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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.