For members of the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Calhoun, the Rev. James F. Schwertley was caring, funny, strong, impactful and theatrical — someone who helped many people in his time before, after and during his time at the church.
"He was a very, very good man. He was funny, and he was great to get along with," said Ed Smith, a longtime parishioner. "He would do anything for anyone, and he was a good friend of mine."
Schwertley, 91, died July 8. His obituary suggested memorials be sent to the Alzheimer's Association.
Schwertley became the priest at St. John's in 1982 and served at the church until his retirement in 1999. The church's social hall is named after him, an honor bestowed while in the hall for Schwertley's retirement, church member Mike Conrad said.
"He was impactful, people loved him," he said. "He was always proud of his parishioners. He was a very caring man."
Conrad said he became active with the church because of Schwertley. In 1988, he attended a service at St. John's with his fiance at the time.
"The first service I went to … He had a set of bar bells at the altar, and he tied his sermon to weight lifting, and I thought, 'Can he do this?'" Conrad said, noting Schwertley's long-time interest in body building, a sport where he was named Mr. Omaha, Mr. Nebraska and Mr. Midwest.
A year later, Schwertley would marry Conrad and his fiance, and Conrad said he continued to become more and more involved with the church.
"He had a way with people, he would attract them," Conrad said. "He kept me coming for more, he kept me interested … If it wasn't for his intervention, I don't know if I'd be the same man today."
A man with his own unique way of doing things, Conrad said Schwertley was very "theatrical." He recounted a story about Schwertley when he was an associate priest at a church before coming to Fort Calhoun.
"After the service, he dressed up as the devil and waited for people to come out," Conrad said, pausing for a brief laugh. "As people came out, he said, 'You're playing right into my hands.'"
On another occasion at St. John's, Conrad said Schwertley held a day for people to bring their pets in for a blessing. People brought all kinds of animals from dogs and cats to snakes, horses and hamsters.
In line with theater, Smith said Schwertley was always writing some short story or play for the church's community theater.
"He was just a common guy and treated everyone alike," Smith said, adding Schwertley did a lot for people struggling with addiction. "He was a savior to them. I know that he saved a lot of people."
Tom Lazure, who joined St. John's in 1989, said he admired Schwertley, a man who had a large impact on his life.
"When I got out here, I met with father, and immediately got myself, my wife, involved," Lazure said. "He was just that kind of guy."
Lazure helped Schwertley run the church's softball league for several years, he said, a league which teams from Fort Calhoun, Blair and Omaha played in.
"He did not like to lose," Lazure said, still noting Schwertley's report with people. "Father had a keen way of getting people that were good at what they did involved in those things … When he had to delegate, he did, when he had to put down the hammer, he did."
Lazure, who said COVID-19 restrictions kept him from seeing Schwertley for several months before he passed, said he was a "special" person.
"I admired the guy," Lazure said. "Father Schwertley has left a mark on me. He's just special. Just special."
Conrad, too, said he wasn't able to see Schwertley before he passed, but remembered the last time he visited him at Immanuel Lakeside Village. Schwertley didn't remember he and his wife, Conrad said, until they were getting ready to leave.
"On our way out, he said, 'I always thought there was something peculiar about you two,'" Conrad said. Then Schwertley offered the trademark gesture of their decades-long relationship. "He tipped his hand, like if there was a hat, and he laughed uncontrollably."
In what could be a succinct and precise summary of who Schwertley was, Lazure said he didn't believe anyone would ever have something bad to say about the caring, impactful and theatrical reverend.
"I'm sure he's going to be remembered by a lot of people," Lazure said. "If he don't go to heaven, I don't know who does."