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FATHER RITCHEY’S LEGACY: Consistency, management, faithfulness, plain-speaking

The following story appeared in the May 14 Idaho Catholic Register.

Father Timothy Ritchey, right, with Father Ben Uhlenkott and Bishop Peter Christensen. Father Ritchey was Father Uhlenkott’s mentor during Father Uhlenkott’s first year of priesthood as parochial vicar at Holy Apostles where Father Ritchey was pastor. (Photo courtesy of Father Ritchey)

by Emily Woodham

Staff Writer

Those who know Father Timothy Ritchey, retiring after 36 years of parish work, describe him as a person of integrity who leaves behind a legacy of consistency and faithfulness.

“He’s like the Wyatt Earp of priests,” said Twin Falls parishioner Andy Anderson, who first met Father Ritchey 27 years ago at the former Holy Spirit Parish in Meridian. “Sometimes you want to hear what he has to say, and sometimes you don’t. But you’re going to hear it!”

“What you see is what you get and even more so,” said Bishop Peter Christensen who likened Father Ritchey to Nathanael, the early disciple of Christ with no guile. “His yes means and yes and his no means no,” the Bishop said.

The Bishop recalled his first meeting with Father Ritchey. “He said to me, ‘Bishop, I will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to know.’ He has been true to those words. He sees the obvious, which to others may not seem obvious until you really see it.”

“He is wonderful because he will just tell you what he’s thinking,” said Father Ben Uhlenkott, pastor of St. Mark’s Parish in Boise. Father Uhlenkott’s first year in the priesthood was as a parochial vicar at Holy Apostles in Meridian, with Father Ritchey as his pastor and mentor.

“Father Ritchey has an ability though to say things that can be rough, yet people still know that they’re loved and cared for,” Father Uhlenkott said.

While his forthrightness, consistency and faithfulness comprise his personal legacy, there is little doubt that many in the Diocese of Boise will think of Holy Apostles Church in Meridian as the lasting physical legacy of Father Ritchey’s determination and hard work.

When given the “Priest of the Year” award earlier this year from the Idaho Knights of Columbus, Father Ritchey was cited for his fiscal responsibility and common sense in his oversight and later management of what would become Idaho’s largest parish. Though there are examples of leadership and growth in each parish where he has served as pastor, the building campaign for Holy Apostles is noted by many as one of the finest examples of his leadership ability.

In 1998, Bishop Tod Brown, who served in Idaho from 1989-1998, told Father Ritchey to begin the process to combine the parishes of Holy Spirit in Meridian and St. Matthew’s in Eagle, into one new church. Father Ritchey guided the process from purchasing land to architectural plans and construction. The church building was $6.8 million, and the nearby unique Adoration chapel, done as a separate project, was $1.5 million.

“That was an undertaking,” Father Ritchey said of the overall project.

“I told Bishop Brown, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ He said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ ” Three years later by Easter Sunday 2001 the building was largely complete and, remarkably, paid off “because people just were amazingly responsible,” Father Ritchey said.

“When we bought that property for Holy Apostles, we paid about $13,000 an acre, and we bought 24 acres,” Father Ritchey said. And now, he can freely admit that he was not completely obedient when Bishop Brown instructed him to sell the 10 unused acres.

Instead, he held on to it. “Bishop Brown wanted me to sell it, Bishop (Michael) Driscoll never knew that I had it and Bishop Peter was thankful I kept it,” Father Ritchey quips. Now that 10 acres is the site of St. Ignatius Catholic School, a project supervised by Father Ritchey’s successor at Holy Apostles, Father Len MacMillan.

“Father Len did such a wonderful job getting that school built and opened. When I left Holy Apostles, I just felt a 100 percent confidence. I don’t think I could have had a better successor than Father Len,” Father Ritchey said.

The creation of Holy Apostles, both the physical building and the spiritual parish community, are testaments to Father Ritchey’s leadership abilities, Bishop Peter said.

“He is a very gifted leader who is able to accomplish a lot and at the same time have a pastoral heart for those in need whom he goes out of his way to serve,” the Bishop said. “He has a real heart for seminarians and the newly ordained. He intuits what they need and helps them get there.”

FATHER RITCHEY was born in 1956. Eleven years earlier, when his mother, Theresa Ritchey, was nine months pregnant with his older sister, she was hit by a truck while crossing Bannock Street in downtown Boise. Both his mother and sister survived, but doctors told Theresa that she would be unable to have more children. Thankfully, God had other plans.

Father Ritchey’s Catholic faith and hard-work ethic reach back for generations. His family first arrived in the Boise area in 1886. Even though he was born in Boise, Father Ritchey did not grow up there because of his father’s career in the U.S. Air Force. Despite the many family moves, each summer was spent in Lowman with extended family. His grandmother cleaned the houses of bishops and priests of the Diocese. Her brother, Father Ritchey’s great-uncle Jim, was a Holy Cross priest with the University of Portland.

“My Uncle Jim was a great influence on my faith and my decision to become a priest,” Father Ritchey said.

“My grandmother was very devout, cleaning all those houses and putting up with all those priests and bishops.”

During Father Ritchey’s senior year in high school, his father retired from the Air Force, and his family moved to Boise permanently. He graduated from Borah High School in 1974. That fall, he went to Boise State University to pursue a degree in geology and became involved at St. Paul’s Student Center. While praying in front of the crucifix there, he felt his call to the priesthood.

He enrolled at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (also known as “the Angelicum”) in Rome and joined the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. While studying in Rome, he met someone else known for being blunt, St. Mother Teresa. “She was awesome. She was a little pistol and just as short as can be,” he said.

He also met Pope St. John Paul the Great, when he held the sacramentary at the pope’s first public Mass after the failed assassination attempt on the pontiff in 1981.

Bishop Sylvester Treinen, left, ordained Father Timothy Ritchey on May 22, 1985, at Holy Rosary Church in Idaho Falls. Father Ritchey calls Bishop Treinen his hero. (Photo courtesy of Father Ritchey)

After being in Rome for five years, Father Ritchey called Bishop Sylvester Treinen, who served as Bishop here from 1962 to 1988, and asked to be-come a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Boise. “Bishop Treinen was one of the holiest and yet most frustrating men I have ever met,” Father Ritchey said. “He was my hero.”

Bishop Treinen sent Father Ritchey to St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif. to finish his studies.

Bishop Treinen ordained him on May 22, 1985 at Holy Rosary Church in Idaho Falls. “I was ordained a few days before Bishop Peter Christensen was ordained, so I have seniority on him in the priesthood,” he joked.

After celebrating his first Mass at St. Joseph’s in Idaho City, Father Ritchey was assigned to Holy Rosary as parochial vicar for a year. He then served as parochial vicar at St. Edward’s in Twin Falls for two years, before becoming pastor of St. Elizabeth’s

in Gooding in 1988. In 1994, he was assigned as pastor for Holy Spirit in Meridian, which would merge with St. Matthew’s in Eagle to become Holy Apostles.

In 2007, after overseeing the building of Holy Apostles’ large campus, Father Ritchey took a sabbatical for a year. When he returned, he was assigned as pastor of Mary Immaculate in Saint Maries for three years. Then in 2011, he was made pastor of St. George’s in Post Falls.

Throughout his priesthood, he has served on committees and boards for the Diocese. Father Ritchey has also been involved with the Knights of Columbus from the beginning of his priesthood.

PEOPLE WILL ALSO remember Father Ritchey for the spiritual guidance he offers. “He mentored and helped heal many,” said Andy Anderson, who was an altar server when Father Ritchey became pastor of Holy Spirit in Meridian. Whether helping the youth or older adults, Anderson said, Father Ritchey had a gift for giving truthful guidance.

“He has a very fatherly presence,” said Father Nathan Dail, parochial vicar at All Saints Parish in Lewiston. “He’s a father you can go to and ask about anything,” said Father Dail, who in July becomes the chaplain at St. Paul’s Student Center at Boise State. “He’s not focused on grandiose things or making a name for himself. He gives his presence; he’s very wise. He represents well the fatherhood of the priesthood.”

His fatherhood comes with a healthy sense of humor. When asked about Father Ben Uhlenkott, who was dubbed as his “mini-me,” Father Ritchey said, “I always tell him that he was sent to me as his first assignment because nobody else was stubborn enough to take him.”

Learning how to sift through criticisms was one of the most important lessons Father Uhlenkott said he learned from Father Ritchey. When receiving angry emails or letters, Father Ritchey would take the criticisms to the Blessed Sacrament and pray over them. He encouraged Father Uhlenkott to do the same as a way to determine what should be ignored and what was a valid concern or learning opportunity.

“He affirmed a model of priesthood that is very much ‘roll up your sleeves and work hard.’ He would say people have a right to expect you to work hard for their salvation; you’re there to work and pray and grind it out with people, to be with the people in what-ever they need,” Father Uhlenkott said. “Knowing my personality, I needed somebody who was strong to mentor me. He is a really strong leader, a very good pastor, and a good Christian. My year with him was very formative, and I am very thankful.”

Father Ritchey also helped with foster care. While at Holy Apostles, he worked with a ministry to keep siblings together who needed foster homes. He was then asked by the state to become a foster parent himself, which he did for a few years with the support of Bishop Driscoll.

“Being a foster parent was huge,” Father Ritchey said. “My mom used to say, ‘When they’re little, they walk on your toes. When they get older, they walk on your heart.’ Yet we love them unconditionally the way that God loves us. What parents wouldn’t lay down their own lives for their children, as God sent His only Son to die for us.”

FATHER RITCHEY possesses a unique compassion for the dead and has done so throughout his priesthood. He has been longtime friends with several funeral directors, helping them as needed. While he was pastor in Saint Maries, he was also the Deputy Coroner for the county.

He has no qualms complaining to a funeral director if he thinks the embalming, or any part of the services, was handled incorrectly.

“He had a casket that we called, ‘Big Blue,’” Father Uhlenkott said. “It was so that people who had to cremate their loved one, or if their loved one’s body needed to be kept for an autopsy, could still have a casket funeral.”

Holy Apostles Catholic Church in Meridian, which opened in 2001, was built under the supervision of Father Ritchey. It is the largest Catholic church in Idaho. (ICR file photo)

Father Ritchey kept the casket with him Holy Spirit Parish and then later at Holy Apostles. Once the funeral Mass was done, he would remove the urn from the casket for the interment ceremony. During his final year at Holy Apostles, the casket was used for the burial of a man in poverty.

THE CHURCH HAS seen many changes over Father Ritchey’s 36 years of priesthood. He is proud of the Church’s involvement against racism in Idaho, and he applauds the efforts of seminaries to be true to Church teaching.

Among his favorite movements in the Church in Idaho are the Evangelization Retreats. “An Evangelization Retreat has a little bit of the charismatic movement in there, but it also has traditional elements, such as Adoration and the rosary. It has the full spectrum of Catholicism. I like that,” Father Ritchey said.

As far as managing parishes, Father Ritchey advises priests not to return to a parish to act in any official capacity until at least a year has passed since their departure.

He also believes priests shouldn’t make changes to parishes until they have been there for a year and one day. “Priests need to understand why parishes do things the way they do before deciding that things need to change,” he said. Sometimes, parish situations need immediate action, he said, but it is best to avoid drastic and sudden changes when possible, out of respect for the parish.

“The famous seven words of a parishioner are: ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’ And the famous seven words of a priest: ‘Let the next guy worry about it,’ Father Ritchey said.

“If you work hard, you never have to be ashamed of getting your paycheck,” he said. “At the same time, don’t work so hard that you’re not taking vacations. Take the vacations you’re entitled to and no more. Otherwise, you get the title, ‘Father Gone Again.’ ”

Priests ought to live like their people, Father Ritchey said, neither like a king, nor a pauper, but a life of practical spirituality that seeks the benefit of others and the community.

As Father Ritchey prepares for retirement, he has been paring down his library and other belongings. Like his hero, Bishop Treinen, he seeks a simple life in retirement. His love for the outdoors is well known among his friends, and he enjoys his time in the mountains of Idaho. He plans to travel across the United States before settling back in Idaho. In order to make it easier to other priests to take time off, Father Ritchey says he will continue to be willing to celebrate Masses when invited, as do many retired priests in the Diocese.

The crucifix at St. Paul’s Student Center before which Father Ritchey prayed when he discerned the priesthood was returned to him during his last assignment as pastor at St. George’s. When he heard the corpus of the crucifix was in a closet in Chubbuck, he requested permission to bring it to St. George’s. He then had an oak cross handcrafted for the corpus. When Cindi Duft, artist and iconographer, began creating artwork for the sanctuary, she made the beloved crucifix the focus of her work.

“It’s very beautiful,” said Father Ritchey. And like the integrity of his priesthood, it truly is.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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