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

For Bishop Skylstad, 50 years of priesthood began with ‘a startling example of how the Holy Spirit moves our hearts’

by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register

(From the May 20, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews with Bishop Skylstad as he prepares to retire.)

“No one talked to me about it,” said Bishop Skylstad. “It came from the movement of the Spirit.”

It, being his vocation to the priesthood.

The Bishop of Spokane celebrates 50 years of priesthood this year, a calling he began to feel around “sixth, seventh grade,” he said during a recent interview in his office in the Catholic Pastoral Center. He calls it “kind of a startling example of how the Holy Spirit moves our hearts.”

He grew up on a farm about half-way between Brewster and Twisp, so the family attended both parishes. Both communities were quite small in those days – the parish in Twisp had “maybe 15-20” families, and Brewster “probably not many more, if any.”

Nor was the area itself particularly Catholic in those days – “you really had to be intentionally Catholic,” he said, though the few Catholics were “very strong.”

He said his mother was “very religious, very faithful to the Church,” playing the organ for Brewster, “and at times for Twisp, too.”

Life on the farm also played a part.

“My job was to get the cows,” he said. “We had a good bit of farm on steep hillside that was range for milk cows. As I was going after the cows I was thinking about this. I was kind of resisting it initially,” he said, “but the desire was so strong, I finally mentioned it to my mother, shortly after our pastor, Father Ray Klemmer, had come to visit. He passed away a year after my ordination. Only 48 years old.”

It was Father Klemmer who suggested Bill Skylstad study at the Josephinum in Ohio, since that’s where he himself had studied.

His family had always been close to the pastors – among them, Father Morbeck, now the pastor in Republic and Curlew.

Father Klemmer gave him a ball-point pen when he left for school. “That was cutting edge technology in those days. It could write under water – for whatever that was worth,” he laughed. “We didn’t forget that stuff. That was a big deal.”

There was no entrance exam. The school administrators asked for his academic level. There was a “very general” physical exam, a recommendation from his pastor.

He left for the seminary as a freshman in high school, traveling by train, alone, all the way from Wenatchee to Columbus, Ohio – east in the fall, returning home in the spring. “The first time I’d left home, I’d never been on a train before, never been out of the state before. You could rent a pillow for two days for a dollar. You slept in your seat.”

He was “all eyes” during a 10-hour layover in Chicago, where he met some of the other Josephinum seminarians.

There were no vacations home during the school year – it was too far – but every Sunday, for the 12 years he studied in Ohio, the seminarians wrote home. It was “just a common, engrained habit.” Men from 32 states studied there in those days. There were 80 in his freshman class, but by the end of high school that number was down to 22 – “it was a pretty rapid weaning out process.” Of those 22, he was one of “12 or 13” were ordained as priests.

“Your whole day was mapped out,” he said, with classes six days a week. The school was located about five miles from town, so during four hours of Sunday afternoon free time they had enough time to walk to town, get an ice cream cone, and walk back – twice each year. “The first time I saw television was in a store window in 1948 or ’49” during one of those trips – the World Series. Generally, though, students weren’t allowed to leave campus.

“Your life was highly regimented” in the seminary, between studies, prayer, and cleaning and dishwashing duties. In addition, “you were expected to donate two hours a week of manual labor,” he said. “So for 11 years I was a bookbinder.”

The academic program had a strong emphasis on culture and language, including six years of Latin, six of German (“because early on it was a German-speaking seminary. Originally it was an orphanage for Germans that morphed into a seminary”) – a strong liberal arts education. Completing college meant a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, which “set you up for four years of theology.”

There was a music program, with a lot of choral singing, as well as a band, where he played clarinet. He also was introduced to one of his other loves at the seminary: amateur radio.

“In those days, the late ’40s and ’50s, there was fear of attack from Russia,” he said. “So Civil Defense organizations were all over. The Josephinum was the radio center for the Columbus area.” In 1956 he got his amateur radio license, which he still pursues.

The four years of theology were much the same for everyone, without specialization: dogmatic theology, moral theology, pastoral theology, spirituality, canon law, Scripture. Some classes were taught in Latin.

There also was an emphasis on sociology the last two years of college. “We had a teacher who was very socially conscious,” said Bishop Skylstad, concentrating on “the needs of society at the time.”

“What happens when you’re together in a seminary for 12 years, you develop a strong sense of community,” he said. “Your classmates become like blood brothers, for your entire life. Even with the structure, given at times as rigid as it was, there was kind of good spirit of good humor in all of that. Even when guys got into theology, there were still pranks – nothing serious, but they always caused a certain amount of snickering and good humor. “

For instance, during the evening silence, rolling a bowling ball down a hallway.

Not only were lights supposed to be off at 10 p.m., but the electricity was cut off at 10, to return at 5:40 the next morning.

There was some pastoral work along the way – he taught catechism at the Ohio School for the Deaf and Blind, and also did some hospital visitation. During deacon year students helped in parishes during Holy Week, changing the Passion in Latin. (“That was a big deal,” he said.)

Fifteen were ordained to the priesthood with him – 12 from the original group.

His first assignment was temporary – two months for the summer after ordination as administrator of the parishes in Newport and Usk, followed by a more permanent assignment – for a year – to Sacred Heart in Pullman, where he also attended Washington State University, taking classes in education, history, and mathematics, for a teaching certificate. Originally he was to be assigned to DeSales High School in Walla Walla, but plans changed and he began teaching at Bishop White Seminary. Eventually he earned a teaching degree from Gonzaga University and, later, his principal’s credentials.

He spent two years as part of the formation team at Bishop White, then moved to the diocese’s high school seminary, Mater Cleri in Colbert, when it opened in 1963. He stayed there in various capacities, including rector in 1968, until 1974, when the school closed.

Seminary work was more than just teaching and guidance, however. “I was sort of chief repairman, too,” he said. “I grew up on a farm and enjoyed working with tools. I became known as the furnace repairman. Most of the time it was fun. It was a new, complicated heating system. I could take that burner apart in my sleep.”

Other priests of the diocese were on staff with him – Fathers Tom Caswell, Joe Schiller, George Haspedis, Dan Wetzler, and Msgr. John Steiner among them. And several of the priests now serving in the diocese went through that formation program – Fathers Mark Pautler, Mike Savelesky, Roy Flock, Ty Schaff, and Msgr. Kevin Codd were a few of the alumni from those days.

One of the best parts of being a member of that formation team was the “very busy lifestyle,” he said. “We worked hard,” including a lot of manual labor, from cutting grass to putting in irrigation systems. “The priests were just a real blessing, and we worked well together.” And the priests did everything. “We drove the bus. Father Haspedis was a great coach. Father Joe Danneker did great plays. We all had different gifts.”

In the early days of the seminary, the school became associated with the parish in Colbert, St. Joseph, so they acted as pastors.

“It was challenging to live with high school students 24/7,” said Bishop Skylstad, “but by the same token, it was an ideal educational situation. We had relatively small classes and for the most part, motivated kids.” Even though not all of the students were ordained, “some became very active in other parts of the church.”

Mater Cleri closed in 1974. He was then assigned as pastor at Assumption Parish, Spokane, for about 20 months.

“There’s a contrast between forming priests and being a pastor. I always kind of hankered to be a pastor, and loved that time,” he said. “I loved working the parish and parishioners, being in full-time ministry in the parish.”

Parish ministry brought contact “with lots of people. Celebrating the sacraments is very high” on his list of the joys of being a pastor, “celebrating Eucharist, being with people in their joys and successes, illness, struggles, dying – it was a very, very rich experience.” There was also ministry through the parish’s school and working closely with the Dominican Sisters who staffed the school in those days.

It was very difficult to leave all of that when Bishop Bernard Topel tapped him to become chancellor. He moved into one of the satellite residences at Bishop White Seminary in April 1976.

As chancellor in those days, he served as a sort of executive assistant to Bishop Topel. “A lot of leg work, correspondence. I used to review his column for the Inland Register. I remember he handed me one column. It was in pretty rudimentary shape. I marked it up quite a bit and gave it back to him, and I could see it in his face. He said to me, ‘That’s not me.’ It was a good lesson.”

He was also director of Continuing Education for Priests. As he walked in the door for a meeting of directors, in Denver, there was a note on the bulletin board, telling him to call Bishop Topel back in Spokane. “I called him. He told me, ‘The Holy Father has appointed you as bishop of Yakima. You’re supposed to respond to the Apostolic Delegate,’ within 24 hours. I said, ‘I’d like to think about it,’ and he said, ‘You can’t say no.’”

He was ordained bishop on May 12, 1977, at Holy Family Church in Yakima.

From being a seminary rector, to pastor, to chancellor – and now a bishop. How was the learning curve?

“Steep,” he said.

The Yakima Diocese was going through “a tough time” with “significant financial difficulties.” People were feeling a bit discouraged.

But the people also were “wonderful and supportive,” he said. Other dioceses pitched in to help with the financial issues.

To help reinforce the diocese’s sense of community, he made it his goal to visit every parish at least once a year, especially in his first years there. “Since there are only 41 parishes, it wasn’t difficult to do,” he said.

“In general, the bishop’s role is pastoral,” said Bishop Skylstad. “Confirmations, celebrations, anniversaries.” Then there are collaborative ministries with personnel, various councils, and boards.

He spoke no Spanish going into Yakima, and says today that one of his personal disappointments in himself is that he didn’t take time to study Spanish formally, though he did work through a Berlitz course and added to that as best he could along the way.

“I love the countryside” in the Yakima Diocese, he said. That diocese has “great diversity” in its communities, from the scientific community in the Tri-Cities area, to the smaller rural communities, the parishes along the Columbia River, the Wenatchee Valley, Lake Chelan – “all beautiful areas.”

One of the difficulties of being a bishop – a “point of adjustment,” he called it – “the office isolates you a bit, in a sense. People you used to be on a first-name basis with, all of a sudden you’re Bishop This and Bishop That.

“You have to make sure you don’t allow the office to isolate you,” he said. “That’s why relationships are so important, with the larger church, with brother bishops, and with the laity – all very important in the life of a bishop. You don’t survive well if you become a Lone Ranger. Relationships are just very important for all of us.”

Every life has challenges. The life of a bishop is no different.

“Probably the most challenging job for bishops is dealing with personnel issues,” he said. “Parish expectations (of their pastors) are very high, and should be, but priests and bishops are also human.”

So how does a bishop cope?

For close to 30 years, “I’ve taken great advantage of my NordicTrack,” an exercise device that imitates a skiing workout, to let off steam. “I used to jog,” but moved to the skier – he’s worn out at least one. The exercise is “critically important – right after I get up,” while he prays the rosary. He still enjoys amateur radio and music. In times past he enjoyed mountain hiking, but that’s fallen by the wayside, as has beekeeping, one of his personal fascinations.

He logs a great many miles in the air every year, and while he says he doesn’t mind flying, mostly it provides an opportunity for a little solitude, reading, and preparation.

There are tricks to the trade.

Bishop Thomas Connolly, the retired bishop of Baker, Ore., has been Bishop Skylstad’s spiritual director for many years, and with Bishop Sylvester Treinen, the late bishop of Boise, told Bishop Skylstad “right away after I was ordained as bishop, never to open my mail in the evening. If you come across a nasty letter, you’ll stew about it all night long and won’t sleep well.”

That advice is typical of the kind of relationship he has enjoyed with his brother bishops of the region, which he terms “a great joy” that began even before he was ordained in Yakima. “We became a very close fraternity – very supportive of one another,” said Bishop Skylstad. “That’s still the case,” reinforced with annual retreats together, a summer vacation break in different spots in the Northwest. The bishops try to come together for regular days of sharing and prayer, but that has become increasingly difficult, given the complexities of everyone’s schedule, as well as the expense.

(Next issue: the joys and complexities of a bishop’s ministry locally, nationally, and internationally.)

Inland Register archives

Home | Bishop | Communications | Parishes | Catholic Charities

© The Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved