Divine Word College presents award to Rev. Ken Stecher
Three years ago, Rev. Ken Stecher had the opportunity to visit the homeland of many Bosnians who now live in Iowa. He traveled to villages that Bosnian immigrants called home before fleeing for their lives from the chaos and terror of civil war. It was a profoundly moving visit for a man who has worked tirelessly to welcome many of those Bosnians to America. Stecher says the land is beautiful though it still carries the scars of war.
Stecher is the 2004 recipient of the Matthew 25 Award from Divine Word College for his work with immigrants relocating in the Waterloo area. Stecher accepted the award during a banquet on Wednesday, March 17.
The Matthew 25 Award is presented annually to recognize those who are engaged in front-line ministries with the “least among us,” in the spirit of the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 25. Award recipients minister among immigrants and refugees, street people, AIDS victims, inner-city youth, prisoners—those who live at the margins of our society and still lack a public voice. “Through this award we want to demonstrate our support for men and women engaged in ministry and introduce our students to inspiring models of ministry,” said Rev. Michael Hutchins, SVD, Divine Word College President
While growing up in a large Catholic farm family, Stecher says his parish priest was a great influence on his decision to enter religious life. “Fr. Breitbach came to our parish the year I was born and was still there the year I was ordained. He had a great influence on my vocation. I saw the role he filled in the parish and I thought it would be a privilege (to serve a similar role.)”
Stecher is one of five children and grew up on a farm near Peosta, Iowa. He says the parish was one of the centers of family life. With the support of his family and the influence of Fr. Breitbach, Stecher answered the call and was ordained in 1968.
Since then, Stecher says, “The Lord has called me to many places.” Those “places” include 13 parishes and for the past 15 years Catholic Charities in Waterloo. Stecher is also pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Fairbank, Iowa, and is a social worker/counselor with Catholic Charities specializing in both marriage and individual counseling.
Just over six years ago, the national office of Catholic Charities notified the Waterloo office that they would be sponsoring Bosnian and Croatian refugees coming to live in the area. Stecher served a pivotal role in welcoming families and helping them get settled in their new home.
Stecher admits the work was challenging at first. “Many people came with nothing but what was in their suitcase. Many came with health problems. There were no translators in the beginning.”
Working closely with cooperating agencies in Waterloo, Stecher says he spent the first couple of years finding apartments, furnishings and taking people to medical appointments. The community was supportive and responded to Stecher’s request for furniture and other items useful to the immigrant families.
Catholic Charities co-worker Michelle Sprio nominated Stecher for the Matthew 25 Award. In her nomination, Sprio writes, “Fr. Ken spent about two years going around the area with his van collecting donated tables, beds, chairs and so on. Several times he took things from his own house, knowing that they needed the items more than he did.” In collecting items and finding living space, Stecher was conscious of maintaining the dignity of the immigrants. They take pride in their homes and want things to be presentable. “Nothing was new, but I just insisted that I wouldn’t give them anything I wouldn’t use or rent an apartment where I wouldn’t live.”
Stecher’s goal was always to help the immigrant families become self-sufficient. That meant helping the men find jobs and the children adjust to their new school environment.
Today, the result of his work is evident in how well the immigrant families have fit into the community. Families are now able to buy houses and cars. Many of the children are graduating from community college.
While his generosity is great, Stecher is humble about his work. “I was in the right place and had the right contacts to help these people. I have received more than I gave. This work opened my eyes to the needs of people on a very human level. Just being out there with the people I learned more than in any books.”