Father Donald C. Willette was born June 26, 1941, in Lemmon, South Dakota and entered eternal life on May 25, 2023, at 81 years old.
Prior to his priesthood, Father Willette spent years in various careers, from being a small business owner to working on a farm, a projectionist in a movie theater to a taxi driver in downtown Denver. He even served at a number of posts in the Air Force, taking him to Vietnam during the war.
Following a fateful near-death experience on the road one day, he returned to seminary, feeling the Lord calling him back, and was ordained a priest on June 2, 1984.
During his near 40-year priesthood, he served as a pastor and spiritual father all across northern Colorado, including St. Thomas More in Centennial; St. Jude in Lakewood; St. Theresa in Frederick; Guardian Angels in Mead; St. Louis in Louisville; Spirit of Peace in Longmont; and Blessed John XXIII in Fort Collins, now known as St. John XXIII, following the saint’s canonization.
He also led 33 pilgrimages to the Holy Land over the years, making it possible for hundreds to come to know Jesus more deeply by encountering the places he lived and taught. Having thought about moving to the Holy Land to serve as a chaplain there in retirement, he decided against it, saying, “33 was enough for Jesus, so that’s enough for me,” referencing the 33 years Jesus lived on earth.
“Father Don was like what I would call the grandfather of Fort Collins,” said Father Joseph Toledo, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish and the celebrant of Father Willette’s vigil service. “He was just warm and loving. If you were speaking to him, you had his attention. He was very warm and welcoming in his priesthood.”
“Father Don was a Spiritual Father to Guardian Angels Mead during times of emotional upheaval,” Father Ron Cattany, pastor of Guardian Angels in Mead, wrote on Father Willette’s online tribute wall. “Having met him at an Equestrian Order event at the Cathedral in 2015, he was the first to welcome me to Mead in 2021! He has been a great help to me the past two years…always with Gusto, a Twinkle in his Eye, and a Good Word! I am grateful for his presence in my life.”
The warm, welcoming spiritual father to the Fort Collins area was also well known among the faculty, staff and students at Colorado State University, which he not only served while at St. John XXIII Parish, but also where he endowed a professorship in Theological Studies.
Father Don endowed the position in 2019, saying humbly, “My dream was to create a program where people of all faiths will have a safe space to explore their relationship with God and one another — I am grateful to Archbishop Aquila and everyone at CSU for their support that helped make this program possible.”
This Fall, Dr. Joel Bacon, a dear friend of Father Willette’s who helped care for him in his final months, will take up the mantle and have a role in carrying out the late priest’s legacy on the CSU campus.
“He just had that really extraordinary capacity to relate to people,” Dr. Bacon said, reflecting on 18 years of friendship with Father Willette, whom he agreed was always “just fully present with you.
“It’s what made him really wonderful in the confessional,” he continued, “and I know that he saw that as a really big part of his ministry.”
“It’s a huge honor,” Dr. Bacon said, “it’s a privilege to be able to be a part of that vision that he had for helping students learn about the rich heritage of Catholicism in an academic setting.”
On June 1, his spiritual children and grandchildren gathered to bid their final farewell at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fort Collins, where Father Willette’s funeral took place.
“Those who encountered Father Donald C. Willette know firsthand that he made you feel like you were the most important person in his life,” wrote Dave and Denise Pfnister, who knew Father Willette from their time at St. Louis in Louisville. “We know that God welcomed him home with welcome arms and infinite love. Our hearts are grateful for all the years we had with him. We are confident in knowing that he was not afraid, he was ready, and he knew that God would come to greet him. Yet, we are also broken hearted in the loss we feel as it is so deep and the sadness overwhelming.”