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

Msgr. Frank Bach: ‘the image I’ll take to my dying day is that the priest is a servant’

Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Jan. 12, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Msgr. Frank Bach Though officially retired, Msgr. Frank Bach keeps busy with a number of projects, including his volunteer work with the Christmas Bureau. (IR photo)

As Christmas approached, Msgr. Frank Bach, one of the senior priests of the Diocese of Spokane, was as busy as Santa himself. His location wasn’t the North Pole, however; it was Spokane’s Christmas Bureau, housed in a warehouse-sized building at the Spokane Interstate Fairground.

The Christmas Bureau is Spokane’s venerable annual program that distributes toys and food for the area’s needy families. Msgr. Bach has worked with the Christmas Bureau since 1999, and for a couple of years he served as director, but now he is involved as a kind of general troubleshooter and all-around factotum.

“My professional expertise,” he quips, “is making coffee.”

Msgr. Bach clears his busy, joyful schedule to talk with a visitor, off in a corner of the huge, beehive-busy building.

Born Oct. 11, 1930, in Johnstown, Penn., Father Bach – who prefers that people skip the honorific title of “monsignor” – spent only the first 12 years of his life in that city known for its terrible 1889 flood. Young Frank Bach was there long enough, however, to serve at the first Mass of a newly ordained priest, the future Msgr. David Rosage, who also grew up in Johnstown, and who also went on to make a name for himself in the Diocese of Spokane (“Msgr. David Rosage at 93: a retreat center, more than 40 books, and a life of happiness in the priesthood,” IR 11/10/05).

“I was in eighth grade” when Msgr. Rosage was ordained, said Father Bach, “and I went off to the seminary the very next year” – that worthy institution being the Pontifical College Josephinum, near Columbus, Ohio, which Bishop Skylstad also attended.

After 12 years of priestly formation, he was ordained a priest of the Spokane Diocese on May 26, 1956.

Following ordination, Father Bach’s first assignment was to be assistant pastor at Spokane’s St. Ann Parish. The pastor was Father John Prince, who died in 1994. “He had a doctorate in canon law,” Father Bach said; “he was a holy terror, but he was a wonderful guy. My first and only experience as an assistant pastor was very positive.”

In 1960, Father Bach was assigned to the Spokane Indian Reservation “as an administrator/pastor,” he said, with “four little churches, headquartered at Wellpinit. I went out there the second of January, 1960, in the middle of a snowstorm. I was there for three winters, until the fall of ’62.”

During his time in Wellpinit, Father Bach had the additional part-time responsibility of being Msgr. Rosage’s assistant at Immaculate Heart Retreat House.

“While I was at Wellpinit, in order to give me an opportunity for survival, and reasonable food, I would go in [to Spokane] and I would be there Friday for the opening of the retreat. I’d usually give the opening pitch, welcoming everyone and so on, and then I’d be there for confessions on Saturday, and then Saturday afternoon I’d head out to Wellpinit, and I’d be there until the following Friday.”

Along the way, for two summers Father Bach was Diocesan Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the religious education program for children not attending Catholic schools. Two Franciscan nuns came up from Baker, now Baker City, Ore., he said, to run the religious education program. “They had developed their own curriculum, their own books, everything. Bishop Topel said to me, ‘Frank, we have to have a priest signing the checks, but don’t get too involved; they know what they’re doing.’ And they did a grand job.”

After two years, Bishop Bernard Topel sent Father Bach to The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., to earn a master’s degree in Social Work, because the diocese needed someone to head up Catholic Charities.

“I said, ‘Social work? What’s social work? Where is Catholic Charities?’ I think I had been in the Charities office once. So my motivation was obedience.”

Classmates included the future Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, and the future Cardinal Francis Stafford, now serving in Vatican City.

“The principles of social work basically changed my whole priesthood,” said Father Bach. The two years at Catholic University “were a very significant time for me in terms of my personal development – coming to appreciate what I could do, because as with many people, I grew up with a rather poor self-image of what I could do.” The school “opened my eyes as to what I could do -- never dreaming that I would ever be involved with administration. I never had any ambition of that kind. But it came along with the job as Catholic Charities director, and it turned out that I apparently had some aptitude for that. So that worked out well for me.”

When the Second Vatican Council came along in the mid-1960s, “that was the most exciting thing in my priesthood. For me it was a welcome opportunity. I was in Catholic Charities at the time, I wasn’t in pastoral ministry, so I didn’t have to put up with the challenges of changing the liturgy and renovating the churches, but I was on the priests’ senate, and we had a group of priests that would get together each month and strategize about what new things we could try. It was just an exciting time for me.”

The only somewhat frustrating experience Father Bach can think of, from all his years as a priest, was when he was chancellor and vicar for administration during Bishop Lawrence Welsh’s tenure (1978-1990). “Some of us who have been in leadership positions, like pastors, or director of Catholic Charities, find it difficult to be second in command. It was kind of stressful because you didn’t have the authority, but you had to make a lot of the decisions.

“The seven years I was in that position probably were the most difficult for me personally, but looking back on it, I think we accomplished a lot. We started the Catholic Foundation, we started personnel policies for lay people [in ministry], not only in the Chancery, but out in the parishes where they had never had any opportunities to have their own retirement plan, or medical; it was up to the goodwill of the pastor, and if the pastor had some social justice concept then they were taken care of; but if not, then they were basically out on the street. We also instituted a retirement program for the priests, and we started the secretariats during that time, for better or worse – middle management.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Father Bach served as pastor of, first, Spokane’s Sacred Heart Parish and, second, St. Mary Parish in Spokane Valley. Looking back on those experiences, he identifies “getting to know the people, and being welcomed into people’s families” as high points.

“It was a very edifying experience. There are so many wonderful Catholic families, and the changes in the church allowed them to participate in the church in ways that were unheard of earlier. I think that was a wonderful benefit to the parishes, but also for them in terms of being able to go back to their own families and be proud of their church.

“I think that’s why this whole bankruptcy thing is so devastating, because it’s tarnishing the image [of the church] with the young people, who were already having struggles with the institutional church, and this is really just putting nails in the casket. I feel very bad about that.

“But personally, I’ve always felt welcome in people’s homes, and I’ve developed some wonderful friends over the years among the laity, and I find them, on average, very talented,” he said. “They have a lot to give to the church. I’m frustrated when I hear of clergy not welcoming the input” of the laity, or feeling threatened by that input. “My whole idea of leadership is to try to draw the most talented people around you, motivate them, and then get out of their way so they can do what they can do. I think when you do that, the parish will be alive and growing.”

About his years as director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane, Father Bach says, “That was a wonderful period in my life. It was a wonderful challenge and opportunity for me. I was director at the time when the so-called war on poverty was just beginning. Things that I’m most proud of are the development of the neighborhood centers – which are no longer run by Catholic Charities, but we started them all – and our whole network of housing projects for the elderly. We started all those in the late ’60s and early ’70s. A wonderful service to the seniors in our area.”

The Christmas Bureau operates for only a few weeks each year, of course, so Father Bach has other ways to occupy himself the rest of the time. “I commit one full weekend each month to two different parishes,” he said, “Sacred Heart Parish in Spokane and St. Joseph Parish in Otis Orchards. Other weekends, I help out where needed.

For the last three years, he’s been helping spread the message of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and emergency relief organization. He’s one of a group of retired priests who travel the country, filling in weekends for pastors. The farthest he’s traveled in that role is Hawaii, where he ministered “on a military base,” Father Bach says with a laugh. “I want that to be clear!”

He is an enthusiastic gardener. “I love to garden,” he said. “I have a greenhouse, and I grow most of my plants from seed. It’s over at St. Mary Parish, where I moved the greenhouse while I was pastor there. I give away most of the plants. When you start things from seed, you don’t get five tomato plants, you get 50 tomato plants, so I give ‘em away in the spring. When I have extra stuff, I put it in the back of church.”

Both vegetables and flowers fill Father Bach’s greenhouse, with some of the flowers decorating St. Mary Church.

“I think it’s a wonderful privilege to be a priest,” he said. “I’ve never regretted that decision, nor, fortunately, have I ever struggled with that decision. I was fortunate during the ’60s and ’70s not to have a real questioning, ‘Should I be a priest or not?’

“To me,” he said, “the image I’ll take to my dying day is that the priest is a servant. A priest from California gave us a retreat a number of years ago, and he said a wonderfully profound thing: ‘a priest is a sheep in shepherd’s clothing.’ We need to remember that. I’m sad that more young people don’t see this as a wonderful opportunity to make God real. There’s a deep spiritual hunger out there, and the church is a wonderful means of connecting with that if we just use it well.”

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