The Death of Father Kaiser

Was it a Kenyan assassin who killed the St. Louis missionary -- or was it madness? Seven years later, the verdict is in.

Just before dawn on an August morning seven years ago, John and Henry Kanbo drove toward the market town of Naivasha to buy cattle. The Naivasha-Nakuru Highway is usually one of the busiest roads in southwest Kenyas Rift Valley, but at 6 a.m. it was deserted, except for the battered white Toyota pickup perched on the edge of a ditch near a grove of acacia trees. The brothers pulled over and noticed a string of pink rosary beads hanging from a switch on the dashboard and a body lying in a brick drainage culvert.

In the dim morning light the Kanbos made out the corpse of a large white male, 6-foot-2-inches and 200 pounds. He lay on his back, his black leather jacket and gray trousers splattered with mud. There was a pile of blankets and sheets at his side and a double-barreled shotgun at his feet. Blood oozed from where the back of his head should have been.

When police arrived, they had little trouble identifying the body. The man's name was John Anthony Kaiser. He was much loved by the people of Kenya for the work he did on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. He was an American priest who had first come to Africa 36 years ago as a missionary, fresh from his ordination in St. Louis, where he attended Saint Louis University and began studying for the priesthood.

At first the Kenyans knew him as Father Seven Oxen because of his physical strength. Later they called him the Rhino because he was tough and stubborn, not a man to be crossed. In the few years before his death, he'd become the Key, or the Voice of the People, unafraid to speak out against the corruption that permeated the Kenyan government.

Father Kaiser was 67 years old when he died that early morning of August 24, 2000. Naivasha police told the Kenyan newspaper The Nation he'd been shot in a "gangland-style execution."

Kaiser was not the first outspoken Catholic priest in Kenya to perish under mysterious circumstances. "You'd be surprised at how much went on in western Kenya in the 1990s," says Dave Durenberger, a former U.S. Senator from Minnesota and a high school classmate of Kaiser. "A lot of priests spoke out against the government, and the government tried to scare them off and keep them in their place." Sometimes they went even further, says Father Cornelius Schilders, the current Bishop of Ngong, Kaiser's old diocese. "Many people who spoke out against the oppression and corruption disappeared," he explains in a recent e-mail.

In public forums and in the Kenyan and international press, Kaiser accused Kenya's president, Daniel arap Moi, of staging bloody tribal wars in order to drive people from their land and seize it for the government. Throughout the 1990s, Kaiser had been followed, harassed and even beaten and placed under house arrest by Kenyan police and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). "I reckon they tried to frighten him so he would leave Kenya," Schilders writes. "But then they really did not know him! Nothing would make him do that, only death."

"John always knew he was going to die in Africa," says his niece, Mary Mahoney Weaver. "It was his home."

Before his journey to Kenya, Kaiser's home was his parents' dairy farm near the town of Perham, in northern Minnesota. Although the family struggled financially, they were resourceful. The four Kaiser children grew their own vegetables and played with homemade toys. As a young boy Kaiser learned how to hunt and fish, good preparation for the rugged life of a missionary. "John never had comfort," recalls Kaiser's cousin, Michaela Dasteel. "He did not want comfort."

At thirteen, Kaiser left the farm for St. John's Preparatory School, a Catholic boys' boarding school in Collegeville, Minnesota, 200 miles away. His parents strongly believed in giving their children a Catholic education, regardless of the considerable sacrifices.

His old St. John's classmate Durenberger remembers Kaiser as "a big, gangly farm boy who wasn't afraid of anything." He was captain of the football and track teams, set the school's pole-vaulting record and was a talented artist and star student. "He was a normal kid with exceptional talents," remembers Kaiser's sister, Carolita Mahoney. "Wherever he went, people wanted to be around him. But he was a loner. He would just as soon have been out hunting in the woods."

Kaiser entered Collegeville's St. John's University in 1951 with the intention of studying English literature and becoming a teacher. But even then he suspected he might be facing a different sort of future. "God calls you to become a priest," explains Mahoney. A devout Catholic like Kaiser could not ignore God. But, she adds, "He put off answering the calls."

"It was a real sacrifice for him to become a priest," says Dasteel. "He loved women."

Kaiser left college in 1954 and enlisted in the peacetime Army, where he spent three years as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He jumped out of airplanes, slept in the woods and developed a taste for adventure that he didn't think he could satisfy as a parish priest.

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