One or two people have written in on the subject of Fr Gregor Hesse (1953-2006). The bare bones of this priest’s life inform us that he was born in Vienna (Austria) and studied at the Angelicum in Rome to earn doctorates in theology and canon law. He was ordained a priest by Archbishop Aurelio Sabattani in St. Peter’s Basilica, officially incardinated in the Diocese of Wagga Wagga in Australia through the good offices and wrangling of a Czech bishop in Rome helping traditionalist seminarians who wanted an alternative to Archbishop Lefebvre’s seminary at Ecône. He worked as a secretary for Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler in the Vatican Secret Archives.
He lived for many years in the USA as an independent traditionalist priest and died from diabetes in 2006, aged 53. Rad Trad published an interesting article on him in November 2014. As I knew him in Rome in 1985-86 – we called him Don Gregorio – Rad Trad’s write-up seems fair. I also spent a week with him in 1990, because I was employed as a sacristan at St Augustine’s chapel in Lausanne during my last year of studies at Fribourg, and he was asked to come and celebrate Holy Week. That was quite an experience!
This chapel is now run by the Fraternity of St Peter, and is certainly the better for it.
Fr Gregor’s talk was rather “hard” and lacked diplomacy of any kind. It did not, however, lack humour. Sometimes his language was extremely harsh – … questo stronso di Paulo Sesto, which I will leave untranslated for the benefit of English-speaking readers. His doctrinal position was something more or less between Archbishop Lefebvre and the sedevacantists.
He was at one time running a kind of “rat line” to get traditionalist seminarians ordained through the official Church and within canonical norms. Don Gregorio seems to have been the origin of a group of priests associated with the chapel in Lausanne I mentioned above. This group found various ways to claim the title of Canon, and two of them were the founders of the Institute of Christ the King in Italy, dressed up to the nines in blue robes. In 1990, the priest in charge of the chapel in Lausanne had been asked to leave by the local Bishop and later ended his own life in France in shameful circumstances. I was asked in the spring of that year to look after the chapel by the lay owners of the chapel, and welcomed visiting priests who celebrated Mass for us. A kind of ecclesiastical Scarlet Pimpernel, Don Gregorio knew the right people in Rome, Bishop Pavel Hnilica in particular, and it would appear that he set up the Institute of Christ the King through the Diocese of Mouïla in Gabon. At some stage, there would have been a parting of the ways between Fr Hesse and Fr Wach as the former became more radical and the latter more conciliatory with the authorities in Rome.
When I knew Fr Gregor in Switzerland, he spoke excellent English with an American accent and spoke highly of his life in the USA. He strongly sympathised with American conservative politics. He taught me during that Holy Week of 1990 how to taste good red wine and all about steam railway locomotives and trams in cities like his native Vienna and Zurich. His vocal imitations of steam locomotives were quite realistic and he was still a small boy at heart. He was also a fan of the Munsters and often hummed the theme tune as he went about life:
Don Gregorio was indeed an eccentric character between a very strict, scholastic and legalistic kind of Roman Catholicism, his love of red wine, The Munsters, steam trains and city trams. His clerical dress and manner betrayed a certain nostalgia for the baroque era of the Latin and central European world. He was quite a character when one got him talking about the railways in Austria with the old steam trains! Even I don’t get that crazy about sailing boats! In terms of red wine and cooking, he was to the priesthood what Rossini was to the opera. Perhaps he felt a need to stand out from the American melting pot and the more excessive conspiracy theorists and religious nutcases in the USA! I lived for more than two years in the equally eccentric seminary at Gricigliano, an egg that was hatched from the same clutch. It all probably gave me my own unusual outlook on life.
Oooooph! Ooooooph! Ooooooph! Choooooo! Chooooo! Cheers…