The people of St. Mary’s Catholic parish can’t help but love him.
Thousands of faithful - old and young, families and singles - packed the Spokane Valley sanctuary last weekend to bid adieu to the Rev. Frank Bach.
Bach, 66, retired Sunday from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where he has been pastor since 1988.
“I’ll really miss him,” shrugged 8-year-old Kenny Wood, a third grader at St. Mary’s School.
Bach’s influence extended beyond his own parish. He was an influential leader throughout the Valley and the Catholic Diocese of Spokane. He earned recognition for his efforts in social services from around the world - from Washington, D.C., to Vatican City.
In his farewell sermon Sunday at St. Mary’s, Bach recalled his vision for the Valley church.
“Parishes exist not for me, but for you. Everything we do should help you follow Christ,” Bach told his congregation Sunday. “My pastoral role is to help people use their gifts, like a symphony conductor trying to get the best out of the people he works with.”
The congregation erupted into a standing ovation.
Bach orchestrated many assignments before becoming pastor of St. Mary’s in 1988. He headed Spokane Catholic Charities for 14 years, serving on the board of the National Conference of Catholic Charities. During the 1980s, Bach served as “chief of staff” for the bishop of Spokane.
Last March, Bach was named a monsignor by Pope John Paul II. The title is bestowed on priests who have made exceptional contributions to their diocese.
“He’s just been a really outstanding priest-leader,” said Bishop William Skylstad, who nominated Bach for the papal honor. “He has an unusual gift of administration, and also a certain kind of warmness and humor.”
Bach’s gift for skillful, sensitive leadership has helped to transform the face of social services in the Valley.
Together with other area church leaders, Bach helped start the Valley Center, which serves struggling people with a host of social services. St. Mary’s worked with three other churches to build the Valley’s first Habitat for Humanity home.
“He’s been a big supporter of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches in the Valley,” said the Rev. Brian Prior, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. “It’s kind of funny, in our church, there’s almost a feeling that he’s one of ours.”
Bach continues to be a primary advocate for the Valley Center.
“When most folks think of supporting us, they think of giving us money,” said Valley Center Director Barbara Olson, who is a Presbyterian.
“Father Bach is very good about educating about the need. That’s one of God’s things - to take care of the poor, and he lives that.”
When Bach became pastor of St. Mary’s, only 600 families belonged. Now, more than 1,600 families call St. Mary’s home - making it the biggest Catholic parish in Spokane.
Bach, a short, gray-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses, doesn’t like dwelling on his accomplishments.
“Most of the things done today in a modern parish are done collectively,” said Bach. “I try to collect as many talented people around me as possible.”
Catholic leaders say that while Bach is reluctant to take credit, he deserves it.
“He downplays what he does,” said Donna Hanson, director of Catholic Charities for the past 19 years. “But he provides the support, the context and the structure in which people can succeed.”
Bach’s experience with Catholic Charities helped broaden his perspective on the role of priests and the church.
“Historically, I think priests have been very judgmental. We purported to know your relationship with God, which nobody can know,” said Bach. “Social work opened my eyes to a way of seeing people, and accepting people the way they are.”
The people of St. Mary’s love Bach precisely because of those traits. “He is human, you know?” said Sandi Connellan, a 20-year parish veteran. “With some priests, I’m not so sure.”
For Bach, the immediate question is “what next?”
If Spokane’s Bishop Skylstad is selected as the next Archibishop of Seattle, someone will have to fill the bishop’s post here. Some area Catholics are wondering if Bach might be picked.
His health is good, and he knows the inner-workings of the diocese, from his years as chancellor and vicar.
“Any priest would be reluctant to turn down a request from the Holy Father,” said Bach. “But I don’t have any ambition to serve in that capacity. I really don’t think I’m the one that Rome is looking for.”
Besides, he has something else on his retirement agenda.
“I want to take up golf again.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: 41 years of service The Rev. Frank Bach, who was born in Johnstown, Pa., in 1930, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1956. He came to Spokane that same year and in the 41 years since has served as a pastor at several churches, most recently at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the Valley. During that time, he also held leadership roles with many local charitable organizations, including Catholic Charities of Spokane, which he directed for 14 years. Here are highlights of Bach’s career: 1956: Appointed pastor of St. Ann’s parish 1962: Became pastor of the Spokane Indian Reservation at Wellpinit, Wash. 1964: Earned master’s degree in social work from Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. Later appointed director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Spokane. 1965: Named to the Spokane Community Action Council board of directors, a group that serves the poor. 1968: Named to a two-year term of the Priest’s Senate, an advisory board to the Bishop of Spokane. 1975: Elected president of the Washington Association of Child Care Agencies. Later received the “Social Worker of the Year” award from the Inland Empire Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. 1979: Elected to the National Conference of Catholic Charities board of directors. Also elected to a three-year term on the board of directors for United Way of Spokane. 1980: Appointed chancellor and vicar for administration for the Diocese of Spokane. 1988: Appointed pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Spokane Valley. 1994: Received the 75th anniversary Alumnus Award from Catholic University of America’s National School of Social Service. 1997: Named a monsignor by Pope John Paul II. Sam Francis