Father Axel was adored by the parishioners in Neukirchen an der Enknach. The assistant priest in the Austrian village north of Salzburg married couples, held moving funeral services and baptised babies.
It was just a pity Fr Axel was not a priest at all. He has been unmasked as Gerhard Vilsmeier, a man who has no religious training but who has spent 25 years hoodwinking God-fearing parishes across Austria and Germany into believing he is a qualified Catholic priest.
Mr Vilsmeier, 45, a carpenter from Bavaria, spent three months in late 2005 in Neukirchen an der Enknach. He claimed first that he was an organist from a nearby parish, and, later, a priest without a parish. A shortage of ministers in the area meant the village was only too happy to have him.
"The man was extremely well-versed in all things theological," a spokesman for the diocese, Linz, said.
Mr Vilsmeier's attempts to be accepted into Catholic parishes as a qualified curate began in the mid-1980s.
He gained the trust of the Tyrolean parish of Schwarz as a 25-year-old, introducing himself as "Axel Kolbe", a missionary priest from South Africa. A popular figure, worshippers recalled how good he was with children. But when one parishioner, Barbara Mosser, watched him "blessing trees in a highly theatrical manner", she became suspicious. On a visit to the Vatican, she asked to check Fr Axel's records. There were none.
Fr Rudolf Theurl, who leads the congregation at St Barbara's church in Schwarz, later had to redo all the weddings and christenings Mr Vilsmeier carried out. He was astonished at the ruse: "He did everything a priest should do. The only thing he didn't do was hear confessions. I don't think he got rich as a result of being in the parish but he told some appalling lies."
Sent packing from the Tyrolean Alps in the mid-1990s, Mr Vilsmeier tried his luck again in the German capital Berlin, where he claimed to be a Bavarian priest on sabbatical and said he was a doctor of ecclesiastical law. It was a step too far. After six months and a few slip-ups saying prayers during mass, the church in the city's Charlottenburg district asked to see his priest permit. A Berlin court later fined Mr Vilsmeier £1,400 for false use of a title.
Facing couples he had married on an Austrian television show in 1995, Mr Vilsmeier told how as a four-year-old child he would wander through his home with a lavatory brush in hand, blessing everything in sight. He said he thought he was rather good at it. "I really grew into the role," he said, admitting he often felt extreme guilt at his swindle.
The police say they will not charge Mr Vilsmeier, who has since disappeared. "It is a social phenomenon when people believe someone is a priest when they're not, not a criminal case," said a police spokesman in Braunau, Austria.
"There are conmen in every profession," Stefan Foerner, a spokesman for the bishopric of Berlin, said. "Why should the priesthood be any different?"Reuse content