Senior priest discovered vocation after wounded in Korea
PRINCETON — As people gather to remember the men and women who fought and died for their country this week, one veteran of the Korean War continues to hold fast to the hope for peace.
“God’s objective is always peace and it should be ours,” Father Edward O. Harkrader told The Catholic Post last week. “We’re not going to conquer people but lead them in the ways of peace and truth. Otherwise you just make enemies.”
In addition to learning the ways of war and peace during the conflict that took him away from central Illinois between October 1951 to September 1953, Father Harkrader said he discovered a vocation to the priesthood. The invitation came with a bullet through the jaw on Dec. 7, 1952.
All alone in an ambulance, waiting to be transported to a mobile Army surgical hospital on that cold, dark night, the young sergeant first class heard God’s call.
“I never talk about it,” he said. “It was a very personal invitation.”
Father Harkrader admits that other people could see it before he did.
“Everybody came up to me to confess and talk about their problems,” he said about his time in the service. “It used to bug me. I said, ‘I’m not a priest. Go to the chaplain.'”
HE DIDN’T respond to the invitation immediately, however.
Born and raised in Peoria, Father Harkrader attended Washington Elementary School, Roosevelt Junior High School and Peoria Central High School before going on to Bradley University to study political science and international economics. “I wanted to go into the State Department and that’s what you had to have,” he explained.
Leadership school at Fort Knox, Ky., took the place of his studies at Bradley in 1951. That was followed by 13 weeks of non-commissioned associate basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., where Father Harkrader taught troop information education.
Sent overseas in September 1952, he was in combat a week after his arrival. Assigned to be a forward observer with what had been the 33rd Division of the California National Guard, he was stationed on the east side of Heartbreak Ridge.
“The forward observer is at the highest point. Everybody could see where I was,” Father Harkrader explained. “A lot of times it was trench warfare. I was directing fire, but I had to figure out how to move it from one point to the next.
“That’s why I was taken down — to get rid of me,” he said.
WHILE THE bullets came at him fast, Father Harkrader remembers everything happening in slow motion. He had his head under his poncho to stay warm and saw the bullet that penetrated the garment — and his jaw.
He was told that any deviation and it would have severed his spine instead.
After about a week he was back on line, doing what he had done before.
Learning that he was targeted by a communist spy, he arranged to have the man killed and removed as a threat. Instantly remorseful because he hadn’t given the man a chance to come to know God and seek salvation, Father Harkrader resolved to pray for him every day and did for 14 years.
He stopped during his days at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Conception, Mo.
“I turned down the invitation (to the priesthood) for 10 years. The Lord did not stop bugging me,” Father Harkrader said, noting that he had been working in advertising and public relations after earning his master’s degree from Bradley in 1956. “I finally said, ‘All right, I’ll go to the seminary to prove that I’m not supposed to be a priest.'”
IT DIDN’T take long for him to realize he was in the right place, but when he started studying theology he decided he couldn’t go on.
“I could not live with myself. I had caused this man’s death. I decided to go to the office and tell them I was leaving,” Father Harkrader told The Post.
As he sat in the cold, he heard a voice telling him, “You need no longer pray for me. From now on I’ll pray for you.”
“He’s always been praying,” Father Harkrader said. “That’s why I stayed in the seminary. That’s why I’m in the priesthood. It’s been a tremendous blessing. Otherwise I would not be here.”
Ordained by Bishop John B. Franz on June 7, 1969, in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Father Harkrader served as parochial vicar at St. Paul’s in Macomb, and Holy Family in Oglesby before being named pastor of St. Anthony’s in Matherville in 1979. While he was there he supervised the construction of the church and stayed long enough to burn the mortgage.
He was pastor at St. Louis Parish in Princeton from 1988 until he was granted senior priest status in 2001. While he was there a parish hall was built that bears his name.
EVEN THOUGH he’s dealing with his second bout of cancer, Father Harkrader says he enjoys every day and has had “a wonderful, wonderful life.”