Watching Msgr. Gerard J. Gefell take flying lessons in the 1940s left a lasting impression on young Bill Aman, then a camper at Auburn’s Camp Columbus, which at the time was affiliated with St. Alphonsus Church.
“As a boy of 13, I looked up and there was his plane flying over doing aerobatics,” Father Amann recalled. “I said, ‘I want to be a priest like that.'”
Msgr. Gefell, 93, who served for 26 years as a U.S. Army chaplain, died Feb. 6, 2009, at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Watertown, where he had lived since August of 2007.
He served in the military at the same time as his twin brother and fellow chaplain, the late Msgr. Joseph Gefell, who died in 2001. The brothers were identical twins and had parallel careers; they were ordained priests of the Rochester Diocese June 7, 1941. As chaplains in the U.S. Army, they both earned the rank of colonel and parachuted out of airplanes to minister to the Army’s paratroopers. Both were selected to be domestic prelates with the title of monsignor in 1967. And at the end of their careers, the brothers retired to Cape Vincent in the Diocese of Ogdensburg, where they lived for many years on a farm and spent their time fixing it up, fishing and entertaining their fellow priests.
Born Oct. 28, 1915, the brothers grew up in St. Michael Parish in Rochester and attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester.
Msgr. Gerard Gefell served as assistant pastor at St. Alphonsus Parish in Auburn (1941-42 and 1942-43); Immaculate Conception, Ithaca (1942); and St. Michael Parish, Newark (1943-48).
In 1948, he was commissioned in the Army Chaplaincy and began active duty at Ft. Monmouth, N.J., and the U.S. Army Chaplain School, Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
During his military career, he was stationed in Stuttgart and Heidelberg, Germany; Osan, Korea; Saigon, Vietnam; and New York, Kansas, California, Alaska, Virginia, North Carolina and Hawaii.
He served as a top chaplain, including service with the Deputy Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, in 1965 and 1966; chaplain for the U.S. Army Vietnam corps-level support group from 1968-69 and as Catholic Vicar Delegate for all military Catholics of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand; and command chaplain of the entire U.S. Army of the Pacific from 1971 until his retirement from active duty in 1974.
He became an Army paratrooper in 1958 with the 82nd Airborne Division, and during his military career earned the Master Parachutist Badge and completed 101 jumps.
During his two tours of duty in Vietnam, Msgr. Gefell earned a Legion of Merit with an oak leaf cluster — signifying that he had twice earned the Army’s fifth-highest award. He also earned numerous other citations, including the Bronze Star, the Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal with two oak-leaf clusters.
Msgr. Gefell rose through the ranks quickly in part because of the leadership he displayed, said Father James Kennedy, who served with him in Vietnam and who is now the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in North Syracuse.
“If you show you are a leader, that counts more than anything else,” Father Kennedy said.
After retiring from the Army, Msgr. Gefell served as pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, Ontario, from 1974-76. He later served as assistant at St. Lawrence in Greece and St. Andrew in Rochester before his retirement.
Msgr. Gefell also was an accomplished private-pilot instructor in instrument flying. He was a charter member of the National Association of Priest Pilots. Father Amann said it was Msgr. Gefell’s aerial acrobatics that convinced him to talk to the priest about a priestly vocation.
“He gave me a book The Considerate Priest,” Father Amann said. “It was a heavy book for a 13-year-old, but I plowed through it and finished it.”
Msgr. Gefell then took him to meet with the rector of St. Andrew’s Seminary, formerly the minor seminary for the Diocese of Rochester.
Father Amann remembered Msgr. Gefell as gentle, knowledgeable, affable and a good listener. Though he and his twin brother were identical, Msgr. Gerard Gefell had a personality that was distinct from that of his brother, Father Amann said.
“If you got to know them, you could tell them apart,” Father Amann said. “Joe was more serious, and Gerry was more of a fun guy.”
Msgr. Gefell is survived by his nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews. He lay in state Feb. 11, 2009, at Christ the King Church, Irondequoit, where a funeral Mass followed later that day, with Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general, presiding. Interment was in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.