Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

May 16, 2013

Community turns to Franciscan decades after death

Bill Grimes Daily News
Effingham Daily News

---- — TEUTOPOLIS — While Brother Simon Van Ackeren was only in Teutopolis a short time before his death from tuberculosis at age 20, local Catholic youth born decades after his death ask him for intercession.

Lisa Siemer, the director of Christian education at St. Francis of Assisi, says the members of her youth group have “adopted” the late Franciscan brother as their patron, even though he has never been formally beatified or canonized as a saint.

“As Catholics, we ask for the intercession of saints,” Siemer said. “We have taken Brother Simon as our patron and asked the kids to pray to him for the success of our Catholic Heart Work Camp.”

According to a book written by the Rev. Philip Marquard, a Franciscan priest, Lawrence Van Ackeren was born Feb. 17, 1918, in the tiny east-central Nebraska town of Humphrey. The seventh of 12 children, Lawrence was known as Curly or Van to his friends.

Father Marquard notes that Curly wanted to become a Franciscan priest. But after it was determined that he didn’t have the academic skill to go through the demanding curricula required of aspiring priest, he opted to become a lay brother and sent to Teutopolis for a sort of tryout in early 1937.

Lawrence Van Ackeren became Brother Simon on March 2, 1937. Father Marquard records that the young brother soon became a fixture in the Teutopolis Franciscan community.

“He worked like a beaver, smiling all the day long,” the priest wrote.

But disaster struck for the young brother in early 1938, when his ankle began hurting. At first, it was believed Brother Simon had torn a ligament playing basketball years earlier. But it turned out to be worse than a simple torn ligament.

After a trip to St. Louis for diagnosis, Brother Simon learned he had tuberculosis of the bone. When he returned to Teutopolis, his ankle was in a cast and he was reduced to limping along on crutches.

But Father Marquard reports that the young brother continued to work hard at the seminary until the TB spread throughout his body. He died May 10, 1938, in the old St. Anthony Hospital.

Father Marquard wrote that Brother Simon’s superiors recognized early on that his spirit was unusual. Still, 75 years after his death, no formal application for beatification or canonization has been made.

Sister-in-law Mary Jo Van Ackeren, who married Lawrence’s late brother Francis, said Brother Simon would probably tell anybody seeking to gain him formal recognition to forget about it.

“I don’t know whether he would want it,” said Mrs. Van Ackeren. “He was very humble.”

While young Mary Jo didn’t become acquainted with the Van Ackeren family until after Brother Simon’s death, she remembers that family members characterized young Lawrence as someone who preferred helping his mother in the house than working out on the farm.

“Lawrence was very tight with his mother,” she said. “He wasn’t one to play with his brothers. He wanted badly to belong to the Franciscans.”

While the 84-year-old said she probably won’t live to see Brother Simon receive formal recognition for his spiritual feats, she believes more can be done in the young man’s memory.

“He was such a good example for today’s youth,” she said. “I do think more should be done. Brother Simon is definitely worthy of a little recognition.”

While Brother Simon is well-known as an intercessor in financial matters, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that miracles associated with most modern-day saints are health-related. Those promoting sainthood for a servant of the church must be able to document one miracle for beatification, or blessing, and a second miracle for canonization, or sainthood. However, no one can currently document a specific occurrence of one related to Brother Simon.

The Rev. Vernon Olmer, associate pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, grew up in Humphrey and knew some of the younger Van Ackeren siblings.

“We knew he was a very good religious person who bore his cross in a heroic way,” Olmer said. “It would certainly be a feather in our province to have him declared blessed, or a saint.”

Meanwhile, Brother Simon continues to lie at rest in the mausoleum directly east of of St. Francis church.

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, or bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com.