Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Collar and the Gun

July 31, 2010

Book explores mysterious death of St. Cloud priest in Africa

By Frank Lee

It’s a real-life mystery involving the Catholic Church, exotic locations and intrigue, but if you think you know the whole story about the Rev. John Kaiser’s death, here comes another chapter.

A new book by Minnesota Rep. Dean Urdahl was recently released that coincides with the 10-year anniversary of Kaiser’s death in Kenya; Kaiser was a member of the St. Cloud diocese.

“It all started nine years ago. My wife and I were going on vacation to Florida, and I got on the airplane, looked down and saw on my seat a St. Paul newspaper, and staring up at me was the story on John Kaiser,” said Urdahl, a Republican from the Grove City area.

“The Collar and the Gun,” a 234-page softcover book from North Star Press of St. Cloud, was the result of that random sighting. The retired teacher based his book on Kaiser, who was found dead along a busy highway between Naivasha and Nairobi with a gunshot wound to the head.

“He was a Minnesotan who had gone to Africa, devoted 36 years of his life to missionary work and — in those last years — had run up against what he felt was injustice and corruption in the government — fought it — and the questions about how his life ended intrigued me,” Urdahl said.

Mysterious death

Kaiser received Kenya’s highest human rights honor in 2006 from the very same government the Perham native fought against — and some say died at the hands of. The 67-year-old’s death was ruled a suicide by the FBI and the Kenyan Criminal Investigation Division.

“Then they had an inquest into the killing, and the Odero Commission basically reversed the original inquest findings that Kaiser’s death was a suicide. They also listed persons of interest that they thought should be investigated ... but none of that has happened,” he said.

Before his death, Kaiser was an outspoken critic of the ethnic cleansing and distribution of Kenyan land in the East African country under the regime of former President Daniel arap Moi.

“I think that they would just assume it went away,” Urdahl said of the aftermath following the death of Kaiser, who shares the Milele (Lifetime) Achievement Award with Professor Wangari Maathai of Kenya, an environmentalist, activist and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

Kaiser was helping teenage girls who accused a Kenyan Cabinet member of sexual assault, but Kaiser died within a week of the scheduled court hearings.

“In fact, many of the most likely suspects of being directly involved (in Kaiser’s death) mysteriously died within a few years of John Kaiser,” said Urdahl, a graduate of St. Cloud State University.


The FBI’s report in 2001 referred several times to circumstantial evidence indicating Kaiser, a member of the Mill Hill Missionaries, had suffered from manic depression.

“I never met him. The only way I have come to know him is through my research, through my travels and through talking to people. I asked questions about what his voice sounded like or if he had any particular inflections or things that he said,” said Urdahl, a former coach.

There will be a Sept. 19 commemoration of Kaiser at the Cathedral of St. Mary in downtown St. Cloud. Guests will include Philip Anyolo of the Diocese of Homa Bay, Kenya, with a brief presentation on Kaiser.

“I had a priest say — when I asked how Kaiser walked — that Kaiser walked like a soldier, his shoulders back, striding forward. He was our John Wayne,” Urdahl said.

Urdahl and his wife, Karen, a St. Cloud native, went to Kenya in 2009 to do more research on his book, which can be described as a work of historical fiction because it includes dialogue that was conjecture, even though he tried to get the story as accurate as he could, he said.

“It was difficult, obviously, because I was writing about not only a man who I didn’t know and a country that I didn’t know. And, heck, I’m a Norwegian Lutheran,” said Urdahl, who is a member of the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs.

“Writing this book has made me more aware — in a more real sense — of the injustices in the world.”

Published book

The theory that Kaiser, a Roman Catholic priest, would have committed suicide is incomprehensible to those who knew him, such as his longtime friend, the Rev. William Vos, who arranged many of the interviews between Urdahl and key sources in Kenya.

“There are four or five possibilities as to how he died, and I chose one that I thought did the story that I was putting together the best, and also one that certainly many believe,” Urdahl said.

Vos, former director of the St. Cloud Mission Office of the Diocese of St. Cloud, approved of the book, according to Urdahl.

“I agreed to do sort of an edit, pre-publication, and then when the final result came out, I was very pleased with it. I think Dean captured the heart of the issues surrounding John’s life in Kenya. It did bring back some very vivid memories,” Vos said.

“I’m happy to see that annually on the anniversary of his death folks in Kenya gather ... for a priest from the United States who literally laid his life on the line ... and therefore we (Kenyans) should rise to the occasion as well in dealing with the ongoing corruption.”

Additional Facts
About John Kaiser
» Graduated in 1951 from St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville.
» Attended St. John’s University for two years before enlisting in the Army in 1954.
» Graduated from St. Louis University in St. Louis with a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
» From 1960-64, attended St. Joseph’s Seminary for philosophy and theology in Mill Hill, England.
» Ordained in 1964 in St. Louis.
» Built churches, a maternity hospital and clinic, and a secondary school for girls as a parish priest for the Diocese of Kisii in Kenya after 1969.
» Assigned to the Masai tribe in Lolgorian, Kenya, in the 1990s, until his death Aug. 24, 2000.

About Kenya
The International Monetary Fund, which had resumed loans in 2000 to help Kenya through a drought, again halted lending in 2001 when the government failed to institute several anticorruption measures.

Daniel arap Moi’s 24-year-old reign ended with the Dec. 27, 2002, elections, and a new opposition government took on the formidable economic problems facing the nation.
» Location: Eastern Africa, bordering the Indian Ocean, between Somalia and Tanzania.
» Size: Slightly more than twice the size of Nevada.

» Capital: Nairobi.
» Population: 40 million.
» Life expectancy: 59 years.
» Death rate: 9.26 deaths/1,000 population.
» Religions: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Muslim, other.
Source: CIA World Factbook

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