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
Father Ralph Schwemin accomplished much as a priest: ‘Over 40 years, I added a small parish to the diocese’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Dec. 15, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Ralph Schwemin is 92 years old. (IR photo)
At age 92, and retired since 1983, Father Ralph H. Schwemin currently lives in a compact bungalow on Spokane’s north side, in the historic Garland district. The tall, bespectacled priest, clad in rumpled trousers, a red checked wool shirt, and suspenders, greets a visitor with a broad smile and a handshake that has lost none of its firmness. The living room of his warm home includes metal art pieces on the walls, executed by the priest in years gone by, and an up-to-date, large flat-screen television.
The future priest was born Nov. 21, 1913, in Ferdinand, Idaho. “My father, John Henry Schwemin, had a little ranch outside of Ferdinand,” Father Schwemin recalls, “up toward Keuterville, about three miles outside what was known as Icicle Flats. But I don’t have much memory of him because he died in, I think, 1920, when I was about six years old or so, in that influenza that killed a million people in the United States.”
Ralph was the middle child between two brothers. After his father’s death, his mother, Josephine Kuther Schwemin, married a man named Emil Renggli. She had three more children, two girls and a boy.
Unable to make the payments on the farm property, the couple lost their land. The family moved to a cabin in what was called Lawyer’s Canyon. Father Schwemin says he can remember his stepfather leaving his rifle leaning against the door of the cabin because they could hear “the caterwauling of a cougar; he was going to save whatever livestock he had, and I think the only thing he had was one milk cow.”
Six months later, Emil Renggli found a job on a ranch in Prosser, Wash. “I served Mass there for Father Tom Cooney,” Father Schwemin remembers, “who later on became chaplain at Walla Walla, at St. Mary’s [Hospital] – a wonderful old guy. He gave me 10 cents a week for serving, which was a lot of money in those days.”
The young lad worked in the fields of farmers in the vicinity. “I worked there thinning head lettuce. I can remember crawling down through the rows, about six inches in between the head lettuce, and I got a prize for being the fastest worker. All day, a little kid, you know.”
When Ralph’s stepfather lost the job in Prosser, he found another one in Page, Wash. “We went to school there, in an old Ford bus, about four or five of us kids, at Eureka, which is out by Walla Walla.”
In 1924, Emil Renggli “became sick and died in Walla Walla.” This time, however, Ralph’s mother received enough life insurance benefits that “she bought a little house in Clarkston, Wash., on Seventh Street. My grandparents, when they retired, had moved to Lewiston, Idaho,” just across the river from Clarkston. “There she was, a widow with six kids, $35 a month from welfare. That was quite a bit of money in those days, but to increase her earnings she made home brew and sold it. We were raided once, but they didn’t do anything about it because they were just happy they didn’t have to support us any more than they did.”
Ralph attended Holy Family School in Clarkston. “I used to work in the Sisters’ garden, and sweep off their porch, and things like that, in exchange for breakfast. They would feed us once in a while. At home, we would travel two miles across the old iron bridge to the where the bakery was, to pick up day-old bread for five cents for a couple of loaves. Bread and beans was our fare for years down there. It was touch-and-go. We were as poor as church mice ever could be.”
Commenting on his years at Holy Family School, Father Schwemin says, “I kind of hated it. They lined us up for confessions every Friday, according to the grades, and you had to go to confession whether you wanted to or not. There were a whole bunch of Protestant churches on the way up there, and I used to envy them because they didn’t have to do anything like that.”
Which reminds Father Schwemin of an opinion: “I think the greatest thing that they ever did was to have this general absolution, and it’s a shame that they’re wiping it out, you know. That was one of the greatest innovations that they ever made in the church.”
Young Ralph served Mass for the pastor of Holy Family Parish, Father Edmund Jordan. “In the seventh and eighth grade, he would come over (to the school) and teach catechism,” Father Schwemin says. “He took the Homiletic Review, and he had a photographic memory. On Monday, he would ask (the class) about the sermon (from Sunday Mass), and I was the only one that knew anything about what had been said, and he figured I had a vocation.” Hearty chuckling. “So he took me out to meet Bishop White, who succeeded Bishop Schinner, at Colfax, and introduced me to him as a candidate (for the priesthood). So the bishop says, ‘Fine.’”
Before he left for the seminary in Ohio, Father Jordan bought Ralph “two suits, two pair of pants, and vests, for $19. Just think what you would pay for that today, huh? He put a tag around my neck and shipped me off to the Pontifical College Josephinum at Columbus, Ohio. So I spent 12 years there.”
Father Schwemin never had enough money to go home during vacations, so he stayed there during the summer, working at odd jobs. “I think I painted every windowsill during the summer that there was there.”
During his seminary years, especially during the summers when he had time on his hands, the future priest discovered that he had a talent for learning languages.
“One summer I spent eight hours a day, for 30 days, just reading French with a grammar and a dictionary. I could read French today. I took the Reader’s Digest in French for years, and I took it in German. Then later on I got interested in Hebrew.”
Ordained for the Diocese of Spokane on May 25, 1941, the new priest’s first assignment was as assistant pastor for Spokane’s Sacred Heart Parish. The summer immediately following ordination, however, Bishop Charles White sent Father Schwemin to Walla Walla to take care of the two parishes there at the same time, St. Patrick and St. Francis of Assisi. “All the priests were on retreat,” Father Schwemin explains.
While he was in Walla Walla, the newly ordained priest was called upon to say Mass for the First Communion group at St. Francis Parish, and the Italian-American Catholics at the time had a custom of giving each first communicant a sponsor. “The sponsors would come, and some of them hadn’t been to church or Communion, or confession for 30 or 40 years,” Father Schwemin says. “I didn’t know any Italian then, so (Bishop White) says, ‘Just listen, and if they say (this one Italian word), then give absolution.” (Hearty laughter.)
Over the years of his ministry in the Diocese of Spokane, Father Schwemin counts numerous accomplishments, including serving in various parishes around the diocese; the establishment in 1958 of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Parish, in Spokane’s northwest Indian Trail area; teaching at Marycliff High School (closed in the mid-1970s); and being appointed by Bishop Bernard Topel in1964 as “television director” for the diocese, which included hosting a weekly TV program on KHQ called From a Pastor’s Study. Broadcasting was nothing new for Father Schwemin, however. Since 1945 he had hosted a weekly Thursday morning devotional program, The Bible, for a Spokane radio station.
Over the years, Father Schwemin maintained his interest in languages, still working easily today with Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. While in the seminary, he took one year of Hebrew, then he studied the language on his own for another 25 years or so. Father Schwemin tutored Spokane priest and Gonzaga University professor emeritus Father Charles Skok in Hebrew for six months before the latter left for Rome’s Angelicum University, in 1960, to earn a doctorate in sacred theology.
“One of the requirements to get into the Angelicum was Hebrew,” Father Skok says, “and it was kind of rudimentary, but I learned enough to pass the examination. (Father Schwemin) saved me at least a semester’s worth of work with a professor that, I later found out, was very tough.”
To this day, Father Schwemin consults a Hebrew Bible near the comfortable chair where he reads and watches television.
The year he was a deacon, he spent the summer months in Spokane, teaching catechism classes. Bishop White asked the young man to translate into Latin some of the diocese’s marriage tribunal cases to be sent to the proper Vatican office for consideration. “He gave me a number of cases and told me it would probably take me a month or so to do it. I got ’em done in a week, you know, and brought ’em back. And later he called me in and he says, ‘Mr. Schwemin,’ he says, ‘You’re going to have to use more simple Latin, they wouldn’t understand this Latin in Rome.’ I was pretty good at languages.”
Not least among Father Schwemin’s accomplishments, in the mid-1960s he learned to ride a unicycle. One of his public demonstrations was during half-time for a basketball game at Holy Names Academy (closed in the early ‘70s). “The Sisters used to get a kick out of seeing me going up and down the blacktop on my unicycle,” Father Schwemin recalls with a laugh. At the time, he wouldn’t allow a photograph of himself on the unicycle, saying, “It wouldn’t be dignified.” In 1967, he told the Inland Register that learning to ride a unicycle simply proved his thesis that “the physical coordination developed by balancing and gymnastics helps the learning process.”
Being athletic and having linguistic gifts aren’t all that has characterized Father Schwemin’s life and ministry, however. In 1947, the Walla Walla Union Bulletin featured a photo of the priest doing carpentry work for the rectory for the new St. Joseph Parish in Dayton, Wash. Father Schwemin poured the foundation for the rectory and put up most of the framework. A few years later, he used his metal lathe to produce a large crucifix for church use at Easter. He also built the sanctuary railing, baptismal font, and a complete set of altar candlesticks. Still, “I’m no artist,” Father Schwemin declared.
Looking back over his many years of priesthood, the most difficult part of being a priest, for Father Schwemin, was “remembering names.... I remember faces well, but names not so well.”
Father Schwemin thinks that “practically always I was a square stick in a round hole. I just didn’t fit in the job. It was just too sublime as far as I was concerned. But I tried my best, and a few things I was kind of proud of. One, for over 50 years I never missed an appointment or came late for Mass at all; I was always on time. I thought that was pretty good.”
He also enjoyed giving instructions to converts. “I figured that if I did any good, that’s where I would do some good. So I’d sit there in the evenings, at times it was until 10 o’clock at night. We didn’t have the RCIA,” the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “We gave all the instructions personally, and I’d average at least 10 or 12 instructions a year. Figure that out over 40 years, I added a small parish to the diocese.”