Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Msgr. David Rosage at 93: a retreat center, more than 40 books, and a life of happiness in the priesthood
(From the , 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Left: Msgr. David Rosage founded Spokane’s Immaculate Heart Retreat Center. (IR photo)
With more than 40 books to his credit – not to mention countless magazine articles, newspaper columns, and pamphlets – Msgr. David Rosage is without a doubt the most-published priest ever to serve in the Diocese of Spokane.
These days, the founder and former director of Spokane’s Immaculate Heart Retreat Center lives quietly at Rockwood Lane retirement community. At age 93, Msgr. Rosage is disinclined to write more books, but he still says Mass each day, celebrated quietly in the privacy of his room, and meets regularly with perhaps a dozen or so individuals to give personal spiritual direction.
Indeed, Msgr. Rosage has had various spiritual directors himself over the decades, from the time he was in the seminary. As a man responsible in great part for the continued presence of retreat ministry in the Spokane Diocese, he learned lessons early on that helped guide him later in life.
“The greatest thing I learned (from spiritual directors) was to slow down; slow down and give the Lord some time. Also, to have a well-planned day – and that was pretty hard, because you never knew when you were going to be called upon to do something else.”
David Rosage, born Feb. 19, 1913, and raised in Johnstown, Penn. As a seminarian at Ohio’s Pontifical College Josephinum (the same seminary attended years later by Bishop Skylstad), he was recruited by Spokane’s Bishop Charles White to spend summers teaching catechism classes in Eastern Washington.
After his B.A. and M.A. degrees, he was ordained a priest of the Spokane Diocese on May 30, 1943.
His first assignment was as assistant pastor at Spokane’s St. Anne Parish. In those days, he also taught religion classes at the all-girls Marycliff High School. In 1946, he was named Diocesan Youth Director while continuing at St. Anne. Ten years later he became the founding pastor of Spokane’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish. It was seven months later, in 1957, that his life-long love and work came along.
“I was laying tile one day,” Msgr. Rosage recalls, “in the part of the school we were building that would be used for Mass until a church could be built. Bishop Bernard Topel came in. He said, ‘I’d like to ask you a question. Did you ever think of asking a mother to give up a newly born babe?’ I said, ‘No, I never did.’ And he said, ‘That’s what I came to ask you to do. I want you to set up a retreat movement, find a piece of property, build a retreat house, and pay for it.’ He said, ‘The diocese cannot help you.’
“Bishop Topel was a very spiritual man. He saw the parishes pretty well established, so this thing hit him just like that,” said Msgr. Rosage. Bishop Topel felt that the Church needed to “help people advance spiritually,” through establishing a retreat house.
“That was nearly 50 years ago,” said Msgr. Rosage. “And we always said, ‘Yes, Bishop.’ I did it out of obedience.”
After searching Eastern Washington, he heard of a family selling their home and property on Moran Prairie, south of Spokane. “We just settled right in and we bought it,” he said. “I brought the bishop out, and he had no qualms about it. He liked the property. “
The land included a red brick house, an old fruit orchard filled with trees half- or three-quarters dead, and a chicken coop that got immediate attention: “I borrowed a tractor, I learned to drive it, and I just pushed the whole thing over,” he said.
Next came a campaign to raise funds for the new retreat house, and Father Rosage had to start from scratch. “We didn’t have a dime to start with,” he said. “I went to a meeting every night for about five years, with the exception of Friday night and Saturday nights.”
Married couples would invite another half-dozen or so couples over. In those days before VCRs or DVDs, Father Rosage would make a slide presentation and ask for donations.
The first retreat at the new Immaculate Heart Retreat House was full: a women’s retreat, given by Bishop Topel.
With no hesitation, Msgr. Rosage declares that the most satisfying part of his ministry over the decades has been giving retreats himself. He traveled extensively in the United States (including 17 trips to San Francisco in one year), Canada, and three times to the Holy Land.
Retreat ministry had other rewards as well.
“We kept track” of those who entered the Church after making a retreat, he said. By the time he left IHRC in 1978, that number was over 500, many of them recovering alcoholics who had discovered God in that retreat experience. “I thought maybe it was just an emotional thing from the retreat, but some of them are my best friends today.”
The most difficult experience he had as a priest was “being all alone” when it came to the retreat house project. “See, Bishop Topel was really new, and he had no experience as a bishop; he had been teaching in his classroom all those years,” said the monsignor. Many, both laity and priests, thought the retreat center was a foolhardy, expensive enterprise that would “run the diocese into debt, oh, you name it. And of course, I was the butt of that. That was hard to take. And most of them – well, I shouldn’t say this, but most of them had a great loyalty to the Jesuits, and they thought the Jesuits should do this,” rather than the diocese.
Like some of his fellow senior priests, Msgr. Rosage was in ministry for some 20 years prior to the Second Vatican Council. He insists that he had little difficulty making the transition. “We had, oh, maybe a half-dozen or a dozen priest friends, and we would meet, informally you know, and we would discuss it and help one another. But I didn’t see much difficulty in that.”
He was named a monsignor in 1967.
Msgr. Rosage says that the retreats that remain most in his mind are the ones that lasted for 30 days, because over 30 days “there was always a great conversion in the person’s life, and we could see this grow and develop. We had a number of 30-day retreats. If you’re giving a contemplative retreat, a priest can only take about six or seven people, so we would get a number of people as part of the team. (Jesuit) Father (Armand) Nigro was one of them. In fact, he was my backbone in this whole thing.” Each of the 30-day retreats was an Ignatian retreat, utilizing the “Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.”
In retreat ministry in general, Msgr. Rosage says, people’s needs and preferences remained pretty much the same over the years. “We had retreats of every kind you could think of, so it’s hard to say people were looking for this or that, because often they didn’t even know what they were looking for at first, themselves.”
Being in the position of trying to help others with their spirituality and prayer life, Msgr. Rosage says, made it even more imperative for himself to practice what he preached. “I had to pray myself before I could introduce somebody else to it. The only difficulty was that I was so busy all by myself, doing everything, including janitor work, and washing dishes, that I didn’t have much time for prayer, except with the retreatants.”
The first three books Msgr. Rosage penned were Letters to an Altar Boy, published in 1952 by the Bruce Publishing Co., of Milwaukee, Wis., one of the most prominent Catholic publishers of the era. The book went through three hardback editions and sold more than 100,000 copies. It was followed by Crumbs From the Master’s Table and At Mass With Mary. The Bruce Publishing Co. re-issued Letters to an Altar Boy in paperback in 1963, newly illustrated and priced at just 95 cents.
By 1980, the monsignor had sold an estimated 3 million copies of his various books around the world. According to an Inland Register article from December of that year, all the royalties were simply routed to IHRC’s bank account.
“I was always happy in the priesthood,” Msgr. Rosage says with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, “and I always had lots of work.”
(A few of Msgr. Rosage’s books have been reprinted and are available at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center’s book store. Call (509) 448-1224 for information.)