The Rev. Joseph H. Kraker seems to always find a song — with just the right lyrics — to help illustrate the point of his sermons.
So, it is fitting that as he looks back over the 49 years of his priesthood, he recites the lyrics of Mahalia Jackson’s If I Can Help Somebody, hoping they reflect what his legacy will be.
“If I can help somebody, as I pass along; if I can cheer somebody, with a word or song; if I can show somebody, how they’re traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain. If I can do my duty, as a good man ought; if I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought; if I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught, then my living shall not be in vain,” recalled Kraker, who is retiring as pastor of Akron’s St. Vincent de Paul Parish, effective June 9.
The people in the parish community have come to know Kraker as a good man who is dedicated to helping anyone in need. As they prepare for his departure, they echo sentiments of love for all that he has done to help them grow spiritually.
“He has such a warm, inviting personality and an amazing storytelling ability that helps the kids — and us adults — embrace their faith and make better sense of what it all means. He truly lives his faith and is a great example of how to live a Christian life,” said Pierre Ferrer, after attending Kraker’s final all-school Mass this week.
Ferrer is a 1984 graduate of St Vincent Elementary School who (along with his wife, Sonji) has three children currently enrolled at the school — Tristan, 5; Marcel, 7 and Dominique, 13.
“Father Kraker has had a tremendous impact on this parish,” Ferrer said. “It’s difficult to put into words how much he means to this parish, but I can tell you that he will be sorely missed.”
Kraker came to the parish in Akron’s West Hill community 18 years ago. Under his leadership, the parish built a new family center, which includes a gymnasium; razed the old high school and convent buildings; cleaned the surface of the church building, which had been dirtied by industrial smoke; installed air conditioning and expanded the school and playground.
Eileen Halaiko, who is now retired, worked as the parish secretary during most of Kraker’s tenure as pastor of St. Vincent. She describes him as a man who exudes peace.
“He is very pastoral. I never saw him get angry or rattled about anything. No matter who comes to him and no matter what comes across his desk, he just says ‘OK’ and deals with it,” said Halaiko, who along with her husband, Stephen, has been a parishioner at St. Vincent for nearly 38 years. “There’s just something special about him. He has a kind heart. He sees a need and he finds a way to meet it.”
Both Halaiko and her husband agree that Kraker has a knack for saying something they need to hear during each of his homilies. They said that the songs he shares in his rich baritone voice enhance his delivery.
“We’ve been very blessed to have him here for as long as we have. He’s built a rich tradition of reaching out to the community and building relationships with other faith groups in the community through his affiliation with the West Hill clergy association,” Stephen Halaiko said. “He’s just a great man of faith and it is evident in the way he meets people and greets people.”
Kraker has helped develop relationships in the neighborhood via his three-mile daily walks with his canine companion, Minnie. The mixed lab is the third rescued dog that Kraker has owned since coming to St. Vincent.
“When I’m out, people will come up and ask if they can pet the dog and many times that leads to a conversation,” Kraker said. “Over the years, Minnie, Vinnie and Timmie have helped introduce me to a lot of people, which has helped me with a better understanding of the needs in the community.”
Kraker, an Akron native, grew up at neighboring St. Sebastian Parish. He and three of his classmates from the 1952 (eighth grade) graduating class of the church school – the late Rev. Francis C. LaRocca and the now retired Revs. William D. Karg and David L. McCafferty — were ordained priests on May 23, 1964.
Before his assignment as pastor at St. Vincent’s, Kraker spent 17 years as pastor of the former St. Timothy Parish in Garfield Heights. He also served as chaplain at the former Villa San Bernardo in Bedford and as assistant chancellor and director of communications in the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland offices. His first assignment as a priest was as associate pastor at St. Jude Parish in Elyria.
While serving in the diocesan offices, Kraker initiated the television Mass for shut-ins on Cleveland’s Channel 8. Kraker was the main celebrant for the TV Mass from the time it was established in 1968 until 1994. He has also authored two books based on experiences with his previous dog, Vinnie.
Kraker reached the mandatory diocesan retirement age of 75 in March. Although he could have requested to continue serving in active ministry, he said that he knew it was time for a change. The Rev. Timothy J. O’Connor, who currently serves as pastor at St. Joseph Parish in Avon Lake, has been assigned as the new pastor at St. Vincent.
During his retirement, Kraker will live in a private residence and serve where he is needed in the diocese.
“There is no doubt that he has made our parish a better place. He knows how to break down barriers and bond with people,” said Harry A. Tipping, a local attorney and St. Vincent parishioner since 1969. “He’s just a likable, good guy who happens to be a priest. He’s the guy you can call on for anything and we’re going to miss him.”
A celebration to honor Kraker will be 4 to 7 p.m. June 2 in the St. Vincent Family Center gymnasium, 17 S. Maple St., Akron. Messages for Kraker can be posted on the church website (www.stvincentchurch.com) by clicking on the “Memories and Well-Wishes for Fr. Kraker” link.
“Leaving the parish is going to be difficult because I am going to miss the people and the community,” Kraker said. “But, as I leave, I certainly hope that I have done something to empower people to take their rightful place in the church, ministering to those in need.”
Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or email@example.com. She can be followed at https://twitter.com/ColetteMJenkins.