MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: "I've Seen it Raining Fire In the Sky!"

It was Monday, 23 June 2008 -- almost a year ago -- that I wrote in this forum a special goal that I had set for myself to be completed last summer. Remember these words?

"Some folks were asking if I'd be taking some time off this summer. While I've had several invitations to join others on their vacations, I have not accepted any offer as of yet. But one thought does come to mind: Colorado Springs! While in priestly formation, I took part in a CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program at the Penrose - St. Francis Health Care System at the Springs. For some reason, I have frequent recurring dreams of life lived at the foot of Pike's Peak. I suspect that these vivid dreams are recurring because it was a very intense summer back in 1992. Given the depth of experiences of working in Unit 4 (the regional psych ward) and being on call in the intense trauma center coupled with the soul searching that was a part of the facilitated group dynamic course load, I have many powerful memories of the summer of '92. In some ways, it's calling me back; albeit just for a visit. If I would choose to go, I'd want to meet up with one of my host families, the Kirchers, and I'd love to meet up with the two congregations of sisters who sponsor the hospitals. And yes, I'd travel by car. And to repeat history, I'd have to pop in the audio book, "Single White Female" which I played on the highway, driving alone and in the dark on the original trip out of Colorado: arriving in DePere never felt so good! If that trip does not occur, I'll continue to make the best of shorter trips between DePere and Antigo; DePere and Chicago; and DePere and the Twin Cities -- all for planned weddings and summertime family visits. Yesterday's drive reminded me that sometimes "the journey itself is the best reward!"

Well, almost one year later, I can tell you that, unfortunately, that visit never materialized. Unfortunately, too many weddings and rehearsals would prevent me from travelling any further west than the Twin Cities. And yet, I wasn't too discouraged because I had a second option in mind! On Friday 22 August 2008 the Packers were scheduled to take on the Broncos in Denver. Given the preseason game would be in the evening and given we would gain time headed west, a later Mass schedule would be implemented for the Mass to precede the kickoff 4.5 hours prior to the game. No doubt, I'd be able to rent a car and head south for the hour-long journey to Colorado Springs either late Thursday night or early Friday morning.

Well, due to Coach McCarthy's generosity, that did not happen either! Prior to our arrival in Denver, we had heard that the Coach wanted to host many of us for dinner --- in Boulder. That's in part due to the Democratic National Convention that was taking place in Denver; we headed out of the city to avoid getting caught up in all of the booked restaurants, traffic and all the hoopla taking place in the downtown area. The other reason was due to Coach McCarthy's intense generosity, quite honestly! So we headed to the hills for dinner that Thursday night. "A great time was had by all," you could certainly say! Friday morning saw all sorts of other issues that would require my presence at the team hotel. So, unfortunately, my arrival in Colorado Springs would once again be put on hold.

That would all change last weekend!

Last Saturday I had the blessed privilege of presiding at the wedding of Noah Faase and Heather Cherpelis at Sacred Heart of Saint Mary Catholic Church in Boulder, Colorado. I have known Noah since his First Holy Communion. It has been a joy to see this young man grow in wisdom and grace (not to mention growing very tall as well), and serving as his pastor as well as to his beautiful sisters, Chelsea and Morgan and their loving and devoted parents, Tom and Debbi: they have been a true joy. Every time I see their smiling faces at Mass, their joyful presence makes Old Saint Joe's come alive.

Heather is a wonderful addition to the Faase family and Saint Norbert Parish community. Heather, like Noah, is very bright and totally spiritual. Every time she comes to DePere I have the opportunity of seeing her at Mass with the Faase family. She fits in perfectly! But last weekend I would be on her home turf! Having been out at the foot of the mountains gave me one more opportunity to head south; I would finally take that opportunity at 5 AM last Saturday morning.

Headed south on I-25 brought back many memories. I have travelled on that road several times in the Packer motorcades over the years, but this particular trip would take me all the way to the Springs. This would remind me of my first trip, back in early June of 1992 -- back then I was filled with excitement as well as anxiety, heading to the intense hospital program. And yet, the sight of the Rockies accompanying my entire journey on I-25 made the trip seem so calming, so pastoral, so comforting. Closer out my window last Saturday I would see signs that directed travelers to Cripple Creek, Royal Gorge, the Garden of the Gods, and the Air Force Academy. All of these places would be visited by me back in '92 -- no time during this quick trip, however!

As I journeyed closer to the city, I failed to remember which exit to take to get to the heart of the downtown -- it all seemed so unfamiliar. In fact, it appeared as though the city had grown exponentially over these past 17 years. "Nevada" would be the street exit to take.

Shortly upon exiting I immediately approached Saint Mary Cathedral. Given the cathedral is situated immediately at the base of the off ramp, I'd need to come back to that sight upon my return to the express way on the way out of town -- buying me time to get my bearings straight. Travelling down Nevada I continued to search for the Penrose-Saint Francis Hospital (St. Francis site). This was nowhere to be found! Headed further south, I would be travelling toward NORAD until I found that old familiar curve headed southwest which was familiar to me as "Old Broadmore Road."

Exiting on and travelling up on Old Broadmore, I finally came upon the home where I spent many of my days, the residence of Mrs. Gleason, a good friend of my theologian classmate Kevin Kenney (who serves today as a priest of the Twin Cities Archdiocese). As you notice, I took the picture from the car -- I did not want to come off as a stalker!

The two windows to the left of the house actually was the room where I stayed during much of my CPE experience. It was formerly a garage which became a nice TV room which became my bedroom for many weeks during the summer of '92. A newer garage was added to the east end of the house which you can see faintly. Where the light colored limestone is embedded, well, that was the door to my little lair. This house was located just below the famed Broadmore Hotel -- no time for golfing this weekend or in '92 -- too much to do with too little time. So, off to the city again to explore even further!

Travelling down 'Nevada' again, I would come across the motel which I used between house sitting stints. The name of the place back then was "40 Winks Motel." I had other names for the motel, ranging from "10 1/2 Winks" given the lumpy mattresses or "40 Roaches Motel." This motel would be the setting for some of my lowest moments in Colorado. I could say much more about this specific place, but I think you get the point! Here's a few views of the place today:

I would not spend much time here, last week; I feared as though the proprietors would think that I was there shooting pictures to make an eventual drug raid -- so I exited rather quickly! Eventually I would come upon the intersection of E. Pike's Peak Boulevard. This was familiar to me as getting closer to the hospital. The road seemed to have been recently re-routed so the journey seemed familiar, yet totally different!

Finally, I would see the hospital at the top of the hill. This place also seemed so familiar, yet so very different as well. In fact, the building which used to house the CPE program seemed to have disappeared! Now, my mind might be a bit sketchy, but this sidewalk was where I would walk into the CPE center, I am sure. It's also the place where Sr. Louise's office would be. She was a member of one of the two congregations who owned and operated the hospital. Sr. Louise was the very impressive Vice-President for Mission Effectiveness at the time. I wonder where she's at these days?

I would walk around the campus and see some familiar sites. For instance, the following picture shows what used to be the on-site convent for the other group of sisters who sponsored the hospital. It's a bit grown up now, perhaps a bit over grown, and there was no sight of sisters there. In fact, the sign gives evidence that the former convent is now a day care center for little kids, I assume.

I finally found the entrance to the hospital and made my way through the halls. Upon discovering the former main entrance I saw the door that read the following:

Wow! They still have a program! Our administrative digs seemed to have been much more expansive back in the 90's, but I'm glad to discover that they still have a program. Could they be blessed enough to still have the Rev. Pamela Johnson running the show? This Methodist-turned-Unitarian minister was golden. Over the years I've tried to find her via the Internet, but her name is just too common. I'll continue my pursuit, nonetheless!

Perhaps the CPE center has been re-located because it is now housed immediately adjacent to the old chapel. I have so many memories of our weekly prayerful reflections offered here. This is where I would expose my classmates to the Lauds liturgy of the Church -- Norbertine style, a liturgical jewel of the Church [and Norbertine Order] which I really cherish! At the end of our summer, I would give my classmates a copy of the prayers written in a published book by one of our Norbertines. Perhaps they are still praying with us in Spirit!

In the corner of this room, we used to have a felt burlap banner (remember those?) that had the familiar image now embedded in stained glass there. Back then, the banner read, "Penrose - Saint Francis Health Care System: Comforting the Disturbed, Disturbing the Comfortable." You notice, I have used that saying many times over in homilies -- thanks to my CPE experience!

Outside the doors, I found the old architectural model and rendering of the St. Francis campus. This is what the place looked like in the 90's. I think the campus is rather different today. This gives you an idea of what this particular campus looked like back then. The section shooting off to the upper right is the east wing where I would spend much of my time on 4E -- the psychiatric center -- type-casting my ministry, one might think! Today, I noticed it houses a hospice center.

Eventually I would make my way to the 5th floor -- the cafeteria! This place was the home of some of the best food in the Springs -- honestly! I tried to get to the roof, but no dice! Back in 1992, Bishop Hanifen would come and bless the terrace as an outdoor eating venue. Now, the dining room view was so beautiful -- the scene from the roof, overlooking Pike's Peak was even more breathtaking!

Here's a few shots of mine looking west from the dining room. That scene was solace for my classmates and me, after many difficult situations in the hospital, this is where we would gather. Here in this room, is where I realized how valuable Pam was and is. Here is where I would begin to develop a much greater appreciation for ecumenism. Pam embodied that beautiful, hospitable spirit -- I thank her for that gift; I thank God for the scenery that made those realizations even more blessed:

Time was marching on, and eventually I would need to make my way north. As such, I returned to the Cathedral. It was so, so different today. Even the walkway into the cathedral was extraordinarily different. The main entrance is now in the back, which I've never encountered before. The axis is completely re-oriented. As I walked up to the cathedral, several images of local patrons greeted me on the journey. Here's a few of them:

Unfortunately, after taking this shot, my camera read, "card is full." ....You've got to be kidding! Just when I was getting started! Nevertheless, much better pictures than I could ever offer can be found here at the link below, by taking a look at their website. The church, which was not built as a cathedral was raised to the status of a cathedral when the Colorado Springs Diocese was established. The renovation certainly honors the old building making it even more grand than before!

Again, I was watching the clock and needed to head back to Boulder to get suited up for Noah and Heather's wedding. Just one more stop, and I'd be headed north! This last stop, though, would be the most rewarding of all.

Back in the summer of '92 I went from house to house to house, to house-sit for people on vacation. My presence there assisted these folks so that their houses would be looked after and appear to be inhabited during their summer vacations. This service I was providing for them could not compare to the housing they offered to me. The kindest people I encountered back then -- and perhaps ever -- are the members of the Kircher family -- Toby, Summer and Ashley. They welcomed me into their beautiful Wood Avenue home. They left shortly after I arrived in '92 and they made sure that I could make their home my own. After a long day at work, I loved to come to this home and "drop butt," you could say! It was here that I'd be exposed to "Beverly Hills 90210" for the first time. That soap opera could not compare to the soap opera that is CPE. Somehow, this home really became a well spring for me -- not just the beauty of the house, but the home that was created by such good and loving people.

Last Saturday I would drive up and down about a 5 block stretch of Wood Avenue, in search of the Kircher home. I was hesitant to do so because every block in this upscale neighborhood displayed neighborhood watch signs. Finally, I found a house that really looked like my Colorado Springs home. Even the gate at the sidewalk looked familiar. I approached the home, ascended the porch steps and rang the bell a few times. This is a little forward for me, coming unannounced, but I just wanted to see if the family had any contact for the Kircher's -- or..... if the Kircher's themselves would still abide here!

No such luck. No one was around. That was OK, I wasn't totally convinced that I had the correct home in the first place anyway. That is, until I opened the gate as I made my exit from the Wood Avenue home. As I looked down, I noticed a little girl's palm print embedded in more recent cement. Above the hand was written, "Ashley Kircher," and below the hand, "2001."

I found my home, my respit, my 1992 sanctuary! My spontaneous visit was successful and complete. ....Well, almost!

On Monday morning back in DePere, I would begin a diligent Google search for "Doctor Tobias Kircher." ....And I found him 17 years later.

Dr. Kircher has become a big-wig for the health care system that is Penrose-Saint Francis. I left a message on his recorder simply asking him to, "call Father Jim Baraniak "along with my contact information. As Murphy's Law would have it, Dr. Kircher returned my call in the midst of Monday night's Evening Prayer. Immediately afterward, I would return his returned call.

I asked the good doctor if he knew who I was. Kindly, he mentioned that I have a very familiar voice, but unfortunatley he could not remember who I was. I filled him in on the background -- all of what you are reading here. He instantly rememberd me in part because of the book on Norbertine Prayer that I offered to him as a gift of thanks. It seems as though our Norbertine style of celebrating the Hours continues to be echoed throughout the Rockies. He would then continue the story sharing his own memories and insights of the summer of 1992, including my blessing of the house as I would originally depart Colorado Spirings and make my way back to the midwest -- and off to my deaconate ordination. He remembered how awkward I felt in blessing the house. Technically, I was not yet ordained so I thought the blessing was somehow invalid. So in response back then, I simply made note of how their goodness was already a blessing to that beautiful home. And yes, what a blessing they were to me. On Monday, Dr. Kircher assured me that the blessing took! The blessing of a total stranger seemed to have lasted for as many years as their memory has lasted in my mind and heart. We promised to meet again, and I told him I wanted to meet up with Summer and Ashley as well. I would love to have them bless the priory with their own sacred spirit.

And finally, for now, it was finished!

Perhaps the recurring dreams will now subside. Summer of 1992 was intense, indeed. So much experienced, so much lived and so much learned. And finally, 17 years later, I am finally trying my best to pull it all together in a way of giving thanks to those who helped me, befriended me and shaped me in those intense formidable years.

Travelling back to the wedding last Saturday, I headed north to Denver then on to Boulder on I-25 for one last time -- this time with a better sense of fulfillment. Along the way my ipod would crank out the closing song to end the 'liturgy' that was the Summer of 1992 and the Springtime of 2009:

He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin' home to a place he'd never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again

You might say he found a key for every door
When he first came to the mountains his life was far away
On the road and hangin' by a song
But the string's already broken and he doesn't really care
It keeps changin' fast and it don't last for long

But the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun
And he lost a friend but kept his memory

Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply
Rocky mountain high

Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

And the Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky mountain high

It's Colorado rocky mountain high
I've seen it rainin' fire in the sky
Friends around the campfire and everybody's high
Rocky mountain high


Anonymous said...

Nice memories! It's always an adventure to see how things have changed, no matter where you came from.

My Aunt and Uncle actually live in Boulder and I had the privilege of spending two weeks with them the summer before I started college. My younger brother is in Colorado Springs at the Air Force Academy and graduates next summer! I have not been to the springs, but I love the Colorado scenery--especially in the higher altitude of Boulder surrounded by mountains.

SNC '09!!!

Anonymous said...

Reading your description of the mountains allows me to relive several vacations/visits to that breathtaking scenery. Somehow it seemed like I was a little closer to God and if I could have reached just a little higher ...


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