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


Immaculate Heart Retreat Center’s volunteer bookstore manager: ‘You have to give back to your church’

Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the April 12, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Helen Samsel is the dedicated volunteer who keeps Immaculate Heart Retreat Center’s bookstore running smoothly. (IR photo)

Helen Samsel, a parishioner at St. Rose of Lima, Cheney, may be the most dedicated volunteer that Spokane’s Immaculate Heart Retreat Center (IHRC) has ever had.

She began her involvement at IHRC back in 1957 when Bishop Bernard Topel (d. 1986) first opened it, and the facility was still called a retreat “house.”

As a volunteer or as a professional, she is not a woman who tends to sit still for long.

After growing up on a ranch outside Missoula, Mont., during the 1930s and ’40s, Samsel graduated from the University of Montana in 1947 with a degree in Food and Nutrition. Following her college years, she taught high school Home Economics in Kellogg, Idaho, then for one year she was an associate professor of Agriculture for the University of California Extension Service. She moved to Spokane in 1950 to teach in the Foods Department at Lewis and Clark High School. In 1953, she began an 18-year stint as a nutritionist with the Washington State Dairy Council, and for the last two of those years, 1969-1971, she hosted a weekly television program and recorded talks on nutritional topics for a local radio station.

Beginning in 1972, she worked for numerous agencies in the region, including Coulee Community Hospital, Harmony House Convalescent Home, the Colville Confederated Tribes’ Convalescent Home, and senior centers in Grand Coulee, Davenport, and Coulee City, and she taught at Eastern Washington University. Samsel also put in more than 30 years as Foundation Director for the 4-H Club, and from 1955-1971 she was the only woman in the Spokane Chamber of Commerce’s Ag Bureau. Beginning in 1957, up to the present, she has been a judge for the foods contests at the Spokane County Fair, the North Idaho Fair, and the Rockford Fair.

Obviously, she has never lacked for plenty to keep her occupied. All the same, along the way she found – and continues to find – time to volunteer at Immaculate Heart.

During the early years, as a member of the Spokane Catholic Business and Professional Women (CBPW), she helped out at the retreat house with various fund-raising projects and encouraging people go on retreats. Over the decades, she has also seen more than a few changes in how things are done.

“When I started getting involved,” Samsel said, “all retreats were silent, and it was very quiet. Being old fashioned, I miss the nuns. They brought a certain gentility when they were in a building; they brought a certain spirit and feel to the place.”

She recalls, in particular, that years ago the CBPW group would gather the evening of the first Thursday of the month. Father (now Monsignor) David Rosage, the founding director of IHRC, was the CBPW’s moderator for many years. “One of the lovely things we did,” she remembers, “Father Rosage would always give us what he called ‘spiritual cocktails’ – his little talks. And then we would have confessions, and you would have the opportunity to reflect. To me there is nothing more wonderful than a dim-lighted chapel. I think it’s very prayerful. I just think it’s wonderful. And then naturally we would have Benediction, and the next morning we would have Mass, and breakfast, and then we would go to back work. Back in those days, we had between 60-90 members.”

At the same time, she likes the fact that today, the spirit at the retreat center is “more casual.” But, she adds with a laugh, “I still think retreats should be silent.”

After being out of town for several years, in 1967 she returned, and in 1971, after marrying – in the retreat center’s chapel, no less – she picked up at IHRC where she had left off. In 1992, she took over the retreat center’s little book shop, and that has been her “turf” ever since.

It’s a way for her to contribute to her church, she said.

“You have to do church work. You have to give back to your church. That was the way I was brought up,” she said. After plenty of experience with various parish commitments – guilds and councils and committees – she found her ideal niche at IHRC.

“I do not profess to be a librarian, but I like to read,” she said. The book room “is a courtesy for the retreatants, to give them the best books available.”

While the bookstore pays its own way, it’s clearly a labor of love as well. “I enjoy working at the retreat house,” she said. “I’m no secretary type. I don’t like to clean that well.”

For her own tastes in spiritual reading, she likes a number of current favorites: Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser; the late Fathers Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. “And Msgr. Rosage,” she is quick to add.

Under Samsel’s guidance, the retreat center’s book shop runs like a well-oiled machine. “We get many, many catalogs from publishers,” she explains, “and we get a lot of flyers. We get catalogs for every season, practically, and some we get twice a year. All our book orders are done by phone. I read (the catalogs), and sometimes I ask Father Van (Msgr. William Van Ommeren, who lives at IHRC) what he thinks about a certain book, and if he’s not around, and I go ahead and order, then he’ll look at the book after it comes in.

“It’s ideal if we know what a director of a retreat, or a director of a day of prayer, is going to talk about, what his or her subject matter is going to be, and then we try to get some book that is corresponding to that,” she said. “Some of the directors will tell you that they want a certain book because they are using that as the basis of their retreat.”

Samsel also takes enjoyment in her business contacts in the publishing industry. “This is kind of fun,” she says with a smile, “because over the years you get to know these people, and they know you, and I just have to say, ‘Here is our account number,’ and they know who I am immediately. As time goes on, you hear about their families, and it becomes quite personal, and you feel very comfortable with these people.”

Taking work home is part of Samsel’s approach to her book shop duties. “I take the catalogs home,” she says, “and of course, there’s a schedule way ahead of who’s coming to give retreats, and we have books ordered way ahead. It’s fun. We get flyers on what the new books are. Occasionally people will ask us to order a special book for them, and we will do that.”

IHRC’s book shop also carries greeting cards, and she orders those, too. “We have a large selection of cards for birthdays, ordinations, priests’ anniversary of ordination celebrations, that sort of thing,” she said, “and we have our Christmas cards already ordered for this coming Christmas. We also have rosaries and prayer cards, and things like that.”

Despite her long-term, consistent presence at IHRC, some aspects of her life have had to change over the years. “I used to go on retreat every year, just like a physical,” she said, but that hasn’t been the case lately. She’ll drop in for parts of the presentations for days of prayer, she said, but that, too, is only occasional.

“I feel like I have to get up and work. I’ll see something that has to be done,” she said. The fact is, “I can’t just sit still that long.”


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