Iowa family man becomes Catholic priest

After raising kids, losing wife, man returns to first calling

Erin Jordan
Published: January 18 2013 | 5:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:15 am in

IOWA CITY — The Rev. Steve Witt has been a husband and a father.

Now he’s a father, as in black shirt and white collar.

Newly ordained in the Davenport Diocese of the Catholic Church, Witt’s experiences with marriage, parenting and losing a spouse are unusual in a field where most priests choose the celibate vocation earlier in life.

“I’ve been around the block a lot,” said Witt, 64.

While “second-career” priests are a small portion of the 39,000 Catholic priests serving in the United States in 2012, they have a higher retention rate than younger priests. This is important in a nation where the number of priests has declined 33 percent since 1965 and 9 percent since 2005.

Witt serves at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Newman Catholic Student Center, both in Iowa City, where his oldest daughter, Courtney Vassiliades, lives with her family. Witt has two other children and three grandchildren.

Witt considered not having that family.

As one of nine children in a Catholic family from Clinton, Witt enrolled in the undergraduate seminary at St. Ambrose University when he was 18. But three years into his priest preparation, Witt dropped out of seminary and completed just his undergraduate degree.

“I realized that I couldn’t handle the celibate lifestyle,” Witt said with a grin. “I was attracted to girls too much.”

Witt met his wife, Patti, on a blind date. He was running the Governor’s Youth Opportunity Program for disadvantaged youths in Davenport and Patti was a nurse. They married six months later, in 1974.

Witt earned his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Iowa before running his father’s sheet metal contracting business in Clinton. The family moved in 1985 to Grinnell, where Witt managed the United McGill Corporation.

He became a permanent deacon in 1982, which allowed him to serve the church, hold down another job and still have a family.

But in 2001, Patti Witt died in her sleep.

“We think she just stopped breathing,” Witt said. “She had sleep apnea, but the autopsy didn’t really indicate what caused her death.”

Witt felt like he was slugged in the gut with a baseball bat. He walked around in a fog for three years before Vassiliades convinced him to seek counseling.

Finding a new path

In 2008, Witt decided he was ready to give the priesthood another try.

He enrolled in the Sacred Heart School of Theology, a Milwaukee-area institution that touts itself as the “No. 1 seminary in North America specializing in priestly formation for men over 30.”

“This is a place for old guys,” Witt said.

Sacred Heart, which has about 100 seminarians with an average age of 43, has focused on “second-career” vocations for the past 30 years. The five-year attrition rate for priests trained at Sacred Heart is 3 percent, compared to 12 percent to 15 percent for younger priests, the school reports.

“Most of the apostles were on their second career — fishermen, tax collector — yet Jesus chose them,” said Rev. Tom Knoebel, director of recruitment for the seminary. “Men with life experiences have a lot to offer.”

Witt traded his house in Grinnell for dormitory-style living and started graduate-level courses that can include Scriptural Foundations, Science and Religion, Social Ethics, and Parish Management.

Catholic seminary is usually four years, but Witt finished in 2 ½ because some of his credits transferred from earlier schooling.

Bishop Martin Amos ordained Witt on Dec. 15, with Witt’s children, grandchildren and mother-in-law among those gathered for the mass in Davenport.

“It was a really happy, festive occasion,” Vassiliades said.

Catholic priests not only perform mass, baptisms and marriages, but they visit people stuck at home or in the hospital. Priests also hear confessions and minister to people struggling with life’s challenges.

Here’s where Witt hopes his life experiences will help.

“I understand how marriages work,” he said.

Witt plans to serve until mandatory retirement at 75, and then continue as a backup priest as long as possible.

“I’d like to die with my boots on,” he said.

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