Smithton Priest Taking Leave to Address Challenges

By George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer
Belleville News-Democrat
January 26, 2011

SMITHTON -- Parishioners of St. John the Baptist Parish were told during Mass on Sunday that their pastor was on a "temporary leave of absence," that might become permanent.

According to parishioners and a copy of a one-page letter from the Rev. John McEvilly, vicar general of the Belleville Diocese, parishioners learned that the Rev. Gerald R. Hechenberger had removed himself from ministry to "... address the very serious personal, pastoral and legal challenges that he is currently facing."

In a letter published in Sunday's bulletin on the parish's website Tuesday, Hechenberger wrote that he was struggling with depression, taking medication and having difficulty ministering to his parishioners.

"The medicines the doctors have me on make me very tired and some days it is a struggle to just get out of bed. As a consequence, I don't feel that I am giving you the amount of pastoral care that you deserve," the letter stated.

Hechenberger could not be reached for comment.

McEvilly's letter also stated, "In the present climate, it is important for you to know that the serious matters we are addressing do not involve the abuse of a minor."

Hechenberger wrote that he was not resigning, but taking a leave of absence.

"I told (Bishop Edward Braxton) that I would like to take some time off from my regular priestly duties and find a good counselor or wellness program to join," Hechenberger wrote.

McEvilly's letter did not have details about why Hechenberger left his post. Hechenberger was assigned as pastor of St. John's on July 1, 2006.

The decision to allow Hechenberger to leave his parish occurred after a meeting between the priest and Braxton, who could not be reached for comment. He normally maintains a policy of not responding to local media.

The letter concluded, "It will probably be several months before it can be determined when or if Father Hechenberger will be able to return to parish ministry."

McEvilly could not be reached for comment.

Checks of court records in the six counties, including St. Clair County where Hechenberger has resided, did not turn up his name.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at or 239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at or 239-2570.

Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.