Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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

Morning Star Boys’ Ranch director: ‘I vowed ... if anybody went hungry, it would be the adults’

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the July 5, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)

Before he was Father Joseph Weitensteiner, before he was Father Joe of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, he was Joe Weitensteiner, a Boy Scout leader, a successful real estate salesman.

A piece of property had been left to the diocese, some 50 years ago, for the purpose of a boys’ ranch, not unlike Boys’ Town of Nebraska fame. The priest who had been assigned to oversee the operation went back to school to become a psychiatric social worker.

“I was leading a successful Scout troop,” said Father Weitensteiner during a phone interview last week. “Thornton Murphy asked me to be on the Board of Trustees,” and then asked Joe Weiten-steiner, Scout leader, salesman, to take over the running of the operation until the director’s return.

In preparation, Father Weitensteiner visited similar operations in other parts of the country. These were troubled children; often, children no one else wanted; often, children no one else was willing to care for.

In particular, one operation he visited didn’t impress him much.

“One of the first things I didn’t like, most of the adults (on the staff) ate fancier meals than the kids,” he remembered. “I thought that was wrong. I vowed that the (adult staff at Morning Star) would eat with the kids, and if anybody went hungry, it would be the adults.”

That was the kind of commitment he brought to that ministry in 1957. That commitment continues today.

He returned as director of the Ranch in 1966, and has retained that title ever since, even while ministering as pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Spokane; even after retiring from parish ministry in 1997.

Recent allegations of abuse at the Ranch, reported by Spokane’s daily newspaper, sadden Father Weitensteiner.

From the beginning, Morning Star has worked to serve the needs of at-risk boys. “These little fellas would come to us, through Catholic Charities, through the juvenile courts,” Father Weitensteiner said. “There are kids here right now, who’ve been everywhere else and it didn’t work there, but they’re working here. They’re surviving here and they didn’t survive elsewhere. Some (of the boys come from) many, many foster homes… Some of these kids just don’t have families, period.”

It concerns him that the attacks may erode support for the Ranch and its ministry. The Spokane community – not just the Catholic community, but the wider Spokane community – has helped the Ranch in its work with troubled youth.

Money can sometimes be tight. Father Weitensteiner remembered having to write to the Ranch’s milk supplier “and say there’s no money to pay the milk bill. He called and said the boys won’t go without milk.” He had to make a similar call to a heating oil company and got the same response: ‘“The boys won’t go without heat.’ That’s how supportive Spokane has been throughout the years.

“One time I needed a van. The van we had wasn’t safe,” he said. After an appeal for funds, “I got enough money to buy two. Spokane has been incredibly supportive of the ranch.

“That’s what worries me,” he said, “when the boss’s name is mud. There are kids here right now. I need money to keep those kids smiling, and income for the boys who are going to be coming here next year and next year.”

According to Ranch staff, calls from alumni and supporters have been steady, offering prayers, offering unconditional support for the Ranch’s ministry, past and present.

One message came from an alumnus from the late 1960s.

“Dear Father Joe,

“I … could not let the day pass without expressing my appreciation for your life’s work and commitment to helping boys who others cannot or will not help. Many of my early days were a shipwreck. Before I lived at the Ranch I experienced trauma that left an indelible pain that seems to have made me mad at the world and beyond the reach of ordinary people…. I know what an opportunity it is to live at the Ranch and have dedicated people teach you how to take small steps forward….

“Sadly, today’s writing in the newspaper shows that no amount of virtue, no amount of public service, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of care for boys or people that others cannot or will not help will spare you from untrue assertions, misrepresentation, expedience, or commercialism.”

Another letter from a Ranch alumnus who lived at Morning Star in the late 1970s was submitted to Spokane’s daily newspaper on June 7. The publication so far has yet to print the letter. It reads, in part:

“… Father Joe is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known. This wonderful man has devoted his lifetime toward helping young boys turn their lives around so that they can become good, honest, trustworthy citizens of their communities…. I’m amazed at how many of (Morning Star’s employees) are still on staff after 25 years!

“I do not recall any instances when boys at MSBR were ‘loaned out’ to men for a weekend. To my knowledge, no such practice was ever allowed – and believe me, we Ranch boys kept ourselves well informed!

“… I thank God that my parents had the courage and foresight to place me in Father Joe’s outstanding, caring program those many years ago. That sure changed my life!”

A recent letter from Morning Star to the organization’s supporters pointed out that the Ranch considers child safety and welfare issues “our highest priority…. Our mission is to serve boys in need.”

During a July 1 press opportunity at Morning Star, MSBR assistant program director Colene Rubertt pointed out that nearly 1,300 boys have passed through Morning Star over the course of 48 years.

“Morning Star ministers in cooperation with the strict oversight of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services,” she said. “Morning Star has been and continues to be in good standing with DSHS. Any allegation of abuse is investigated promptly and thoroughly.”

Morning Star’s Board of Directors, she said, “is exploring the best options for examining recent allegations related to incidents during the 1970s.”

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