Wissel remembered as passionate educator and giver

Msgr. Frank Wissel, the longtime pastor at St. Mary's Parish is being remembered by his congregants as a dedicated and passionate pastor.

Msgr. Frank Wissel, the longtime pastor at St. Mary’s Parish is being remembered by his congregants as a dedicated and passionate pastor.

Frank Wissel, the longtime monsignor of St. Mary’s Parish, has died, leaving a community in mourning.

Msgr. Wissel, who had been at St. Mary’s since 1997, died last Thursday night, just days after he had officially retired from his position at the Greenwich Avenue church. Mr. Wissel had just moved into The Nathaniel Witherell as a resident where he had been expected to take an active role in religious service.

Funeral services were held on Tuesday with a burial in what is known as the Priests’ Circle at St. Mary Cemetery in Greenwich.

He was remembered by members of the congregation as someone with a lifelong passion for education. He was the founder and director of the St. Maximilian Kolbe House of Studies for Boys, which he established in Bridgeport in 1983 as a place to educate young men in a family setting, “who have a strong desire to learn and to be honest and good citizens.”

The impact of that place has been felt throughout the area and one of the students there, Javier Ortiz, ended up working as Msgr. Wissel’s assistant for 11 years after college. Mr. Ortiz told the Post this week that he knew Msgr. Wissel for 22 years and that when his friend asked for his help, he was eager to give it to him just like he had when he was a boy in need of guidance and mentorship. He said he treasured the years they worked together and all the time they knew each other.

“Working with him was a way of paying it forward,” Mr. Ortiz said. “What better way to do it than by going to the source that provided help to me. I saw his work first-hand and I wanted to be a part of his magic. It was very rewarding.”

Msgr. Wissel was 76 years old at the time of his death. Just last month a marble statue of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal was unveiled at St. Mary’s and dedicated to Msgr. Wissel in appreciation for his 17 years of service as pastor. Bishop Frank Caggiano, head of the Diocese of Bridgeport, which includes Greenwich, appeared at the ceremony and, in a statement to the Post, said that there was a great deal of sadness throughout the church for his loss as well as an “outpouring of praise” for his performance as pastor.

“I recently had the honor of blessing a statute of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, donated in his honor and placed outside of the church on the occasion of Msgr. Wissel’s retirement,” Bishop Caggiano said. “The strong affection and gratitude that parishioners felt for him was unmistakable and, I’m sure, a source of consolation in his final illness. Msgr. Wissel’s many friends remember him as a man of great spirit, faith and optimism, and a natural bridge builder who brought people together. He never forgot the poor and constantly inspired others to give to those in need.”

As people mourned his passing, Bishop Caggiano asked that Msgr. Wissel “be remembered in prayers and that his good work live in the hearts of all those who knew him and were blessed by his joyful presence.”

Mr. Ortiz said the “magic” that Msgr. Wissel showed was evident through the joy he brought to his work and the example he set for others, many of whom needed the positive guidance.

“He was a beacon of hope for me and others,” Mr. Ortiz said. “He was the light at the end of the tunnel during those times when you didn’t always think that you could see it. He did so much through education and by inspiring joy in others. When people came to him with issues and personal problems he was always there for them during those troubled times. He was a miracle worker with the simple things he did whether it was through a hug or a teddy bear.”

But Mr. Ortiz said despite rising to the level of monsignor, Msgr. Wissel still stood out for his humility, something that he said came from him waiting a bit longer than others to join the priesthood.

“He was who he was as a person before he became a priest,” Mr. Ortiz said. “He knew what it was like to work for a paycheck and pay the bills and how to live the life of a regular person. He understood all that and when he heard the calling he brought that with him. He was a monsignor but he wasn’t a man who was only about his titles. He was a father and a friend and a mentor. He was someone who was always looking out for others. Even near the end when people brought him good wishes he would say, ‘Don’t pray for me. I will pray for you.’”

Prior to his death, St. Mary’s parishioner Christina McAleer was effusive in her praise of Msgr. Wissel, calling him a “living saint” and saying his impact was felt beyond the church and throughout town.

“Msgr. Frank has been a terrific member of the Greenwich community,” Mrs. McAleer told the Post. “His kind compassionate way has made a real difference in the lives of countless children, adults and the elderly. Msgr. Frank’s ‘good works’ were not only for those most ‘in need’ in our community, but the poorest of the poor, the uneducated, the sick and the abandoned worldwide. He is a shining example to all of our responsibility to take care of those in need.”

A close friend of Msgr. Wissel, Mrs. McAleer added that he was someone who provided an example of the virtues he preached.

“Msgr. Frank had a heart of gold and lived the Gospel message every day of his priestly life,” Mrs. McAleer said. “He was an inspiration to all who knew him. One of my favorite quotes of his was ‘God has given us the Bible. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper. We have a choice, being blessed with many things, but unless we share them with the needy, all is for nothing.’”

Msgr. Peter Cullen, of St. Michael’s Church in Greenwich, had a friendship with him dating back decades to 1977 when Msgr. Wissel, before he was officially a priest, was assigned as a deacon to the church in inner-city Bridgeport that Msgr. Cullen headed. Speaking to the Post this week, as he was working on a homily about his friend’s impact, Msgr. Cullen recalled that difficult time for the city as the summer saw riots, arson and murder inside the area where the church was and said it showed both his friend’s dedication and his humor.

“I remember saying to him, ‘Hey Frank, it’s getting pretty dangerous around here. You don’t have to stick around,’ and he just looked at me and went, ‘I’m from Brooklyn, this is nothing,’” Msgr. Cullen said, before recalling the years of service they had together both in Bridgeport and then again in Greenwich. The two men were part of a regular prayer group of priests who would meet twice a month to discuss what was happening in their parishes and Msgr. Cullen said he and Msgr. Wissel made a point of getting together for dinner every Sunday night, typically at Luca’s Steakhouse in Greenwich.

“We were close friends and when I think about him I will always remember his dedication to the needy,” Msgr. Cullen said.  “He was always there for them. If he saw someone who needed help, he gave it to them, automatically.”

But there was another side to him that his friend was also quick to recall.

“I’ll miss his jokes,” Msgr. Cullen said. “He could joke around like nobody’s business.”

Bishop Caggiano has named Father Cyprian LaPastina, formerly pastor of Saint Gabriel Parish in Stamford and a former parochial vicar at Saint Mary’s, as the new pastor at St. Mary Parish. Extended coverage of Msgr. Wissel’s passing is in this week’s edition of the Post as his obituary is here and a column from Joe Pisani pays him tribute.

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