The Death of Father Kaiser

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

"John had a real fear of being a diocesan priest and being sent to a big city," Mahoney says. As Dasteel puts it: "He was a country guy; the problems of middle-class Americans would have gotten him down."

Soon after Kaiser's return to St. John's in 1957, a Dutch priest from the St. Joseph's Missionary Society paid a recruiting visit to the college. More commonly known as Mill Hill after its headquarters in England, it is the largest of the missionary orders. "The recruiter talked about the wildlife of Africa," remembers Father Bill Vos, a St. John's classmate who later worked with Kaiser in Kenya. "That got John."

Mill Hill sent Kaiser to St. Louis to begin his seminary training at SLU. He graduated in 1960 and went on to England to finish his studies, but he insisted on returning to St. Louis for his ordination in 1964. He'd made friends with several local families and the bishop. It felt like home.

Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi was known to eliminate enemies by staging "accidents"
Mark Andresen
Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi was known to eliminate enemies by staging "accidents"

That autumn he boarded a freighter for the two-month voyage to Kenya.

On the afternoon of April 18, 2001, two FBI agents arrived at Carolita Mahoney's home in Underwood, Minnesota. It was not the first time they had visited. Immediately after Father John Kaiser's death, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Johnnie Carson, had arranged for the FBI to join the Kenyan police and the CID in the investigation. Carson was afraid that the Kenyans would try to protect President Moi and paint Kaiser's killing as something other than a political assassination.

Mahoney cooperated with the agents, telling them everything she knew about her brother's life. She wanted justice—and resolution. After eight months of investigating, they brought her an 81-page document titled "The Final Report into the Death of Father John Kaiser." She grabbed the report and turned to the final summary page. She noticed the agents did not linger to see her reaction. "They were out the door so quickly it was like they knew I was not going to be happy," she recalls.

"The manner of the death of Father John Anthony Kaiser is more consistent with a suicide than a homicide," she read. "This suicide resulted from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head."

The FBI report, a devastating glimpse into Kaiser's "deteriorating" mental state, focused on the final 96 hours of his life in Nairobi. It said colleagues described him as "out of sorts," "tense," "scared," "exceptionally nervous" and "haunted." He was seen crying at Mass and spent nights awake with a shotgun by his side, and when he did sleep, "Father Kaiser could be heard calling out the names of prominent Kenyan politicians." The report continued: "He confides that he thinks he is being followed." He told his bishop that "death was near."

Mahoney stood in the doorway, shocked and angry. Devout Catholics did not commit suicide, especially not Catholic priests. "Anyone who knew John would know that report was ridiculous."

Says niece Mary Mahoney Weaver: "They said he was mentally unstable because he cried during Mass. He cried many times when he was very moved."

Kaiser himself had suspected that he might be murdered and that someone would try to cover it up; he'd seen it before, when other priests' deaths were attributed to unfortunate car accidents. Shortly before he died, he wrote in an open letter to his family and friends: "I want all to know that if I disappear from the scene, because the bush is vast and hyenas many, that I am not planning any accident, nor, God forbid, any self-destruction."

Kaiser's family immediately grasped the implication of the FBI's conclusion. Suicide was a mortal sin, a violation of everything Kaiser stood for as a Catholic priest. "It was a smudge on his name," says Weaver.

"John loved Africa from the minute he got there," Michaela Dasteel says. Kenya won its independence from Great Britain in 1962, two years before Kaiser arrived, and he was excited to help build the new nation. After several years of training, he took up his first parish among the Kisii people, in the high plains of the Rift Valley.

Father Kaiser had to build a congregation from nothing, Father Vos recalls. In the beginning, there wasn't even a church. Kaiser led Mass under a tree. "It was grassroots evangelism," says Vos. As his flock grew, Kaiser began to build churches and schools and proved himself an effective, economical contractor. "He would use the local materials," Vos remembers. "He was very clever. He'd cut down trees and get the people to haul stones."

His physical strength amazed the Kisii. "Once a group of men was trying to raise a huge tree for the center post of a church," Weaver recalls. "John was determined to get the thing done. But it got late and everyone went home. When they came back the next morning, the post was up. He never said how he did it. They considered him superhuman."

Kaiser's happiest times were on hunting trips with the tribe. "The Kisii were traditional hunters," Vos says. "They were proud to have a priest who connected with them on that level."

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