By LISA RIDDER
Next June, Rev. Father Richard Goellen of Fargo will have spent the last 60 years of his life as a Roman Catholic priest with the Catholic Diocese of Fargo. But Goellen’s service extends even further. For more than half the time he was a priest, he was also serving our country as a member of the U.S. Army.
“Everyone asks me how I will celebrate it, and honestly, I am uncertain at this point,” he said. “My 50th (Golden Jubilee) consisted of three separate events, celebrating having served God and country in North Dakota, Colorado and the United States Army. It was a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.”
The celebratory events were held three consecutive weekends in June 2013. They were held in Valley City, N.D., Fort Meyer, Va., and Trinidad, Colo., respectively. They were celebrations of faith, family and friendships, and service to God and country.”
“I am definitely blessed to have been a priest for almost 60 years, but I was equally as blessed to have served 34 years in the U. S. Army, which does not include five years in the Army Reserve prior to active duty,” he said.
Because Goellen’s military service was simultaneous to his commitment as a priest, his military orders were often in one way or another in the capacity of military chaplain. In fact, all 12 of Chaplain Goellen’s duty assignments, across the United States and Europe, had to be approved by the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo.
Goellen was born in Oakes, N.D., and raised in nearby Cogswell.
“My dad owned a Conoco gas station and it was attached to the house, so I grew up pumping gas and changing tires.”
After graduating high school in 1955, he enrolled at North Dakota Agricultural College (NDAC), which later became North Dakota State University (NDSU). After witnessing a cousin’s ordination, his educational direction changed.
“While I was a student at NDAC, my parents and I attended the ordination of my cousin, Fr. Chuck Tobin in Missouri,” said Goellen. “I returned to NDAC and finished the academic year, but I wasn’t truly happy. The idea of being a priest started to slowly eat away at me, little by little.”
He completed one year at NDAC and then transferred to St. John’s University, in Collegeville, Minn., in the fall. He obtained a BA Degree in 1959, then attended seminary and graduated with an MA Degree in Divinity in 1963.
“I believe to love without measure, that is the measure of love. It is also the measure of the priesthood,” said Goellen.
On June 1, 1963, he answered a call from God and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest for the Catholic Diocese of Fargo. He spent seven years as the associate pastor of St. Catherine’s Church, Valley City, and St. Mary’s Cathedral, in Fargo, and taught at the Catholic schools in both communities.
Then he felt another calling...
“I had a friend who was a priest and he was in the Army Reserves,” he said. “He encouraged me to consider joining the Reserves, and I eventually did. I was in the Army Reserves for five years before I entered active duty as an Army Chaplain in 1970,” he said. “While I was at St. Mary’s, I was a liaison with the Fargo VA.”
He also assisted with death notifications in the region.
“Over the years, I assisted with many, many death notifications, and they were really sober moments. It all made me realize that there was a great need of support for the families and fellow soldiers,” he said. “I believe strongly that both being a priest and joining the Army were simply me recognizing and answering God’s call. I always believed that was what I was meant to do. I believe everyone has a calling, something we’re meant to do or be a part of.”
While his family was supportive in his move to the military, they did have some reservations.
“I think my parents often questioned why I joined the military, and my sisters both saw that as well,” he said. “They never really questioned me directly. I always knew if I did join the military, I would join the Army. My dad and my grandfather were both in the Army, as were others close to me, and it just made sense that it would be the Army.”
About eight months after he joined the Army, he was sent to Vietnam. He was stationed there with the 2/5 Cavalry and 229th Aviation Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, as the Battalion Chaplain.
“They were combat infantry battalions and I went where they went,” he said. “There were times in Vietnam when I wondered why the heck am I here, am I really doing any good. It was all very sobering.”
Like many who served in Vietnam, he prefers not to talk in detail about his time there.
“I do remember Christmas, having a pilot and helicopter available to me, covering a lot of territory across Vietnam just so I could hold Christmas services,” said Goellen. “I held approximately 17 different services that Christmas. I was there about a year, but it was a busy year, as there were not many priests in the military.”
Even with his time in Vietnam, he never questioned his decision to join the service or felt that it was ever a mistake.
“I truly enjoyed the camaraderie of the soldiers, he said. It’s my personal belief that the greatest creature on earth is the American Solider,” he said. “I really believe being a military chaplain is what God wanted me to do. I believe it was my calling and I answered it.”
He also enjoyed the opportunity to be stationed across the United States and Europe. Two of his favorite assignments were in Germany.
“I was Chief of Chaplaincy Operations and Deputy Command Chaplain U. S. Army Europe and Seventh Army, Heidelberg, Germany. I also enjoyed my assignment as the Retreat Mater, Armed Forces Retreat Center, in Berchtesgaden, Germany. It was in the Bavarian Mountains. I learned to ski and some mountaineering tricks. I was the Assistant Chaplain and Division Chaplain of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.
Did he have to jump out of planes?
“Yes, I did learn to jump out of planes,” he said with a chuckle. “It was fun and I enjoyed it.”
In 1994, Chaplain Goellen officially retired from the Army... sort of.
“I then served as the Chancellor of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, working extensively in the areas of diocesan and parish pastoral planning, and as a facilitator in lay leadership training and parish council development,” he said. “I later served as the auxiliary chaplain at Ft. Carson, Colo., Peterson Air Force Base and the Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy, all located near Colorado Springs, Colo..”
In 2003, he was recalled to active duty. He was assigned to Ft. Gordon, Georgia, where he served as Senior Catholic Chaplain and Pastor and Installation Command Chaplain until 2005. He accepted a second recall, serving as the Catholic Pastor and Command Chaplain of Ft. Carson, Colorado, until retiring a second and final time on Aug. 31, 2008. His rank at the time of retirement was that of Colonel or “Full Bird Colonel,” as it is often referred to, because the insignia for a Colonel is the eagle.
As busy as he was, he found time to further his education.
“I have a BA degree and a MA of Divinity from St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn.,” he said. “I also have a MA from Fordham University in Bronx, New York, another MA from Regis University, Denver, Colorado, which was in Community Leadership Development. I am also a graduate of the resident course of the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, and of the resident course of the U. S. Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.”
Goellen’s hobbies included pheasant and grouse hunting, and learning to fly an airplane. “Since I am a priest, my demands and schedule have always been very different from that of many of my friends and family, so I gravitated towards things I could do and enjoy on my own.”
Today Goellen is mostly retired, but still helps with confessions, communion, and other duties within the church. He likes to travel to see friends and family. He sold his ranch in Colorado, but still has his hunting cabin in western North Dakota and retreats there whenever he gets a chance. He is also working on a book about his life history, which he wishes he would have started on a long time ago.
If he had his life to do over, would he change anything or do anything differently?
“As is the case of most retired people as they age, I am faced with the fact that the end of life is getting closer,” he said. “However, I can honestly say I did what I believe I was called to do and I have no regrets. There’s a favorite phrase I have that sums up how I have tried to live my life, and how I hope I will be remembered, he said. That phrases reads, “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it. For I shall not pass this way again.”