Reception kicks off Professor of Theological Studies at Colorado State University

Father Don Willette donated $1 million toward endowment for new professorship

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By Peter Droege

An overflow crowd of more than 150 people gathered in the Lory Center at Colorado State University March 31 to celebrate the launch of the endowment for the Father Don Willette Professor of Theological Studies, fulfilling years of effort by the beloved retired priest who dedicated much of his years of service to campus ministry in northern Colorado.  

“Father Willette always made himself available to celebrate Mass for players and coaches when game schedules didn’t allow us to attend at a local parish,” explained Sonny Lubick, famed coach of the CSU Rams football team who attended the celebration. “It is great to be here to see his vision fulfilled for a full-time professor who can engage students on the impact of spirituality and religion on our nation and world.” 

Father Rocco Porter, pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins, offered the opening prayer at the celebration. The parish is just off the campus and has launched a campaign to dramatically expand its church and student center, as well as to partner on a student housing complex.  

This program will be a great fit with our vision of engaging students and people in the greater community around the history, philosophy, and social impact of the Catholic Church,” Father Porter told the Denver Catholic. “People involved in campus ministry recognize the impact of having a professor dedicated to theological studies and it is amazing to see that being realized through the hard work and determination of Father Willette.”  

Dr. Ben Withers, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at CSU, who is not Catholic, told those gathered for the reception that he was honored to work with Father Willette in creating the program.   

“We live in unsettled times and it is important for universities to offer ways for students to engage around important issues on both an academic and personal level,” explained Dr. Withers. “We are in the process of searching for the right professor who will help guide this program – we are hoping to find a younger version of Father Willette,” he joked. 

More than 150 people gathered in the Lory Center at Colorado State University March 30 to celebrate the launch of the endowment for the Father Don Willette Professor of Theological Studies. (Photos provided)

Father Willette, who spoke at the reception, was at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver in the 1960s when he was moved to enroll in the Air Force and served in the Vietnam War, earning multiple decorations for valor. After discharge, he returned to the seminary and was ordained in 1984 while continuing to serve in the reserves, eventually retiring as a Colonel. 

Through careful stewardship of his retirement funds, and “a little bit of luck” in real estate, Father Willette was able to provide $1 million towards the $1.5 million endowment for the professorship. A number of his friends and former parishioners who attended the reception also made donations to the endowment.  

“Providence rules,” Father Willette told those gathered for the reception. “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.” 

Denise Pfnister, who worked with Father Willette when he was pastor of St. Louis Church in Louisville, attended the reception with her extended family. “Our pastors dedicate their lives in service to us, and all of them plant seeds of hope and renewal, but few have the chance to be there to reap the harvest of their ministry,” she explained. “Father Willette walks in faith and places all his hopes and dreams with God and it is wonderful to be here today to be with him as he sees the fulfillment of his vision for this program.”  

For more information on the program, visit https://source.colostate.edu/heavenly-gift-local-priest-creates-new-faculty-position-at-csu/ 

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”