From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

‘The needs remain the same,’ says Catholic Charities director

Story and photo by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Feb. 27, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Donna Hanson celebrates 25 years of ministry with Catholic Charities, Spokane, this year. (IR photo)

“The needs remain basic,” said Donna Hanson, director of Catholic Charities in Spokane. “People need food and shelter.”

Hanson speaks with the authority and knowledge that come with long years of experience. On March 1, she will note 25 years as director of the diocesan agency that serves the poor and vulnerable.

Hanson was unique in her post when she started. Msgr. Frank Bach, her first boss, recalled that she was “the first or second” lay person to be named a Charities director. In those days, “Usually they were priests or nuns,” he said.

Hanson has actually been at Catholic Charities longer than 25 years. She had just completed a master’s degree at the University of St. Louis, and her husband, Bob, had a job in Spokane.

Father Bach was attending a meeting in St. Louis and interviewed her in the lobby of a hotel during the World Series, a fact that Hanson remembers very well. (She even remembers the teams that were in the Series that year: the Cardinals and the Yankees.)

She started her new job, working with unwed mothers, in November 1964. She worked at Charities for two years and then took a job with the school district. Her involvement with Catholic Charities continued, though, as she became a volunteer at the agency.

Later she was asked to serve on the Catholic Charities Board. In 1972 she began a two-year term as its chairperson. When that term ended she applied to become Charities’ associate director. She remembers Father Bach’s words: “You’re in the building so much, you might as well (apply).” Father Bach retired in 1978 and Hanson took his place.

A deep commitment to the less fortunate underlies all of Hanson’s work. Her job is to fulfill the mission of the Catholic Charities Board, and she keeps two questions uppermost in her mind: “How can we best serve?” Then, “How can we best do that?”

The answer has taken Catholic Charities down many different avenues. Under Hanson’s guidance, a number of low-income housing complexes have opened throughout the diocese. One such complex, Bernadette Place, was designed specifically for disadvantaged adults. Others were designed for low-income individuals, and for homeless women with children.

As families became more fragmented, counseling services expanded. Services to the elderly and handicapped persons also increased, enabling them to remain in their own homes rather than live in nursing homes. Other new programs gave assistance to first-time single mothers.

One of the biggest projects undertaken by Catholic Charities was a capital campaign to build a new House of Charity, which ministers to the street people of downtown Spokane, and a new St. Margaret Shelter, which provides transitional housing for women with children. The agency had never done such a campaign before and Hanson was greatly gratified at the response: “We raised the money in nine months,” she said,

Another big project was bringing the National Catholic Charities conference to Spokane in September 1994, a project which took two years, she said.

One particularly memorable moment came in 1987.

As a member of the advisory board of the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, she was invited to address Pope John Paul II during his visit to the United States that year. She will long remember the date: Sept. 18 – her birthday. She was the first lay woman to give such a speech before a pope.

Even more memorable, though, was her month-long visit to Bucharest, Romania, in 1992. “It was such a grace,” she said, “to be there simply in solidarity with the people. Some of those relationships continue to this day.”

Hanson’s work day is not that much different from other busy executives. She rises at 5 a.m., does dictation for an hour and then rides her bike. Finally it’s out the door to morning Mass at Sacred Heart Parish and to her office at the Catholic Pastoral Center by 8. Her schedule is dominated by meetings and she does some traveling. Her office light will often be burning long past quitting time.

Hanson’s staff praises her and find inspiration in her commitment to the poor.

Joanne Nilles worked as Hanson’s secretary and administrative assistant until her own retirement in 2001. “She has a great love for people,” Nilles said, “especially children. She would try to do as much as she could for them.”

Nilles described Hanson as having a “great enthusiasm and a high energy level. There was always something going on; she made things happen.” Along the way to making things happen, Nilles said, Hanson “always assumed you could do whatever she asked of you. So we always did. She was very encouraging.”

Rob McCann is Catholic Charities’ Associate Director in Spokane. The New York native said Hanson is one of the main reasons he decided to work for Catholic Charities in Spokane. “She was well known nationally,” he said. “I knew of her before I ever heard of Spokane.”

What McCann finds unique is Hanson’s style of “servant leadership. It’s a whole different level how she takes the higher ground of compassion and unconditional love.”

Mary Cole replaced Joanne Nilles in the Catholic Charities offices. She shared similar thoughts about working for Hanson.

“There’s never a dull moment” she said. “She’s a real inspiration; she’s so committed to vulnerable people. She really lives out the mission of having compassion for others, and making sure everyone is treated equally.”

Even the newest member of the Catholic Charities staff finds Hanson inspiring. Receptionist Rachel Martin said Hanson is “motivating and extremely intelligent. She’s awesome.”

Mary Ann Heskett recently retired as Charities’ development director. Heskett started at Charities because her friend, Donna Hanson, asked her to help with the Christmas collection one year. The two women have remained friends; they belong to the same parish and their children grew up together.

“It’s been great working for her,” Heskett said. “Donna has always been a great encourager. She likes creativity and likes to get the job done. I’ve always respected her leadership.”

Heskett also said Hanson is the “smartest person I know and she has the biggest heart. She can worry about the women in Africa and the women in her own country.” The reason for that, said Heskett, is Hanson’s commitment to a spiritual life. “She stays close to the Lord. She often says ‘It was God and me when I came into the world; it will be God and me when I leave.’”

Msgr. Bach echoed those thoughts: “She’s very caring and has a deep commitment to the church and to hurting individuals,” he said.

Bishop William Skylstad congratulated her on her 25th anniversary. “She has accomplished her work with great skill, deep faith and strong commitment,” he said. “I am most grateful to Donna for her leadership, her vision ... and her collaborative efforts in unifying our outreach to those in need.”

At this point, she has no plans to retire. This may be partly attributable to her high energy: “I’ve got lots of projects going,” she said.

But it’s more than her energy; Hanson also has an eye on the future. “We’re doing this for the next generation. We’re planting the seeds and leaving the rest to God.”

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