Courage and safe passage

  • Written by Janet Cleaveland
  • Published in NW Stories
Andy Holzberger holds the prayer book that belonged to nephew Rudy Pojtinger’s family. The fragile book was brought to the U.S. when the families immigrated in 1952. Photo: Janet Cleaveland. Andy Holzberger holds the prayer book that belonged to nephew Rudy Pojtinger’s family. The fragile book was brought to the U.S. when the families immigrated in 1952. Photo: Janet Cleaveland.

Rhythms of prayer life help Andy Holzberger stay ready for his final journey

Fever and coughing racked Andy Holzberger’s body, the pain of pneumonia filling his chest. “Dying is not going to be easy, ” the 104-year-old told his good friend Lois Brown.

Andy suffered, but responded yet again to life and antibiotics. Brown was there to help him get through the January hospital stay.

One more battle down for Andy, who keeps close to his heart a medal bearing the likeness of St. Thomas More on one side, St. Christopher on the other. He wants to be buried with it.

For now, Andy takes that thrift-shop find with him when he gets behind the wheel of his truck. It’s the same medal he keeps nearby while he has his morning coffee.

The images of More — the English saint who refused to render allegiance to King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England — and Christopher — whose legends include carrying the Christ Child across a river — suggest a combination of courage and safe passage.

Hospital stay aside, these thoughts and his faith keep Andy ready for his final journey.

Andy opens his eyes to the new day and begins praying the Chaplet of the Five Wounds. Until about two years ago, Andy prayed with knees planted on the hardwood floors of his longtime home in the Holzberger clan’s tidy Austrian-like village along Monohon Landing Road just outside Raymond.

Now with creaking joints and weakening legs, the retired carpenter allows himself to pray without kneeling. “I sit on the bed,” he said. “It takes half an hour.”

“That’s beautiful,” said Andy’s pastor, Father Paul Kaech of Raymond’s St. Lawrence Parish. “That explains why you are who you are,” the priest said during a December visit to bring Andy holy Communion and anoint his hands with chrism oil, administered to anyone who is seriously or chronically ill.

Andy Holzberger prayingAndy Holzberger, right, and Rudy Pojtinger pray the Our Father. Photo: Janet Cleaveland

Andy has a bronchial condition and must use a nebulizer to deliver a mist of medication deep into his respiratory tract. He often feels chilled. He would love to be working outside, but isn’t as strong as he used to be. He admits to being tired.

But no matter, Andy said. His prayer life and love for

Jesus Christ are foremost on his mind, carrying him through the rhythms of his day and making straight the path ahead. His daily prayers are little different from the way he has prayed and meditated since he was a boy.

Andy says the rosary — his favorite — usually three times every afternoon and once in the evening. Every evening, he also makes another devotion to the five wounds of Christ. Between each of the prayers honoring the crucified Christ’s hands, feet and riven side are an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

From his kitchen table, Andy sees the rose bushes that his wife Regina, now deceased, planted so long ago, all pruned and tidy, except one. Andy lets that one, directly under his window, grow tall so he can see it up close. The roses have another meaning that isn’t lost on Andy: The Virgin Mary is known as the “rose without thorns” or the “mystic rose.”

Andy’s whole life has revolved around faith, family and work. He was born in 1909 in the village of Deutsch-Mokra, now part of western Ukraine. His mother died when he was 6. Hardship and harrowing escapes fill his saga of survival from the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through post-World War II. Throughout it all, Andy kept God close to his heart, a habit going back to his childhood.

“We prayed every evening together,” he said. “The priest taught catechism to the children and would come twice a week.”

The village, founded about 1775 by Andy’s Austrian ancestors, was entirely Catholic, said his friend Brown, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion who brings Andy the Eucharist once a week. “He’s very respectful of our Lord,” she said, describing how Andy usually wears a suit to receive the host.

Wearing a suit goes back to those days in Mokra when the children dressed up for morning Mass and read Scripture on Sunday afternoons before they could go out to play. On Saturdays, the children said rosaries with their parents.

Though desperately hungry, villagers were forbidden to hunt or fish — that was reserved for royalty or the privileged class. So young Andy would come to Mass in a suit, but “sneak out to the river to fish,” said his nephew Rudy Pojtinger of Kent.

If life was tough in the village, it was frightening after World War II. Andy and his relatives narrowly missed being shipped off to Siberia. They eventually made their way to Washington state, where Andy’s work as a carpenter included a stint for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. He and Regina became U.S. citizens in 1959 at the Pacific County Courthouse.

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Lest someone thinks that Andy is all about prayer, it should be known that he is up on the stock market and the prices of gold, silver and a barrel of oil. In the evening, he likes to watch “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” trying to stay a step ahead of the contestants.

And neither do minor home repairs escape his watchful eye. The day before the visit from his nephew, Father Kaech and Brown, Andy had fixed a faucet in his bathroom. “I  have lots of tools,” he said. “Everything.”

Andy recently lost one of his hearing aids in the brush while trying to dig out his pickup when it got stuck. He doesn’t want to replace the device yet, his nephew said, or maybe he just keeps putting it off. “He’s always saying, ‘Let’s just wait until spring. Maybe I’ll die and won’t need it,’” Pojtinger said.

Andy has had his share of heartache — including when his mother died, and later when his wife suffered from mental illness. Rather than abandon Regina to an institution, he brought her back to their house, set among gentle hills with a forested backdrop. Regina died in the early 1970s while weeding her garden.

The couple had no children, so Andy has lived alone for decades. He tends Regina’s roses and does his chores, pruning her apple tree and keeping up the house — always confident that he is standing in solidarity with Jesus, always saying the familiar prayers that have long sustained and comforted him.

“I’ve had a lot of trouble,” he said, but “God is here.”

And so are the touchstones in his life — family, friends, rosary, two-sided medal and the promise of roses. Brown recently spied new leaves forming on Andy’s favorite rose bush.

All that gives Andy the courage to wait for his final journey, with the serenity of someone who knows a thing or two about how to pray, how to reverence the Eucharist and how to contemplate union with Jesus. 

A Timeline of Andy's Life