelphia Archdiocese. An excellent student, he was ordained June 30, 1944, just shy of his 25th birthday and was immediately sent to the Catholic University of America for a doctorate in canon law.
After his return to Philadelphia in 1947, he taught for a year at the former St. James High School, Chester. This was followed by his temporary loan to Harrisburg where Bishop George Leech needed a canon lawyer to reorganize his tribunal.
His duties turned out to be much more involved than that, and the “temporary loan” stretched to 22 years.
While in the Harrisburg Diocese he was founding pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Marysville, and as such the first resident priest in Perry County. He also founded St. Bernadette Chapel in Duncannon, which later became a flourishing parish in its own right. “I really learned to be a priest in Harrisburg,” Bishop Lohmuller said.
His single greatest achievement during those Harrisburg years, in his own estimation, was leading the effort to establish Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill. “Planning began in 1953 and it opened in 1963,” Bishop Lohmuller said.
Today, it is a flourishing 332-bed community hospital, still run by the Sisters of Christian Charity. “Thank God it is still there and still has 25 sisters, “Bishop Lohmuller said. “I am so proud of it.”
Because Harrisburg is the seat of Pennsylvania state government, it has always been a focal point within Church and state dialogue. In an informal way, Father Lohmuller handled relations with the lawmakers but knew there was a need for a more organized effort. Through his urging, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) was founded in 1958 with William Ball as executive director. Bishop Lohmuller served the PCC in various capacities and was a member of the executive board for 25 years.
In February 1970, out of the blue, he received an extraordinary telegram from the Holy See. It notified him the Holy Father desired to appoint him as an auxiliary bishop for his home diocese of Philadelphia. There were coded instructions in Latin for him to wire back whether he accepted or refused the appointment. He accepted and was ordained bishop by Cardinal John Krol at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on April 2, 1970.
His choice of episcopal motto is telling -“Love, Fidelity, Peace.”
“Love and Peace was my first choice,” he said. “I added fidelity because so many people weren’t being faithful at that time, so many priests were leaving the priesthood.”
Working for Cardinal Krol in a position, which in corporate life would be equivalent to managing director, for the next 18 years was exhilarating. An early task was overseeing the planning and construction of the Archdiocesan Office Center, an efficient, unified building which replaced the hodgepodge of small buildings and converted houses which had served as office space over the previous century.
Another challenge was the International Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia in 1976.
“We had no instructions. The cardinal said, ‘Here, do it.’ It was a marvelous experience that exceeded all expectations,” he recalls.
Three years later, there was the Papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the largest Papal Mass in America up to that time.
More modest but nevertheless satisfying accomplishments were overseeing the founding of St. Martha Manor, the first Catholic nursing home in Chester County as well as the joint pastorship of Old St. Mary and temporarily unused Holy Trinity Parish. The latter, the first ethnic parish in America, was founded for German Catholics and leading it satisfied Bishop Lohmuller’s sense of his own German heritage.
Bishop Lohmuller and Cardinal Krol worked well together. “He always gave me respect and we became fast friends,” the Bishop said. “In my opinion he was one of the greatest churchmen I ever met. He lived for the Church and worked for the Church. He was a great man to have in Philadelphia.”
Bishop Lohmuller officially retired in 1994 at age 75, but nevertheless kept up a busy confirmation schedule for the next decade or so. Now he is enjoying a relatively quiet retirement in St. Cyril, and deservedly so. Ad Multos Annos.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.