By Barb Arland-Fye
Deacon Steve Witt of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell left behind his comfortable home and retirement to discern, for the second time in 40-plus years, a vocation to the priesthood.
“There’s a need for priests. I could be very comfortable being a deacon and living here in retirement. But there’s something more that needs to be done and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be doing that,” Deacon Witt, 62, told The Catholic Messenger during a Christmas break from seminary studies.
What’s different this time around is that he’s lived a full life as a husband, father, businessman, deacon and civic leader. Widowed nine years ago, he’s experienced the gamut of life experiences that friends and colleagues say will enhance his ministry to others.
“Steve is a good candidate for the priesthood for many reasons. He loves the Church. He loves the people and has served them with care and compassion for many years as a deacon,” said Father Marty Goetz, vocations director for the Diocese of Davenport. “His experiences as a deacon and husband and father will only enhance his priesthood. He now feels God is calling him to serve as a priest and I believe if he perseveres, he will be a wonderful priest.”
Some 40 years earlier, Deacon Witt left the seminary at St. Ambrose College in Davenport after concluding that his vocation was to marriage and not the priesthood. But he remained committed to serving the Church.
He and his wife, Patti, were married in 1974. Two years later, his father asked him to take over the family business in Clinton. While there, the younger Witt helped Father Joe Kokjohn inaugurate the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program at St. Patrick Parish. Fr. Kokjohn later asked Witt to submit an application to participate in the diocese’s first diaconate class. After praying about it and consulting with his wife and a priest friend, Witt applied and was accepted. During his studies, Patti gave birth to their third child. Bishop Gerald O’Keefe ordained Deacon Witt on Sept. 18, 1982, at St. Patrick Church in Clinton, two years later than his fellow deacons because he had been too young for ordination.
He initially served as a deacon at St. Patrick’s, then got “traded” to the north end of town to serve St. Irenaeus and St. Boniface parishes. Later, he and Patti and their children moved to Grinnell and joined St. Mary Parish. Deacon Witt taught confirmation classes, conducted many funeral and wedding services, worked with college students, and was involved in sacramental preparation. Patti was always supportive of his ministry and encouraged him to consider the priesthood if she were to die before him, he said. But after she died unexpectedly on Sept. 24, 2001 — just a few weeks after the unexpected death of his brother — Deacon Witt had to work his way through grief. “I was kind of a mess. I wasn’t doing life real well,” he said. Eventually he started thinking about the priesthood and approached his pastor, Father Nick Adam, about his interest.
“When he told me, I said ‘that’s great news, you’ll be an awesome priest!’” But Fr. Adam also cautioned Deacon Witt about having any preconceived notions that he would be ordained a priest. That’s part of the discernment process.
“At the same time, my gut says he will be ordained a priest and he will bring to the priesthood energy and excitement and enthusiasm and spirituality that relates to the people in the pews,” Fr. Adam said.
Deacon Bill Olson, who also has served the Grinnell parish for years, said of Deacon Witt: “I knew he had been reflecting on this for a long time. I’m glad he took whatever time he needed to come to this conclusion. He respects the office he will be ordained to.”
Having also served on the Grinnell City Council for a number of years, Deacon Witt “understands budgets; he understands complaints from the public … when he gets into a rectory, he won’t ask, ‘What will I do with these people? He’ll know how to organize them and bring out their talents. He’ll be very good at getting the best out of the people he’s working with.”
While enthusiastic about his studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corner, Wis., Deacon Witt has had to make adjustments in his lifestyle, including considerably less living space than he’s accustomed to.
And, “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school. I was anxious about the academics, but they went well,” he said of his first semester at the seminary, described as North America’s largest Catholic seminary focused on preparing men over 30 for priesthood. “The people there are really good and the classes are great.”
He also appreciates his fellow seminarians, among them, Bob Cloos and Bill Roush of the Davenport Diocese. Deacon Witt has been encouraging other eligible men to consider a vocation to the priesthood because of the caliber of seminarians he’s met in Hales Corner.
God willing, Deacon Witt will be ordained a priest in 2012. “I never thought I’d become a priest. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to serve as a deacon … that’s been just a joyful experience.”
Deacon Steve Witt bioAge: 62
Born and raised: Clinton, Iowa
Family: Widowed (wife, Patti, died in 2001); three children: Courtney, 36; Kevin, almost 34; and Julie, 31.
Parish: St. Mary Parish in Grinnell
Occupation: Retired businessman. Among his previous positions, he ran a manufacturing facility in Grinnell and prior to that his father’s business in Clinton. Following college, he worked for the City of Davenport running the Governor’s Youth Opportunity Program and the Youth Conservation Corps.
Education: Graduated from St. Mary High School in Clinton; attended seminary for three years at St. Ambrose College in Davenport; graduated from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in public administration.
Ordained to permanent diaconate: Sept. 18, 1982, St. Patrick’s Church in Clinton by Bishop Gerald O’Keefe.
Hobbies: Runs and bicycles. He’s logged 300 or 400 miles since arriving at Hales Corner. Taking a long ride on a bicycle, he said, provides perspective. He also likes to read for fun, when he has time.
Favorite food: He’s a steak and potatoes guy.