University Parish pastor to start fourth career—retirement
By Julie Filby
Photo by Richard Dillon
In his vocational life, Father Donald Willette has served 30 years in the U.S. Air Force, run a real estate business and a restaurant, and ministered for 27 years as a priest in the Denver Archdiocese.
“I’ve got one more career to go,” he said, “retirement.”
Father Willette spoke with the Denver Catholic Register June 28, two days after his 70th birthday and his last day as pastor at Blessed John XXIII University Parish in Fort Collins.
“I’m ready (for retirement),” he said. “Totally ready.”
In his priestly tenure Father Willette served as parochial vicar at St. Thomas More in Centennial and St. Jude in Lakewood; and as pastor at St. Theresa in Frederick and mission parishes St. Scholastica in Erie and Guardian Angels in Mead; St. Louis in Louisville and Spirit of Peace (now St. Francis of Assisi) in Longmont; then moved to campus ministry at Blessed John XXIII in 2001.
Father Willette, a South Dakota native, spent nine years in formation for the priesthood (1958-1967) at the Pontifical College Josephinum for the Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., when he changed paths and joined the Air Force.
“I didn’t think I’d ever go back,” he said, referring to the seminary.
For 13 years, he didn’t. In 1967 he embarked on a military career that spanned 30 years and included three tours in Vietnam. He was an Air Force chaplain for 15 years, and also coordinated the country’s chaplains for the Air Combat Command. In 1997 he retired a full colonel.
“Chaplain service was very meaningful for me,” he said. “It was very challenging.”
Father Willette was engaged to be married twice.
“Neither of those worked out,” he said.
His desire to move away from “life in the fast lane,” and then surviving a serious car accident brought him back to ministry.
“I ran my car off a cliff in the mountains one night; over a 100-foot cliff,” he said, “I never should’ve lived through it.”
When he woke up from the crash and realized he was OK, he decided to give his life to God.
“What if I would’ve died right there?” he said. “I was 39 years old and thought: ‘maybe it’s time to go back and give a few years of my life to God’; enough chasin’ around.”
In 1980 he returned to formation at Denver’s St. Thomas Seminary (now St. John Vianney Theological Seminary). He was ordained June 2, 1984. He has ministered to people from many walks of life including military personnel, married couples, migrant farm workers, elementary school children and college students.
“Some of the most gratifying work I did was with Retrouvaille,” he said of the marriage ministry he helped bring to the archdiocese in the mid-80s. “There were really some minor miracles, and sometimes major miracles, to see a marriage get turned around.”
He was the first pastor to serve the combined rural parishes of St. Theresa, St. Scholastica and Guardian Angels, celebrating six Masses a weekend.
“The farm-workers taught me a whole lot about dignity and the struggles that people go through to survive,” he said.
He enjoyed being involved in the expansion of St. Louis School in Louisville during 11 years there; and described campus ministry at Blessed John XXIII—a parish of 1,000 families that serves Colorado State University and Front Range Community College students—as a “whole other world.”
The experience has helped him prepare for his ultimate goal of retiring in the Holy Land, where he has taken pilgrimage trips for 27 consecutive years. Father Willette hopes to work in campus ministry for Bethlehem University, a Catholic Christian university in the Lasallian tradition.
“It would be the same kind of work that I’m doing here (Blessed John XXIII); working with students,” he said. “I look at this as a real frontier for being a peacemaker.
“I believe in young people,” he continued. “If there’s any hope for peace over there, it will be the young people that do it.”
In the meantime, he will move to his mountain cabin near Fort Collins and help at area parishes as needed, while he recuperates from a recent knee replacement.
Parishioners thanked Father Willette for his service June 25-26 with receptions after Masses.
“I’m so very grateful for my staff; they’re hard-working and dedicated to the ministry,” he said. “That’s the only way the priesthood works anymore.”
He also expressed gratitude for the wake-up call in 1980.
“I’m grateful to God for picking me up after I went over that cliff; for rattling my cage enough to get back in active ministry.”