ANDOVER, Minn. (CNS) — There was something special about Charles Untz, the kid who cheerfully served at 6:30 a.m. daily Mass.
He had a kind of reverence — a quiet peace, a glowing face — that people noticed. Priests asked if he was considering religious life, and he answered with ease and confidence: Yes.
There’s something special that has come from his death, too, after a tragic car accident took his life March 20, 2000. His parents noticed immediately. As they marked the 20th anniversary at their Andover farm, their beloved boy’s impact has crossed the globe, compelling an ardent coalition of both priests and lay Catholics to make the case for Charles’ canonization.
They are stirred by a series of incredible events that have unfolded over the past two decades — events they consider not merely divine connections to Charles but divine actions from him.
Their unequivocal sense of his intercession — as only a saint could do — helps explain Charles’ short life. His 18 years on earth make more sense, they feel, in light of his heavenly purpose.
From the start Charles was enveloped by Catholicism. Ellen and Steve Untz made Mass and Eucharistic Adoration a priority as young parents. When they lived in Vermont, they’d walk down the road to church for five minutes of Adoration “to break the little kids in,” Ellen said.
Before long, Charles asked: “Can’t we stay longer, Mom?”
More so than initiating matters of faith, Ellen and Steve were merely responding to something that already existed in Charles. “I almost feel like we were dragged along for the ride,” she said.
They struggled to give him a sibling, enduring years of secondary infertility. Finally, when Charles was 6, he became a big brother to Bryant.
Charles took to praying the Liturgy of the Hours at age 11, setting an example for the rest of the family and continuing the devotion faithfully throughout his life.
Raising Charles was easy, his parents insist. He was always obedient. They never had to ask something twice. They didn’t realize that was unusual.
“There are a lot of kids that will do the right thing, but as I see it, they sometimes are doing the right thing out of fear or mere compliance,” said Fr. Tom Wilson, who was parochial vicar of Epiphany in Coon Rapids when the Untzes moved to Minnesota and joined the parish in 1996.
“Charles never had that. It was like: ‘No, this is just the thing to do, and I’m going to do it,’” the priest told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
That perfectly formed conscience made things straightforward, uncomplicated for Charles. His adolescence was not riddled by temptations or peer pressure.
Ellen home schooled Charles, a quick learner and hard worker. He anticipated needs on their farm and performed chores before being asked. His industriousness and spirit of service were encapsulated by being a Boy Scout. He proved a natural leader, becoming a senior patrol leader, the top position.
“He set a positive example for everyone he was around,” said Alan Lind, a fellow Epiphany parishioner and Boy Scout. “He was very pure hearted.”
For his Eagle Scout Service Project, Charles wrote a manual to train altar servers. When he successfully earned that top rank, he was asked to make an Ambition and Life Purpose Statement. He wrote: “My life purpose is to do the will of God. My ambition is to become a saint. There is nothing harder to achieve than this, but I will continue to strive for it.”
Charles often expressed a holy longing, saying that he would rather be in heaven than here. In an email to a friend, he encouraged her to pray the Divine Office and rise above teenage dramas. “Don’t let yourself get caught up in that never-ending cycle,” he wrote. “Keep in mind that heaven is the ultimate goal, all other goals and things should be directed in attaining it.”
His heartfelt counsel stemmed from good listening, said his brother, Bryant, a mechanical engineer who, along with his parents, belongs to St. Patrick in Oak Grove.
“When people were talking to him, they felt like they were the focus of his attention,” Bryant said. “He wasn’t straining to look or listen to something else. He had this ability to show love through paying attention.”
Priesthood was a natural calling. It was nourished as an altar server and flowed from his love of the Mass, where he could receive the Eucharist, the source and summit of the faith. He was spurred by his devotion to Mary, whom he affectionately called “My Lady.” Experimenting on his mom’s embroidery machine, he made a brown scapular that said “My Lady.” It became a fixture, with its two thin bands peeking out above his shirt collar.
As a home-schooled senior, Charles applied to the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he toured St. John Vianney College Seminary. As of that March, he had not yet announced his decision.
On a Monday morning in March, two weeks after his 18th birthday, Charles headed out to work at the turkey farm across the street. Ellen noticed “a different look on his face.”
A short time later she heard sirens but didn’t notice anything out front. A police officer came to the door asking if Ellen had seen something, but didn’t identify the victim. Ellen ran over to the turkey farm, finding Charles hadn’t checked in for work. Panic set in. She began frantic Hail Marys.
The worst would come to pass. Charles had been struck by a car as he walked to work. He died in the hospital shortly later, after receiving last rites from Fr. Wilson, surrounded by his parents and brother.
Twenty years later, Fr. Wilson still tears up when he recalls that day. “It was one of the hardest mornings of my life,” he said.
Amid the shock and sorrow, stories began to trickle in. The man who had found Charles after the accident described the encounter as “an intense feeling of the presence of God.” He had never experienced anything like it.
A police officer reported the same sensation. When she touched Charles’ hand as he was lifted into the ambulance, she said she felt God’s presence. It changed her life.
Meanwhile, the lector who read at Epiphany the morning of the accident said she had seen Charles in the church, engrossed in Scripture before Mass — but the Untz family hadn’t attended Mass that day.
Two priests, close friends of the family from out East, gathered in the Untz home before the funeral. As they discussed Charles’ life and death, they sensed something miraculous at play and came to conclude that he had preserved his baptismal innocence.
Throughout the wake and the funeral Mass, which was held at Epiphany, Ellen and Steve were struck by the language people used. One after another said they were praying to Charles — not for him. There was a shared sense of intercession.
“It felt right,” Steve said.
The good Charles has done from heaven, as many see it, astounded his grieving parents, stitching together a far-flung community in the most unlikely of ways.
Ellen and Steve heard from an EMT who had been on the scene of the accident. For the past 20 years, she told them, she had hoped to deliver a baby on the job. A month after Charles’ death, she did exactly that — some 200 feet from the site of the car accident. Stories like hers, accounts suggesting that Charles was interceding for others, kept pouring in — from different states, from people who had never met the teen.
His story spread through Catholic home-school networks. Ellen has made thousands of scapulars based on Charles’ design that have been mailed across the globe. Audio recordings from his funeral have circulated.
His prayer card has been slipped into passports and pockets. It shows a picture of Charles in his Eagle Scout uniform and features a prayer for teens written by Fr. David Engo, a family friend from Massachusetts, to call upon Charles’ intercession.
“You gave the grace of purity, prayer, obedience and fidelity to Your servant Charles,” it states. “We now ask You to glorify Your servant Charles on earth by granting the petition we now make through his intercession.”
Last year, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis was updated on Charles’ continued impact. Thirty-eight “favors” — or answered prayers — attributed to his intercession have been reported to Ellen and Steve, including people returning to the Church, priestly vocations, help with personal matters, healings and guidance.
They assume many more extraordinary experiences have not been relayed. They also have been told of many graces from Charles such as purity, a strengthened prayer life, consolation at death, openness to life and peace at difficult times.
Though Ellen and Steve have never campaigned for Charles’ canonization — they do not see that as their role — they have saved all the letters and emails they received chronicling his impact, most from strangers. The notes are stored in two boxes in the closet of Charles’ bedroom.
The next step in opening a sainthood cause is to demonstrate “sustained widespread devotion” to Charles.
“We’re just passengers on that road,” Steve said.
For his part, he will go about his quiet work on the farm.
“I’ve learned to trust in the Holy Spirit and allow him to work through me,” Steve said. “I try not to get in the way.”
Each year on March 20 the Untz family hosts a Mass in the woods behind their home to celebrate Charles’ life and commemorate the anniversary of his death. This year — the 20th anniversary — they had to change their plans due to Archbishop Hebda’s directive on suspending public Mass in light of the coronavirus.
It was a last-minute disappointment at an emotional time, but they took it in stride.
Instead, when March 20 arrived — a bright, brisk Friday — Ellen and Steve pulled on their jackets and headed to the woods, along with a few others, including Fr. Hansen and Ellen’s brother, Dcn. Mike Carney. They did the Seven Sorrows of Mary walk, prayed the Stations of the Cross and had a private Mass, which they were permitted to do.
They believed Charles was with them, as Fr. Wilson had promised at the funeral. The Communion of Saints celebrates with us at every Mass, the priest had said. “Every time you go to Mass, Charles will be surrounding the altar with you.”
Ellen’s parting message hasn’t changed much from 20 years ago, back when she was offering her industrious son to neighbors in need — an elderly woman across the street, younger Boy Scouts in his troop. She sees he can still be useful.
“Charles is ready to help anyone deepen their faith and their relationship with God,” she said. “Put him to work!”
— By Christina Capecchi, Catholic News Service. Capecchi writes for THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.