Erwin was born on the 22nd March 1940 at Gross-Leschienen in the Diocese of Ermsland in what was then eastern Prussia. His family name, at the time, was Koschewski. His father was killed during the 2nd World War. In 1945, his mother fled with her four children towards the west and after a long journey they arrived in Hechthausen in the north of Germany. In 1947, Erwin began primary school. His mother married again with Franz Echtner, who adopted the four children and they took his family name. In 1952, the family moved to Krefeld on the banks of the Rhine. Erwin finished his primary schooling there in 1955.
Erwin began his commercial studies, which he successfully finished in 1958. He got a job but he felt called by God to go on the missions. According to the reference from his employer, Erwin was described as a conscientious collaborator, easy to get on with, punctual, and respectful of his co-workers.
Erwin entered the White Fathers at Langenfeld on the 1st June 1959 to begin his postulancy. In 1960, we find him at the novitiate in Hörstel. He took his 1st Missionary Oath there on the 4th February 1962 when he was just a month shy of his 22nd birthday. From February 1962 to March 1965, he continued his training at the Brothers’ Formation Centre in Marienthal, Luxembourg.
In November 1965, Bro. Echtner left for Kipalapala in the Diocese of Tabora, Tanzania. He only studied Kiswahili for a short time before going to work at the printing press nearby. On the 1st February 1967, he was appointed as editor and manager of the Catholic newspaper, KIONGOZI. He took his Perpetual Missionary Oath in Kipalapala on the 24th February 1968. He moved to the Social Training Centre in Nyegezi near Mwanza in July 1969 before returning to the printing press in Kipalapala later the same year. He also spent some time in the procure of Dar-es-Salaam from 1971.
After many years of service in Tanzania, Erwin began to look for other horizons. His first wish was to study for the priesthood and after a long period of reflection on all sides, he began studies for the priesthood in London in January 1974. However, already by the end of the 1st term, Erwin had to face up to the fact reluctantly that this orientation was not for him. So he had to abandon his idea of becoming a priest.
In 1976, we find Erwin in Germany as bursar of the community in Trier. His training in book-keeping and accounts meant that he felt more at ease and he was able to render a great service to the community. In 1977, he was appointed to the Afrikanum in Cologne. Here he found his true vocation and for the next 33 years he was a committed worker in the area of receiving refugee children and young people from Africa. He had his own personal experience as a refugee and he could empathise with the children coming from Angola, the Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia. These countries were experiencing constant revolts, wars and revolutions. The revolutionary leaders were putting hundreds of children on planes for Germany hoping that they would receive a good education and be able afterwards to serve their liberated countries.
Supported by Caritas and other NGOs helping refugees, Erwin gained the trust of the public service tasked with the reception of war refugees. These organisations granted him the guardianship of more than 800 children over the course of the years. The authorities gave him the responsibility of looking for places in boarding schools, register them firstly in language courses and then in schools. From time to time, Erwin even had to accommodate some children in the Afrikanum on a temporary basis. Many of these children kept in contact with Erwin after receiving vocational training or studies. For the children, he was “their father” and they were, for him, “his children.” Erwin gave a great example of charity. He showed that in a State with a well-developed social service, personal initiative was still necessary and has a place in this society. On the 26th September 2010, Erwin received the honorary prize of the city “committed to Cologne.” On the 17th July 2013, the Mayor of Cologne bestowed on him “Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany”
On the 31st of August 1990, Erwin suffered a heart attack which obliged him to reduce his activities on behalf of his “his children” many of whom had since become adults. In April 2011, he was diagnosed with cancer and he was appointed to the community at Trier where he died on the 6th October 2017. The funeral liturgy took place in the chapel of the Brothers of Charity followed by burial in our plot in the city cemetery of Trier.
Hans Vöcking, M.Afr.