Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Long-time Retreat Center volunteer honored with Bishop’s Medal
Story and photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the Feb. 4, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Helen Samsel (IR photo)
A woman with a hearty laugh and roots as deep in retreat ministry as Immaculate Heart Retreat Center itself was honored at IHRC’s Dec. 8 anniversary dinner for her long-time commitment.
Helen Samsel, one of the first fund-raisers for IHRC and, for decades, the manager of the book store there, was given the Bishop’s Medal for her contributions to the life of the Church in Eastern Washington.
In a sense it began with her membership in the Catholic Business and Professional Women (CBPW). Fifty years ago, “the only place for a retreat was at Mount St. Michael’s, and that was only for men,” she said. The CBPW “went to the bishop and said, if you build a retreat house, we’ll raise money for it.”
She was also tagged as part of IHRC’s Foundation group. “Dick O’Neil was scrounging for members” then, she said. “He came to my door. It was night, but he’d been in college with my cousin, so I knew it was safe. And I’d just gotten a raise. And I gave my raise to the retreat house, and became a foundation member.”
Her own business background was varied, including nearly 20 years with the Washington State Dairy Council, providing nutrition information and working in public relations. That meant a lot of traveling.
“I was involved in an ugly divorce,” she said, and after the facility was completed, lived on sight for about 18 months, paying room and board and doing a little work.
What was it about the ministry that appealed to her?
“I used to say people should go on retreat like they see their dentist, or get a physical once a year. You need a retreat once a year.”
Back in the day, the CBPW “did one of the nicest things. The Thursday before First Friday, we would go up for dinner, Confessions, Benediction, and stayed all night, then got up for Mass in the morning. An evening of recollection. Msgr. Rosage would give a short prayer, what he called ‘the spiritual cocktail.’ It was a group of very sharp women,” representing a number of fields – banking, education, law, and others.
“I loved going to confession with Father Tully,” the first editor of the Inland Register, who died in 2002. “His approach was so easy.”
She worked with IHRC’s Foundation, doing public relations, fund-raising events, and helped line up retreat leaders as well. She wrote menus (being a nutritionist didn’t hurt). In time, she began managing the bookstore, making it very clear that she was not a librarian, she was a nutritionist – but also an avid reader.
She didn’t do it alone. She credits several individuals for helping her learn the field, including the Holy Names Sisters (“very good about helping with books”) and Father Tom Caswell (“such an enthusiastic reader”). “It wasn’t just my brain,” she said. “I had a lot of help.”
“I want to throw something in,” she said. “I worked with a lot of the priests over the years. It was very gratifying when visiting clergy would comment on what a wonderful selection of books we had. Even our parish priest would say things.
“And I enjoyed working with the publishers,” she said. “You had your contact person, and get on a personal, first-name basis with them. That was fun.”
Msgr. Rosage, the founding director of IHRC, gave her “a free hand” to run the store and stock it as she saw fit. He “thanked me every chance he could get.
“And if I ever had any doubts” about a book’s quality, she would simply consult one of her knowledgeable friends. The directors “never leaned over my shoulder.”
What kept her coming back?
“I enjoyed it because I felt like I was doing something useful, to make people have a better awareness of what literature is out there, what books are out there. To help them with their problems. “
For her own spiritual reading, she likes Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser (The Holy Longing) and Jesuit Father James Martin (My Life with the Saints). The late Father Henri Nouwen. A couple of national Catholic publications. “And the Inland Register,” she says firmly. And laughs. “If you don’t read the Register, you’re going to hell,” she said. “I tell everybody that.”
Now she belongs to a book club – “I read about three books a month. I’ll read just about anything.” She misses her long-distance friends at the publishing houses, but she stays busy.
“Catholic literature, retreats – they come and go,” she said. “They’re like styles. They’re in, then they’re out, then they’re in, then they’re out. One year we’re into St. Joseph, then we’re into somebody else.
“Retreats are for people who are hurting. It all goes in cycles.”
Are those cycles part of the fun?
“That’s part of the fun, yeah.”
“I’m not a saint,” she concludes. “I do say the rosary. And I do my daily Scripture readings. And I read the Register.”
And she laughs.