A home for our fathers: Prophet Elijah House officially opened for retired priests

Moira Cullings

Life is coming full circle for several retired priests in the Archdiocese of Denver.

“This is a coming home for our priests,” Deacon Mark Wolbach told a crowd of more than 50 people at the grand opening of the Prophet Elijah House on April 24.

“For many of our priests, they started here. This is where they discerned the priesthood,” he said. “This is where they formed their hearts to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“It’s becoming that they come back here to the place where it all began.”

The Prophet Elijah House, a brand-new home for retired priests, is located on the campus of the St. John Paul II Center — the same area where many of these priests attended then-St. Thomas Seminary.

The house, which offers its residents a comfortable place to enjoy their retired years, “is a great blessing and something that the archdiocese has talked about for over 40 years,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila told the crowd during the opening ceremony.

“It’s already served as a blessing for those who are living here now,” he said. “It’s been a tremendous service to our priests in helping them and letting them know that we are with them.”

Now that the project has received its final inspections and obtained its certificate of occupancy, three priests have already relocated to the Prophet Elijah House, and more are expected to move in during the coming months.

The grand opening of the Prophet Elijah House retirement community for priests at the St. John Paul II Center for the New Evangelization took place on April 24. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

Other priests currently in active ministry have added their name to the Prophet Elijah House registry and intend on moving in when they reach retirement.

Deacons Robert Rinne and Mark Wolbach minister full time to the priests living in the retirement home, and the Carmelite nuns who also live on campus clean each priest’s room once a week. The priests are also provided with one meal a day and opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth.

Father Tom McCormick, who retired in 2007, moved in this past December, just after discovering he had bladder cancer. During the weeks that followed the diagnosis, he had multiple surgeries and needed extra care.

Being able to receive assistance from his fellow residents, particularly Father Roger Lascelle, was humbling.

“Since my surgery, he’s been one of the major helps for me as I needed physical or even caregiving assistance,” said Father McCormick.

And although living with additional comforts is “a little adjustment” for the priest, who served the archdiocese actively for 60 years, he is grateful for the chance to retire alongside his peers.

“I’m appreciative of the fact that they built the house and have given us the opportunity to be here,” he said.

Just two doors down from Father McCormick is Monsignor Raymond Jones, which is fitting for the priests, who were roommates in 1951 when they were students at St. Thomas Seminary.

Being able to continue living in fellowship even into retirement is a joy for Father McCormick.

“For me, a strong part of priesthood is fraternity,” he said. “I look forward to a greater fraternity when the place has been around a while and more people will come.

“The future of fraternity is here.”

Retired priests living in the Prophet Elijah House are provided with a weekly room-cleaning service by the Carmelite nuns, one meal a day and opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

Several generous donors showed their support for archdiocesan priests with their contributions to the Prophet Elijah House, including families who sponsored priests’ suites, stained glass windows and the “Our Lady of the Memorare” chapel.

During the final opening remarks before Archbishop Aquila cut a ribbon outside the Prophet Elijah House, Deacon Steven Stemper, whose family was one of several donors in attendance, addressed the priests, including those who will enjoy the retirement home years down the road.

“You’ve served us wholeheartedly and unreservedly and exclusively,” said Deacon Stemper. “There is no one that we could be more grateful for than you — our priests.

“We hope and pray that all the residents here today and for the countless years to come will reside knowing of our gratefulness for their lives and their dedicated service.”

COMING UP: AM[D]G           

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Last November 11, on the centenary of its relocation to a 93-acre campus in suburban Washington, D.C., Georgetown Preparatory School announced a $60 million capital campaign. In his message for the opening of the campaign, Georgetown Prep’s president, Father James Van Dyke, SJ, said that, in addition to improving the school’s residential facilities, the campaign intended to boost Prep’s endowment to meet increasing demands for financial aid. Like other high-end Catholic secondary schools, Georgetown Prep is rightly concerned about pricing itself out of reach of most families. So Prep’s determination to make itself more affordable through an enhanced endowment capable of funding scholarships and other forms of financial aid for less-than-wealthy students is all to the good.

What I find disturbing about the campaign is its “branding” slogan. I first became aware of it when, driving past the campus a few months ago, I noticed a billboard at the corner of Rockville Pike and Tuckerman Lane. In large, bold letters, it proclaimed, “FOR THE GREATER GLORY.” And I wondered, “…of what?” Then one day, when traffic allowed, I slowed down and espied the much smaller inscription in the bottom right corner: “Georgetown Prep’s Legacy Campaign.”

Ad maiorem Dei gloriam [For the greater glory of God], often reduced to the abbreviation, AMDG, was the Latin motto of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. Georgetown Prep is a Jesuit school. So what happened to the D-word? What happened to God? Why did AMDG become AM[D]G while being translated into fundraising English?

I made inquiries of Jesuit friends and learned that amputating the “D” in AMDG is not unique to Georgetown Prep; it’s a tactic used by other Jesuit institutions engaged in the heavy-lift fundraising of capital campaigns. That was not good news. Nor was I reassured by pondering Father Van Dyke’s campaign-opening message, in which the words “Jesus Christ” did not appear. Neither did Pope Francis’s call for the Church’s institutions to prepare missionary disciples as part of what the Pope has called a “Church permanently in mission.” And neither did the word “God,” save for a closing “Thanks, and God bless.”

Father Van Dyke did mention that “Ignatian values” were one of the “pillars” of Georgetown prep’s “reputation for excellence.” And he did conclude his message with a call for “men who will make a difference in a world that badly needs people who care, people who, in the words Ignatius wrote his best friend Francis Xavier as he sent him on the Society of Jesus’s first mission, will ‘set the world on fire’.” Fine. But ignition to what end?

Ignatius sent Francis Xavier to the Indies and on to East Asia to set the world on fire with love of the Lord Jesus Christ, by evangelizing those then known as “heathens” with the warmth of the Gospel and the enlivening flame of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith. St. Ignatius was a New Evangelization man half a millennium before Pope St. John Paul II used the term. St. Ignatius’s chief “Ignatian value” was gloria Dei, the glory of God.

Forming young men into spiritually incandescent, intellectually formidable and courageous Christian disciples, radically conformed to Jesus Christ and just as deeply committed to converting the world, was the originating purpose of Jesuit schools in post-Reformation Europe. Those schools were not content to prepare generic “men for others;” they were passionately devoted to forming Catholic men for converting others, the “others” being those who had abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism or secular rationalism. That was why the Jesuits were hated and feared by powerful leaders with other agendas, be they Protestant monarchs like Elizabeth I of England or rationalist politicians like Portugal’s 18th-century prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

Religious education in U.S. Catholic elementary schools has been improved in recent decades. And we live in something of a golden age of Catholic campus ministry at American colleges and universities. It’s Catholic secondary education in the U.S. that remains to be thoroughly reformed so that Catholic high schools prepare future leaders of the New Evangelization: leaders who will bring others to Christ, heal a deeply wounded culture, and become agents of a sane politics. Jesuit secondary education, beginning with prominent and academically excellent schools like Georgetown Prep, could and should be at the forefront of that reform.

Jesuit secondary education is unlikely to provide that leadership, however, if its self-presentation brackets God and announces itself as committed to “the greater glory” of…whatever.