You don’t meet a saint every day.
But Louis Steffensmeier did.
Actually, Padre Pio wasn’t a saint at the time, but he was a priest with a unique life situation.
And meeting him in 1944 still touches Steffensmeier’s heart to this day.
At 95, Steffensmeier is the oldest veteran in Dodge County, the county’s veterans services officer said. A resident of Dodge, Steffensmeier lives in a home on a quiet street in the small, rural town. One recent afternoon, the soft-spoken man browsed through pages of a photograph album filled with black and white images of his days overseas during World War II.
Steffensmeier was part of the 348th Bomb Squadron, 99th group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. His job was to get parts for planes that were damaged in combat and needed repairs. During his military tenure he attained the rank of staff sergeant.
Born on a farm in Howells, Steffensmeier lived through the drought years of the Great Depression.
"Those were hard times, that’s for sure," he said.
Then in 1942, he entered the service and more than a year later went overseas. He was first stationed in North Africa. He still remembers train box cars filled with captured German soldiers. Photographs in his album show bomb-blasted buildings and civilians with carts pulled by donkeys. The photos also depict the primitive living conditions for Allied soldiers. In one, a canvas water bag is suspended mid-air by poles. Soldiers filled their canteens from a spigot on the bag, he said.
Another photo shows a soldier by a tent. Steffensmeier said tents were scattered so all the soldiers wouldn’t be killed in a bombing.
Steffensmeier also has a photo of two airmen - one of which was a gunner - who were recuperating after their plane was shot down during a mission. The planes flew out almost every day unless the weather was bad, he said.
In December 1943, Steffensmeier went to Foggia, Italy. He befriended a photographer and has many of the man’s photos in the album. There are photos of planes flying in flak-filled skies, photos of historic Italian buildings and even an erupting volcano.
One photo shows Steffensmeier with his friends in an Italian restaurant. He is quick to add that a bottle on the table was filled with coffee, not wine. Other photos show an airplane graveyard and a desolate scene with a propeller that came off a plane.
Then are the photographs of Padre Pio.
Steffensmeier said a Red Cross worker took Catholics to see the priest known for having received the stigmata - visible marks of the crucifixion, which he had for 50 years. Steffensmeier attended a Mass that the priest celebrated. The Mass lasted two hours, but to Steffensmeier it went quickly.
What did he think when he saw the priest?
"It made a believer out of me," he said, while his eyes filled with tears.
The priest also gave Steffensmeier a simple, black beaded rosary. A photograph in an issue of The Catholic Voice shows the area man with the priest.
"It was just wonderful that I was able to be in the group (that went to see him)," Steffensmeier said.
Pope John Paul II canonized in the priest (making him a saint) in 2002.
Steffensmeier was overseas for about three years. He cherishes the memory of meeting Padre Pio. His saddest memories are times "when we lost a plane with people we knew."
He was in his early 30s when he came home to his sweetheart, Angie.
"She was a beautiful girl," he said as his eyes filled with tears again. "We were friends before (the war). She waited for me and I waited for her. I came home in August and in January we got married."
The Steffensmeiers had four children, Judy, Lou Ann, Mary Jo and Mark, 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. His wife has preceded him in death.
During his working years, he and his brother, Ed, had a business called Farmers Garage, selling and repairing cars and trucks. Louis’ son, Mark, and Ed’s son, Gene, later took over the business before Gene bought out his cousin.
As he paged through his photo album, Steffensmeier pointed out pictures of planes and pals. He joked about a photograph taken of him before he lost his hair.
Nearby, his daughter, Judy, smiled.
"We’ve been very lucky to have him with us so long," she said.
Steffensmeier looked up from his album.
"I’ve had a very full life," he said.