An interest in building a healthy body and soul served the Rev. James F. Schwertley well during his 91 years.
As a kid, Schwertley was small and scrawny growing up near St. Cecilia Cathedral. He gained confidence and muscle mass when he began lifting weights in 1945, an unusual practice for the time.
“I had these big ears that stuck out, so I was real bully bait,” he said in a 2003 interview with The World-Herald.
In two years, he gained 30 pounds of muscle. Schwertley won the second Mr. Omaha contest in 1949 as well as the Mr. Nebraska and Mr. Midwest contests in the light-heavyweight division in weightlifting.
Schwertley, who grew up near 39th and Nicholas Streets, died Wednesday of natural causes at Immanuel Lakeside Village. A funeral Mass will be held Monday at 10 a.m. at St. Cecilia.
“Father was an amazing man who had the ability to really touch people and help them with a variety of challenges,” said guardian Mike Geppert of Omaha. “He also had an amazing sense of humor. The last thing he had to eat on planet Earth was two big bowls of ice cream.”
Schwertley, who attended Creighton Prep, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University. He joined the Air Force, where he became a fitness trainer and won more bodybuilding titles.
When he left the military, he entered seminary in 1956 and was ordained at St. Cecilia on May 27, 1961. He served as an assistant pastor at several parishes in Omaha before becoming chaplain at the former Archbishop Rummel (now Roncalli) Catholic High School in Omaha.
In 1982, Schwertley became pastor of St. John the Baptist parish in Fort Calhoun, where he served until his retirement in 1999. The parish’s social hall is named in his honor.
Tim Sully, the development director of Omaha’s Siena Francis House, was an altar boy growing up in Fort Calhoun. He watched as Schwertley devoted much of his time to the heavy lifting of helping alcoholics, drug addicts and others.
“He got into addiction counseling through the Omaha Archdiocese, and he was a very popular speaker,” Sully said. “He was kind and supportive and good and challenging all at the same time.”
Mary Muff of Omaha, a longtime friend of Schwertley’s, said she met him in the 1970s when she was looking for ways to get help for her alcoholic husband, Bill. Nothing seemed to get through to him, she said.
“I began going to seminars and lectures looking for a way to get Bill to stop drinking,” she said. “I met Father Schwertley, and he began to talk to Bill until one day, he came to his senses and got sober. If it wasn’t for him, my husband would never have quit drinking.”
Schwertley is credited with creating a chemical dependency program that grew from a few weekly group meetings to a spectrum of services that became the Catholic Charities Campus for Hope. Kathy Schinker, who worked for Catholic Charities, said the soft-spoken priest had the ability to “really listen to people.”
“He had a sense of compassion and acceptance of every person he ever met,” Schinker said. “He listened to people and seemed to understand at what point he could say something that would resonate with them and encourage them to seek help.”
At the time, Schinker said, few Catholic Charities in the country were involved in chemical dependency treatment. Schwertley went to the Omaha archbishop at the time, Daniel Sheehan, to get permission to start his program.
Eventually, the chemical dependency program grew to include a halfway house for men recovering from addiction and an inpatient treatment center, known as St. Gabriel’s. In 1998, Catholic Charities moved its chemical dependency programs under one roof, offering everything from detoxification to outpatient care at its Campus for Hope.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor and spokesman for the archdiocese, said Schwertley’s ability “to bring Christ’s compassion into other’s suffering” was inspiring.
“He was a body builder, but his heart was considerably bigger than his muscles,” McNeil said. “He made himself accessible and available to any number of people with any type of pain and suffering.”
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