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

Bishop White Seminary marks 50 years of priestly formation programs

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Oct. 5, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Bishop White Seminary, 429 E. Sharp Ave. in Spokane, celebrates 50 years of forming men for ordained ministry in the Diocese of Spokane. (Undated IR file photo)

Bishop White Seminary, located just a stone’s throw from Gonzaga University’s Administration Building, is one of the institutions of the Diocese of Spokane that many take for granted. It seems to have been there just about forever, serving in stalwart fashion, over the decades, to educate and form young men on their journey toward ordination to the priesthood. The 50th anniversary of Bishop White Seminary presents an appropriate moment to tell the glance back at its origins and narrate some of its colorful history.

The old mansion at 429 E. Sharp Ave., home to Bishop White Seminary for 50 years now, was first the home of Mr. and Mrs. John T. Huetter and their family of nine children. John Huetter was in the construction business, and the Huetters were Catholics active in nearby St. Aloysius Parish.

Paul Huetter, now living in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho is a grandson of the builder.

“My grandfather built the house around 1889, 1890,” Paul Huetter says. “He built quite a few of the larger buildings in the Gonzaga area and in the downtown Spokane area after the big fire of 1889. He built DeSmet Hall on the Gonzaga campus, and he also built the foundation and first floor of the Administration Building. He was a stone mason and brick man, and after the fire everyone was looking for something that was more substantial. He kind of hit it right at the right time.”

According to Father George Haspedis, Rector of Bishop White Seminary 1988-1994, “Father Terrence Tully (d. 2002) used to maintain – we couldn’t document this – that Mother Cabrini came to Spokane on her way to Seattle, and couldn’t get the train, so she had to spend the night in Spokane, and she was invited to stay at the Huetter mansion.”

In 1942, the Huetters sold the mansion to the Diocese of Spokane for use as a residence for homeless boys, and the institution was named for St. John Bosco. The home was staffed by the Brothers of Holy Cross, a men’s Religious congregation. Father Michael Savelesky, now pastor of Spokane’s Assumption Parish, remembers that as a high school seminarian at Bishop White, in the early 1960s, he found blankets there that had “St. John Bosco Center for Boys” printed on them. “I always thought someone gave them to the seminary from some orphanage,” he says, “but that was the place!”

In 1946, differences between Catholic Charities and the Brothers concerning how the home should be operated led to the Brothers’ departure, and the old house became a Catholic Charities assisted living home for elderly but basically self-sufficient men, until 1956.

That year, the new bishop of the Spokane Diocese, Bishop Bernard J. Topel (d. 1986), anxious to provide a regional seminary program for boys in their junior and senior years of high school, decided that the old mansion would serve this purpose well. Bishop Topel named Father William Kelly (d. 1983) as the first rector – actually, the title then was “superior” – of the new seminary, and in the fall of 1956 Father Kelly welcomed the first seminarians to Bishop White Preparatory Seminary. The institution was named for Spokane’s Bishop Charles White, who had died the year before. The seminarians attended classes in the mansion itself, the present first floor rooms among those that became classrooms.

A year later, in September of 1957, someone hit on the idea of keeping a seminary diary, a custom maintained, apparently, until September of 1960. The diary was kept on 7.5-by-4.5-inch, lined, loose leaf pages in a slightly larger, black leather three-ring binder. Judging by the various styles of handwriting on the inked and penciled pages, a different seminarian was charged with making diary entries at various times, but virtually all of the entries are unsigned. (Editor’s note: Quotations from the diary here have been corrected for spelling, punctuation, and so forth.)

The first entry, dated Sept. 9, 1957, states matter-of-factly, “Had a normal day. Three-car auto accident in front of the school.”

The entry dated two days later states: “Attended Mass at Gonzaga Prep. today at 10:30. Some of our Seminarians served the Solemn High Mass said by Fr. (Irwin?) Toner (S.J.) and attended by his Excellency Bishop Topel. The bishop came to the Seminary for a short visit before Mass. In the afternoon we attended our regular classes.”

This diary is filled with sometimes delightful insights into daily life at Bishop White in the mid-1950s. Events that made it into the diary reveal something about what captured the attention of the adolescent boys who inhabited the house. On Thursday, Sept. 26, 1957, the scribe declared: “Exciting day today. Most of the lights burned out due to a hi-voltage mix-up in the circuit by the electrician.

“Started new schedule today. During 7:30-9 study period, upstairs toilet overflowed. Water ran down the stairs an inch deep. Water on the 3rd and 2nd floors an inch deep. Overflow was first discovered by N. Laverdiere, when it started to gush down from the ceiling into his room. Elec. organ got drenched.”

Although the chapel at Bishop White has undergone several remodelings over the years, when it was built in 1957, and dedicated by Bishop Topel, it was a significant development for the seminary. The diary writer for Nov. 20, 1957, noted: “Father (Ralph) Schwemin, of Chewelah, began our annual retreat today after his excellency Bishop Bernard J. Topel, D.D., Bishop of Spokane, officially dedicated our new chapel by offering Mass. During Mass, the bishop gave us a talk on how best to make a retreat. The bishop then had breakfast with us. Father (George) Haspedis is in the driver’s seat here at the seminary this week. Fathers (William) Kelly and (James) Ribble are both away.”

Evidently, this entry doesn’t refer to the official dedication of the chapel, however, as there is a entry dated Dec. 8 that reads more like the real thing: “Bishop Bernard J. Topel, D.D., Bishop of Spokane, dedicated the chapel at 10 and immediately after the dedication Father William Kelly offered mass in the presence of His Excellency bishop Topel, 30 visiting priests, and 34 seminarians, as well as many laymen. Father Haspedis delivered a very fine sermon and Bishop Topel spoke briefly after Mass.”

The last entry in the diary, dated Sept. 20, 1960, consists of two short sentences: “We had our first movie for the missions today. It was the story of Kim.” And the rest is silence.

It’s a pity that the diary wasn’t continued. It would have been fascinating to read seminarians’ comments on the events of the tumultuous ’60s, the unpredictable ’70s, and on to the present era. What we do have, however, are pages filled with notes on ordinary events from most of the first few years of everyday life at Bishop White Seminary, from a seminarian’s-eye-view. At the time it must have seemed like unremarkable, even boring stuff, but in retrospect the diary provides revealing, sometimes touching insights into the everyday history of Bishop White Seminary.

Father William Kelly served as Superior for the first two years of the new seminary’s existence, and in 1958 two classrooms, and office, and an expanded recreation room were added to the building. In 1958, Bishop Topel appointed Father Charles Skok to take over the position.

Father Skok has the distinction of being the only one to serve in this capacity at Bishop White on three separate occasions, 1958-1960, 1965-1968, and 1980-1983.

“When we had the freshmen and sophomores in high school, back in the late ’50s,” Father Skok recalls, “we had what we called the ‘day dogs,’ the ones who came in every day, and I don’t remember the exact numbers, but we had quite a number of kids who would arrive in time for eight o’clock Mass and then for classes. The kids were expected to be there for Mass five days a week. There was a kind of rivalry between the ‘day dogs’ and the boarders.

“I taught first and second year Latin in the morning before I went down to the Chancery office. The buildings (at Bishop White) that we had then were just super crowded. Oh, gosh, we had kids all over the place. We would have, with bunk beds, six or eight in one of those rooms upstairs. We priests who were there, we had just one bathroom and shower, and we had four priests there, so we had to figure out how to manage that. I remember that I tried to get up early to use the bathroom first. Actually, Father George Haspedis had a half bath downstairs, but the other three of us had to share one bathroom upstairs. Conditions were rather primitive there.”

From 1960 to 1962, Father (now Msgr.) William Van Ommeren served as Rector. In 1961, a gymnasium was built at Bishop White, which has since been torn down because the roof collapsed. “On my own part,” Msgr. Van Ommeren says, “they were difficult years. I was a pretty young priest, and I approached it with my own seminary background, both in Europe and here – that’s all I had to go by. But this was a very different idea of seminary. So I cringe at how harsh I must have been on the seminarians. I think most of them, at least that I see now, have forgiven me somehow or other. When the new students came, I defined myself to them as ‘I, Van, the Terrible.’ And if they laughed, I’d say, ‘Don’t laugh. Ask the ones who have been here for a year or two.’ I tried to scare them, but I had tongue-in-cheek with it.”

After Mater Cleri Seminary opened in Colbert, north of Spokane, Msgr. Van Ommeren was officially rector of both Bishop White and Mater Cleri, in addition to his full-time work at the Chancery as both Chancellor and head of the Marriage Tribunal. “I have nothing but gratitude about the staff at both Bishop White and Mater Cleri,” he says, “the priests that were in both places. They did the work, I didn’t. I was an absent landlord. I couldn’t do justice to Bishop White. I tried to do everything with the staff. I did as little as possible but let them do what they thought was best, and they rose to the occasion. The one thing that is most gratifying – and I had little to do with it – was that a couple of years ago we had a review of our clergy and how their experiences had been in different kinds of seminaries. The ones that had been at Bishop White Seminary, and at Mater Cleri, came out the most positive of all. They said that the staff treated them like human beings and were friendly and accessible and didn’t lord it over them. When I heard that close to 50 years later, I said to myself, ‘By golly, that was good.’ The priests who were there on the staff, and the lay people who worked there, they put out marvelously well. I have gratitude for that, but not for my being there. It was a fast growing-up experience for me.”

In 1962, a gymnasium was built on the seminary grounds. From 1963 to1965, a founding faculty member, Father (now Msgr.) James Ribble was rector. In 1963, the junior and senior students at Bishop White moved to Mater Cleri. “The idea,” says Father Savelesky, who was one of the seminarians who moved to Mater Cleri, “was that Mater Cleri would be the last two years of high school and the first two years of philosophy. They were busing the guys down to Gonzaga to go to college. They had huge problems commuting because the buses wouldn’t run, and during the winter there was ice and snow.”

In 1965, faculty and administrators decided that Mater Cleri wasn’t working out for the college students. “So,” Father Savelesky says, “I was in college at the time, and they decided to make Bishop White into the college program, and make it a four year program. At the time, I think we were one among less than 10 seminaries which were on a university campus, in a quasi-secular setting. This amounted to a whole different kind of formation. Father Skok was rector, and we were definitely ahead of our time. So Bishop White Seminary has been a college program ever since 1965.”

An annual event: The Bishop White Seminary community gathers for a group photo on the front steps of the building. (IR file photo, 1969)

Msgr. James Ribble, now a retired priest of the diocese, recalls that “it was a time when we had to make do with a very small budget and very extended hours for the people who taught. Many of the students have come back to say that they had a very fine education during those years. I remember some very fine young men, even those who did not go on to study for the priesthood. Those were difficult years but in some ways rewarding.”

During this era, Dan Kuhlman, today acting director and a long-time staff member of Spokane’s Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, attended Bishop White Seminary. He first attended as a high school freshman during the academic year of 1962-1963, moving on to the newly opened Mater Cleri Seminary in Colbert in the fall of ’63. He then returned to Bishop White for four years of college at Gonzaga University. “As a high school student,” Kuhlman recalls, “we had classes right there in the house, and the science lab was in the basement. We had about 30 kids there then. I was what they called a ‘day student.’ I went home at night, but there were boarders there, too. Bishop White had a huge impact on me. It bolstered my faith and my prayer life. The camaraderie and friendships, the community, praying together, the support of the priests involved, it was a real community life that really impressed me and helped me.”

Father Charles Skok became reector again in 1965 and served until 1968. “I was the first rector when the college level seminary moved to Bishop White,” he says. “By that time we had the dining room and so forth. I remember that Bishop Topel and I discussed it, and we decided that we should have a rule (of life to follow) for Bishop White, and so I wrote it on one sheet of paper and dittoed it to hand out. What we had with the college seminarians at Bishop White was what Bishop Topel had been used to at Borromeo Hall, the seminary at Carroll College in Helena, where he came from. Anyway, the college seminarians were very, very good students. Gosh, they were great. I really have very happy memories of them.”

For one academic year, 1968-1969, Father Philip Verhalen (who later left the priesthood) was rector. He was succeeded by Father (later Msgr.) John Donnelly (d. 2005) who remained in that position until 1974. Again, Father Savelesky was a seminarian during these years.

“During this era,” he explains, “one of the programs that developed was what they called ‘Bishop White Night.’ The whole idea was to show the campus that you could have fun and party without alcohol. They had free pizza. Everyone on campus looked forward to Bishop White Night.”

During the 1975-1976 academic year, Father (now Msgr.) Robert Pearson, now a retired priest of the diocese, was rector. He was followed by Father Michael Savelesky, who served for four years, 1976-1980. “About 1975,” Father Savelesky recalls, “is when we started the deacon formation program, and Bishop White has been the center for that ever since. So that’s part of the seminary’s history.”

Deacon John Byrne, currently assigned to Spokane’s Our Lady of Fatima Parish, was a member of the first group of deacons who, with their wives, went through the new program at Bishop White beginning in 1975. “At that time there was a classroom that we used,” Deacon Byrne says. “We met one night a week and one Saturday, all day, each month. It was a three-year program. Father Mike Savelesky was director of formation, and we had classes from him. We also had teachers from Gonzaga, including (Jesuit) Father Don Sharp, Father Charles Skok, and Dr. Leonard Doohan. Dr. Bud Hazel, a layman, gave us our class on homiletics after we were ordained. Also, various priests from the parishes would come in to talk to us.”

Deacon John Sicilia, the current director of deacon formation, was a member of the third group of deacons to complete their formation at Bishop White Seminary. “It was a very worthwhile experience,” he says, “and we got to be a pretty tight group of guys. We had a couple of series of psychological tests in the process, and then we went to the counselor’s office to get the results of that. We were ordained Sept. 25, 1985, and we did not know until the previous month, the first of August, that that’s when we would be ordained. Bishop (Lawrence) Welsh (d. 1999) announced it to us at a gathering at his home.”

“Also,” Father Savelesky continues, “somewhere along in there what’s called the ‘inter pre-theology’ program was started for older seminarians. It’s for guys who arrive who already have college degrees, like a degree in Business or something like that, but it was important to have them around for a year prior to Theology, so that’s what this program is for.”

Another program added during the 1970s was the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, for seminarians who need to learn English. “A lot of them have degrees,” Father Savelesky explains, “but they need to learn English, so they put them there just to learn English. The Diocese of Yakima has sent a lot of Hispanic seminarians to us for that.”

Christmas at Bishop White Seminary, 1981. (IR file photo)

Father Charles Skok’s third tour of duty as Bishop White Seminary’s Rector was from 1980 to1983.

“When I returned in ’80-’83 there was a different kind of seminarian. It was much smaller, too. Part of the problem in the ’80s was that the numbers were way down. We didn’t have the dynamic of a larger student body. That made a difference, and I shouldn’t put any blame on the students who were there.”

The rector of Bishop White Seminary from 1983 to1988 was Father James Kuhns, who had a significant impact on the seminary’s program because he more or less rebuilt the program from the ground up. Father Kuhns retired last July.

The current Rector of Bishop White, Father Darrin Connall, began his seminary years at Bishop White in 1984. He spent four years attending Gonzaga University, graduating in 1988. Several priests of the Spokane Diocese were seminarians with him at that time: “people like Fathers Pat Kerst, Rich Poole, Roy Pitstick, Gene Tracy, Richard Root, plus seminarians who are now priests in the Diocese of Yakima,” said Father Connall. “The cook at the time was Mrs. Mary Lindaman. She would be one of the central figures in the history of Bishop White. The secretary at the time was June Sirek, who died recently, she was here for many, many years – a confidant and friend of many seminarians.”

Also during this time, the seminary hosted the first of two Episcopal Visitations – the other having just taken place in 2005. “The visitation of 1987,” Father Savelesky says, “won us all kinds of kudos for what a great program we had going.” Results of the 2005 visitation are still pending.

Father George Haspedis was rector from 1988 to 1994. “It was somewhat of a transitional period,” he recalls, “because at that time we were trying to integrate more Hispanic students into the seminary program. I didn’t speak Spanish, and I didn’t know Spanish culture, or anything like that. But I think that period was significant inasmuch as that’s when we really decided not to get already ordained priests from Mexico to come up to the diocese, which was the usual practice of the Church in those days. Instead, we decided to try to get young men, particularly from Hispanic communities in Pasco and Walla Walla, to be attracted to the seminary. I didn’t actually have anything to do with this, it was the Vocation Director’s job. But the big thing from 1988 to 1994 at Bishop White, we were struggling to really interest men in being priests.”

Father Haspedis remembers that also while he was rector, it came to light that a priest from Louisiana who was working at a Spokane hospital had been ejected from his home diocese because he was guilty of pedophilia. This sparked the interest of Spokane’s daily newspaper. A reporter approached Father Haspedis about doing an article on Bishop White Seminary. “What the writer did,” Father Haspedis recalls, “was try to hamstring me by bringing out the fact that we did not have an active program that would ferret out possible pedophiles in the college (seminary) program.

“So that’s part of the history that I’m not happy about, but it did start in the seminary a more thorough screening of the college students. Essentially, the quality program that we had during those years was instituted by my predecessor, Father Jim Kuhns. He did a lot of research, a lot of traveling, and came up with a program that was probably the most outstanding in the United States. All I did was to maintain the program that he began and insert into it this psychological examination as a further part of the total screening process for the ones who offered themselves as seminarians. We tried very hard to recruit from among both Hispanic and Anglo populations, and we didn’t have a great deal of success, but we got through it.”

Following Father Haspedis’s tenure as Rector, Father Richard Root took over from 1994 to 2000. Today Father Root is on leave and serving in the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y.

The present Rector, Father Darrin Connell, has been at Bishop White for the past six years. The program boasts students from six other dioceses, in addition to Spokane.

“When I was appointed,” he continues, “I had no training to be a seminary rector. I was just handed the keys and told to be a rector. I went back and pulled out the skeleton of the formation program that we had when Father Jim Kuhns was here. I updated it, and built upon it, but essentially I used his formation program. A lot of times there is tension between faculty and rector, and rector and students, and there certainly was when Father Kuhns was rector. However, I looked to him as one who had implemented a very solid program for us that I was able to build upon. I took that and built upon it using the document on priestly formation by Pope John Paul II, which is the formation document today that will probably be with us for 50 years in terms of how to form priests today. The primary emphasis is on human formation, so not so much spiritual, or intellectual, or pastoral. But John Paul II said that there’s no way you can be a good priest without first becoming a well-put-together human being. That’s the thesis of his approach to priestly formation, so working on relationships, and being generous, and thoughtful, and all those things that go into being what it means to be a well-put-together man first, and then you work on the spiritual, and academic, and social. You can be pious, prayerful, and holy, but if you can’t relate to people, you’re not going to be a very successful priest. So we added all that to the program. Also, there was a new program on priestly formation from the U.S. bishops, so we again updated the program with that.”

When Bishop William Skyl-stad appointed Father Connell as rector of Bishop White Seminary, he asked him to continue building healthy connections with Gonzaga University. “We encourage seminarians to be involved on campus,” Father Connall says, “and I try to be involved in various ways, as well. When I was first here, I was invited by university ministries to be involved with campus Masses, and retreats, and so forth.”

At present, there are 15 seminarians at Bishop White: six from the Diocese of Spokane, one from Los Angeles, two from Yakima, three from Seattle, one from Juneau, Alaska, one from Great Falls-Billings, and one from Portland, Ore. “Bishop White has always had guys from other dioceses,” Father Connall explains, “but in recent years bishops of the region have grown in their appreciation for this kind of formation on the college level. Bishop White is very much engaged. Gonzaga University is the crossroads for everything that’s happening in the church-and-world culture. Everything is happening here at Gonzaga, and so it’s a really good environment, I think, for guys to begin to learn some of those foundational leadership skills that can help them learn to lead people in a very complex church and a very complex world. Bishops in this region are growing in their appreciation for what’s called a ‘collaborative seminary,’ instead of a self-contained seminary. So more and more they’re sending their guys here to Bishop White.”

Looking to the future for Bishop White Seminary, Father Connall says, “We’re really looking forward to building our new building. It all depends on when we can pull out of bankruptcy, and all that. But I think it needs to be emphasized that the money people give to the foundation (for the new seminary building) is safe, and we are going to build this new building. And we need it. That’s going to be the next exciting milestone in the history” of Bishop White Seminary.

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