Wednesday at noon, an apartment building for the chronically homeless will be dedicated in downtown Spokane, named in honor of Monsignor Frank Bach.
The crowd will include Spokane’s movers and shakers, along with the homeless and the poor. The 82-year-old Catholic priest will move easily among rich and poor alike, as always.
“This building, more so than any of our many housing complexes, will serve the most vulnerable, the most in need. It is exactly the kind of place that Father Bach’s heart would be attached to,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane.
But don’t get all sentimental and mushy on Bach. He hates the fuss.
“They didn’t ask me; they told me,” Bach said about naming a building after him. “The only decision I had to make was to have it called Father Bach Haven or Monsignor Bach Haven. I refused to have it Monsignor. I hate that title. It’s out of the Middle Ages.”
The secret to Bach’s long life of service to the poor?
He said “yes” when “no” might have sufficed.
The social worker
Bach grew up in Johnstown, Pa., one of three siblings, raised by parents who were not wealthy in any way, except in the Catholic spirit.
“I wanted to be a priest from the time I was in grade school,” Bach said.
After his ordination in 1956, he expected to serve as a parish priest and did for a few years. One day in 1962, Spokane Diocese Bishop Bernard Topel asked Bach if he would go to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., to get a master’s degree in social work and then become head of Catholic Charities.
“I said, ‘What is social work?’ I wasn’t even quite sure what Catholic Charities was. I’d been in their offices once in my three years as a priest.”
Bach said yes anyway.
He earned the master’s degree and led Catholic Charities from 1964 to 1978.
Here’s where that “yes” led, McCann said: “These were some of the most important and formative years in the 101-year history of the agency. (Bach) was the director during the ‘war on poverty’ era and took some extremely bold steps for Catholic Charities as federal dollars were becoming available to agencies that were willing to take a risk.”
Catholic Charities now oversees more than 1,000 apartment units for seniors, low-income families and people with disabilities.
“(Many) were built during Father Bach’s tenure,” McCann said.
“Spokane Catholic Charities had some of the very first HUD projects in the country after the programs were first initiated over 40 years ago,” said Judy Butler, a longtime friend of Bach. “Our community has been blessed that this Pennsylvania man found his way to our diocese.”
The money man
After his Catholic Charities tenure, Bach returned to parish work and worked in diocesan administration. He served for nine years at St. Mary’s parish in Spokane Valley before retiring in 1998. But even in retirement, he remained active – helping out in parishes, overseeing the annual Christmas Bureau, serving on boards.
In the late 1990s, Donna Hanson, who succeeded him at the helm of Catholic Charities, sought Bach’s help raising money to replace two aging homeless shelters.
Bach said yes.
“The (old) House of Charity had terrible issues with roaches and rodents and was literally falling apart around the clients,” McCann said.
“St. Margaret’s Shelter was a very run-down house on a corner near Sacred Heart hospital with only five small bedrooms. It had major issues with its roof and its foundation.”
Bach preached throughout the Spokane Diocese on the Shelter 2000 campaign. After his sermon in one small town, a businessman wrote a check for $500,000.
Mary Ann Heskett, campaign director of Shelter 2000, said: “You can sense when people are embarrassed or hesitant to ask, but he is so confident in the rightness of what he’s asking for, how can you say no to someone like that?”
The Shelter 2000 campaign ultimately brought in $6 million, and the new House of Charity and St. Margaret’s are now national models for sheltering the homeless with dignity.
A year ago, Spokane Diocese Bishop Blase Cupich asked Bach to temporarily take over a parish in Newport.
He said yes.
When that temporary assignment ended, Cupich asked Bach to serve at Sacred Heart Parish in Pullman for a year, though it means long drives between Spokane Valley, where Bach has a home, and his temporary home in Pullman.
But again, Bach said yes.
He inherited good health and longevity – not from his parents, who both died of cancer in their mid-50s – but from aunts and uncles still alive into their late 90s.
“I’m into naps,” Bach said. “If at all possible, I try to do a 20-minute nap every day.”
The communion of saints
Unlike some men of his generation, Bach was never intimidated or threatened by strong, opinionated women. About 30 years ago, he formed a monthly prayer group of men and women that included Catholic Charities’ Hanson; Mary Garvin, a Holy Names sister; and Judy Butler, a well-known Catholic lay woman. All outspoken women.
“His work has always been about empowering others,” Butler said. “Thus a strong woman or man would be just the one he would want to work with. The stronger the better.”
Hanson died of cancer in 2005 at age 65. Garvin died Jan. 5, also of cancer. She was 73.
He’s outlived two of his closest friends, but their influence lives on in him, Bach said.
“Donna’s response to any invitation to do work was ‘Well, sure, why not?’ If I said no, she would really give me a bad time,” Bach said. “She had that influence on me while she was alive, but now, too.”
Garvin was famous for believing that all shall be well if you “do the best you can and God will do the rest,” Bach said.
It’s Bach’s mantra now, too.
Ongoing relationships with those who are deceased, expressed through prayers for the dead and asking for their prayers in return, is a Catholic teaching known as the communion of saints.
Bach explained it in simple terms: “You have friends in heaven that can promote your cause.”
What would Hanson in heaven say about this latest Catholic Charities cause – the 51-unit Father Bach Haven? “Too bad it’s not 100 units,” Bach said.
Lessons from the poor
At a 2000 funeral, Bach wrote and delivered the eulogy for a street person named John Haffner, who often bummed money off him.
Bach wrote: “You might have seen him sometime on the streets downtown. He was relatively tall, usually unshaven, with his dark brown hair askew. He lost most of his teeth to decay and the rest were pulled. When John was off his medication, he would become agitated and walk down the streets, yelling at no one in particular, frightening the passers-by.”
From Haffner – and the hundreds of men, women and children in poverty that Bach has met over the years – he understands this:
“There are no throwaway people. Every individual is precious. How we respond to that is sometimes difficult because sometimes they are difficult. But God loves everybody. God is very nonjudgmental.”
Despite decades of work among the homeless, Bach, too, is uncomfortable when he’s at a traffic light, idling in his car next to a man or woman holding a begging sign.
He doesn’t give money. “But every month I contribute to the House of Charity and St. Margaret’s Shelter, because I know the money will be used responsibly.”
The apartments in Father Bach Haven are clean and bare. The furniture is attached to floor so that it remains even if the tenants don’t remain in the program that combines stable housing with counseling.
“I believe they can change, but I don’t pretend it’s easy,” Bach said. “Those of us who have all the blessings in life have difficulty changing. To expect people with terrible backgrounds to change is asking an awful lot. I don’t pretend to know if you’ll get 49 out of 51 here to live happily ever after. But it’s either this or you don’t do anything. And that’s a great excuse. Just don’t do anything. And then you won’t get criticized.”
Emily Willrich, 20, a resident of the housing complex, was sitting in the lobby of Father Bach Haven while Bach posed for photos for this story.
When introduced to the man behind the building’s name, Willrich said: “If it weren’t for Father Bach, I’d be out on the street.”
When she began a bit of gushing, Bach deflected the attention by asking Willrich about her life.
“I’m due Monday,” she told Bach, patting her pregnant tummy. It’s a boy; she’ll name him Brayden.
For six months, Willrich lived on the streets. But now she has a home for Brayden – all because Father Frank Bach said yes.
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