Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
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Bishop’s Medal awarded to long-time Retreat Center supporter
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register
(From the Dec. 20, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
Don Wessels of Spokane had no idea what was in store for him at the Directors’ Club dinner at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center the night of Dec. 6.
Wessels, a former advertising executive and a long-time promoter of the retreat center, had been asked to give a talk on the center’s history. As the evening progressed, Bishop William Skylstad was introduced, and he presented the Bishop’s Medal to Wessels, who was completely surprised by the honor.
“I was truly astonished and gratified,” Wessels said. “I thought the award was only for those who do charity work.”
In fact, the medal is given to people in the diocese who have made extraordinary contributions to the life of the diocesan church.
Wessels’ connection with the retreat center goes back more than 40 years.
As he tells it, he babysat so his wife, Rita, could go to a “fireside meeting” concerning the retreat center Bishop Bernard Topel wanted to build. The year was 1958. When she got home, she told her husband that the priest who was supposed to come had been taken ill and couldn’t attend. His housekeeper attended instead.
The priest was Father, now monsignor, David Rosage, who had been charged with the task of building the retreat center. After Wessels heard his wife’s story, he thought, “I’m in advertising; maybe I can do something to help.” He was put in touch with Msgr. Rosage, and that was the start of their long association and friendship.
Wessels made a slide presentation of the proposed center, and he and Msgr. Rosage hit the road. “We were trying to interest the world” in making retreats and in building a retreat center, he said.
It was a daunting task. “At that time,” said Msgr. Rosage, “less than two percent of Catholics had ever made a retreat.”
The two men traveled the diocese — “we went to every nook and cranny,” Wessels said — holding some 150 “fireside meetings.”
While the meetings were important, Msgr. Rosage said Wessels “helped us in other ways, too. His knowledge about the town (of Spokane)” proved invaluable as the two men worked to raise funds. Wessels was instrumental in setting up organizations at the retreat center for ongoing fund-raising efforts.
Another innovation was the formation of a lay board of advisors to assist Msgr. Rosage. Wessels was a member, along with Richard F. O’Neill, Francis Conlin, and Ronald E. Springer. The group met regularly for 20 years.
Wessels remembered that such lay boards were not common in those days. “I guess we would have been called ‘hip pocket consultors,’” he said. That board was an informal group that has since evolved into a more formal governing board.
Wessels was raised in Green Creek, Idaho, where his parents farmed. He said an article in Catholic Digest magazine in the early 1950s made the statement that Green Creek had “more vocations to the priesthood and Religious life per capita than any other town in the nation.”
Wessels has two sisters who are professed Religious and his wife, also from Green Creek, has a brother who is a priest.
The couple raised seven children and have 13 grandchildren. They enjoy traveling and Wessels said he is a history buff, especially political history. They have been members of Spokane’s St. Peter Parish since this past summer.
In his work career, Wessels was a high school history teacher in Green Creek. After he moved to Spokane he was employed at KXLY, and then formed his own advertising agency. For some years he was adjunct professor of marketing at Gonzaga University.
One of Wessel’s projects was production of a half-hour television show, titled From a Pastor’s Study. The late Father Ralph Schwemin was the priest fielding the questions. Wessels produced the show for five years.
Even though he is, as he put it, semi-retired, Wessels, 78, is once again a consultant for the retreat center. The center has relaunched its marketing program and Wessels’ idea of retreat coordinators and captains for each parish has been revived. Deacon John Ruscheinsky, who is IHRC director, and Deacon Tom Heafey, parish retreat coordinator, are traveling the diocese now promoting retreats, taking up where their predecessors left off.
Msgr. Rosage, now retired, sees God’s hand in the work he and Wessels accomplished in getting the retreat center built. “From a human point of view, the building should not even be standing,” he said.
Wessels is matter-of-fact in discussing his years of association with Immaculate Heart, yet the center is close to his heart.
His greatest reward, he said, is “the five million friends I’ve made ... in every corner of the diocese. I’ve worked with so many people, everywhere I go, I recognize people who are friends.”
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