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The Rev. Timothy Vakoc was remembered Friday as a man who went to war to bring peace to his fellow soldiers, and somehow managed to continue his ministry after returning home with devastating injuries.
Fellow priests and military chaplains were among hundreds of people who turned out for Vakoc's funeral at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Father Tim, as he was known, died last Saturday at age 49 after an unidentified injury at St. Therese nursing home in New Hope, where he was living.
Vakoc (pronounced VAH-kitch) had required around-the-clock care since May 2004, when he was gravely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, leaving him with brain damage and paralysis. In the five years since his injuries, the priest had survived repeated setbacks and multiple infections, surprising doctors with his will to live. The circumstances that led to his death have not been disclosed and are under investigation by the Hennepin County medical examiner.
On Friday, his friends remembered him as an adventurous, charming maverick who loved his dual life as a priest and a soldier. He was a U.S. Army major who served as a chaplain in Germany and Bosnia, as well as Iraq.
"He was attracted to the edges of life and to adventure," said the Rev. Stan Mader, who went to seminary with Vakoc 20 years ago and delivered the homily. "Tim was a man of extraordinary contradictions," Mader added. He loved being the center of attention and could be "outrageous" and yet "also deeply prayerful and deeply spiritual."
'Still at heart a priest'
After he was injured in Iraq, Vakoc developed a large following among caregivers and volunteers who often joined him in prayer, first at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and then at the nursing home. Eventually, he was able to speak a few words, but mostly communicated with looks and touch, his friends recalled.
Bishop-elect Lee Piché said he was struck by how Vakoc managed to affect so many people and retain his priestly devotion even after his injuries. Just a few weeks ago, Piche said, he went to the nursing home to celebrate mass with Vakoc and found the priest in a wheelchair wearing his ceremonial stole.
"For me, that was a very powerful sign of him still wanting to be a priest," he said. "Even though he was incapacitated physically, he was still at heart a priest."
Vakoc also was honored as a soldier. An honor guard from the Minnesota National Guard accompanied his casket up the cathedral steps, surrounded by some 30 U.S. flags carried by members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard, a veterans group.
The mass was followed by a procession to Fort Snelling National Cemetery, where Vakoc was buried with military honors.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384