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By Therese Fink Meyerhoff

Father Richard Hadel, SJ

Father Richard Hadel was baptized by a Jesuit in a Jesuit parish. He went to a Catholic elementary school staffed by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When he was in the fourth grade, the provincial of the BVMs (as the religious are known), visited the school, took one look at Richard and said, “You’re going to be a priest.”

Eight years later, when he was a senior at Rockhurst High School, a Jesuit school in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo., he told one of the priests he wanted to be a Jesuit. He entered the Society of Jesus on Aug. 17, 1952, one week shy of his 17th birthday.

“I grew up in the Society,” he says now. “It wasn’t a bad place to grow up. They treated us like kids because we were kids.”

His entrance was a greater sacrifice for his parents, he recognizes now. At that time, families only saw their Jesuit sons about once a year.

“I didn’t go home for seven years, and that was only because I going to Belize,” Fr. Hadel said.

Father Hadel was in Belize City, Belize for three years (1959-62) as part of his formation. He returned in 1972, following his ordination to the priesthood and his Ph.D. studies at the University of Texas. He remained, teaching at St. John’s College in Belize City until 1981.

“I loved teaching high school,” he says. In addition to St. John’s College, he also taught at De Smet Jesuit High School and St. Louis University High School in St. Louis for seven and 12 years respectively.

On further consideration, he says he also loved working at White House Jesuit Retreat. “I’ve liked everything I’ve done so far,” he said, “except studying philosophy.”

He considers his time in Belize a “wonderful gift. It was eye opening and helped me in many, many ways. I got a view of poverty and another culture” – a culture he came to love and respect.

Fr. Dick Hadel, SJ, measures a Belizean child's foot for new shoes.
Fr. Dick Hadel, SJ, measures a Belizean child’s foot for new shoes.

It was perhaps respect that led him to create a Garifuna dictionary during his time in Belize in the 1970s. The Garifuna people are descended from Africans (mostly men) who escaped slavery. They intermarried with Carib and Arawak women and eventually settled in Central America. They were among the peoples impacted when the British colonized what is now Belize from the mid-19th century until its independence in 1981.

“As a result of colonization, both the Carib and the Creole people began to hold in low esteem their own cultures and languages, even their physical attributes,” Fr. Hadel said. “I wanted both the Caribs and the Creoles to know that their cultures were beautiful and worth celebrating.”

Father Hadel learned Garifuna while living in a Carib village for a year while gathering material for his doctoral dissertation in anthropology.

“I began to record the music they sang on Saturday nights, when they gathered around a campfire, playing guitars and making up their own songs,” he said. During the week, he spent four hours a day working with a Carib who taught him the language. He had a specific goal in mind with his lessons: “I got good enough to celebrate Mass in Garifuna.”

With the blessing of the bishop, he celebrated Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in Garifuna. It was the first time the people of the village had ever heard the Mass in their own language.

“A woman stopped after Mass and told me in Carib, ‘It went to my heart.’ I will never forget that.”

Father Hadel saw the boost this experience gave the Caribs, so, he began to teach students at St. John’s College about the value of their own languages and cultures, whether Carib or Creole. Some years earlier, Fr. John Stochl, SJ, had begun work on a Garifuna dictionary; now Fr. Hadel took up that work and expanded the dictionary to be more comprehensive. The dictionary was never published, but the Jesuits had 50 copies printed and sent to university libraries. It was one step toward recognizing the Garifuna language and culture as genuine, with deep historic roots.

Today, after 70 years in the Society of Jesus, Fr. Hadel has been doing some thinking about his life and what comes next.

“As I near the end of my life, I’m looking back,” he said. “I see a thread running through the whole thing: people have loved me, and it’s a reflection of God’s love. I see the work of God in my life like a symphony, and I am very grateful. Gratitude. That’s the theme that runs through my life.”

Read Fr. Hadel’s homily for the Jesuit Hall Jubilee Mass.