Father Bill Wack, C.S.C.

As Interviewed by Grant Robinett, on March 11, 2015

Father Bill Wack, C.S.C.: In His Own Words

I was born in a really young age, like zero. Ha ha. I was born in 1967. I'm pretty old. Into a family of nine children and then there would be one more after me so there's ten of us in my family. Two girls and then eight boys in a row. I'm number nine. The ninth child - seventh son. So that's important because when I found out that I wanted to be a priest I knew that I wanted to join a whole bunch of priests, a community of people too because I always wanted to live and work with people and I didn’t want to be just on my own. And then I just, you know, grew up like everyone else played a lot of sports and everything with a lot of my brothers and sisters too. It was like we had a whole basketball team, a whole baseball team or football team -- we’d take on the whole neighborhood. And then when I was in high school, I used to help out at the church and I just thought I wonder if God wants me to do something more you know maybe be a priest even. So I started talking to the vocation directors - kind of like the recruiters for the priesthood -- and that was at Notre Dame. I grew up a couple blocks from there so I’d ride my bike there and talk to the priests once every other month. And then I joined the seminary -- went in as a student at Notre Dame. I didn't know that I wanted to be a priest when I was eighteen, but I thought I’ll see if I like it, and I liked it and I liked it and I liked it and I stayed for eight years and I've been a priest now for twenty years. I served first in Colorado Springs for four years, then back at Notre Dame. I was the vocation director -- the recruiter -- for five years and I lived on campus and I worked with the students. It was very fun. Then I went to Phoenix for seven years and worked at a big soup kitchen and drop-in shelter for the homeless. And now I've been here for six years at the parish in Austin. And I really loved all of my assignments -- each time I say this is the best, this is the best. I thought Phoenix was the best and now I love the parish even more.

So like I said - I was there for seven years - I was the director. It's a very large building -- it's like a warehouse. I was the director and there were about eight to ten people on the staff. These were people who were just one year out of college – twenty-two or twenty-three year olds who were giving a year to service. And we all kind of lived together and served all day every day. And it was a lot of work, as you can imagine, because the biggest thing we did was every night we served a dinner for five hundred and fifty plates, that's not people, we counted plates -- some people went around once or twice. Now, that gives you an idea of how many people there were. Then, before the dinner, during the day, we’d offer bathrooms all day for people because they were living outside or under bridges, in the bushes wherever outside they didn’t have a place to go to the bathroom. We have showers they can sign up and take a shower. We have free clothes that people donate. We have laundry machines that they do their laundry. Actually, we do their laundry for them. They drop it off and then we do it just like a dry cleaning store. It’s pretty cool. What else - we have an opportunity for them to use the telephone if they need to look for a job or call family or something. We have water and ice because it's too hot to survive so just basic things that people need to survive. We had it there all day. At night, right around three o'clock, we close the building and we started to cook that big meal that we would serve. We had volunteers from high schools, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Arizona State University and corporations, as well, like Motorola -- they would send their workers over. We needed about thirty people every day. We had someone to sign everyone up and watch over them. It was a well-oiled machine.

. . . my experiences there were - it was really neat because I could be with them all day every day and I lived a couple blocks away. I would walk to and from work there so it's kind of neat. It wasn't just “Hey, I'm going to serve these poor people.” I really did -- I was in a situation where I was kind of their neighbor. And I lived with them and they knew that too -- which was really neat. A lot of other churches would come down - churches and other organizations -- they would put out a table in the middle of the street and put some food out there and start singing gospel songs and everything. And people would come in and they would pray over them and they would give them some turkey or something and they’d fold up the tables and drive away. But we were there every day all day and people really appreciated that and I really loved being part of that as well. It also protected me too because I wouldn't have walked around that area if I wasn’t working there. But they knew who I was and no one was going to jump me or anything like that. It is a bad part of town but I could walk and no one would do anything to me. So that's good.

I have a lot of stories, as you can imagine, after seven years, but one really neat thing was, there was a woman -- she was probably in her late thirties or early forties just a little - I think had special needs a little bit just a little slow, you know. And she was there every day, she slept outside in a cardboard box, you know, and with blankets and everything. She just seemed happy. She came in - she was singing and happy. She used our showers or bathrooms, ate every night with us and would sleep out there. And this would go on for months and months and months. Finally, when I had some time, I sat down with her and I said, “What happened? Where is your family and everything?” And she said, “Well, I had a fight with my dad a couple months ago and I got so mad that I just slammed the door and I left.” And I said, “Well, do you -- do they even know where you are?” “Oh, no, they have no idea.” And she said, “I wish I could go back, but he was just so mad at me.” And I said, “Well, what if you just called?” And she said, “Well, I don't know – he’s really mad.” And I said, “No -- just call.” So, I had her in the office and she called him. And I could hear him crying on the other side. He couldn't believe that it was her. “Where've you been?” Because it was another city. She got on a bus and came to Phoenix. “Are you OK? Are you alive?” And she said, “Yes, Daddy. And he said, “I want you to come home -- I will come and get you.” And she's crying. He's crying. I'm crying. And he came and picked her up and that was it. But it was just because of an argument -- she didn't think she could go home. And all it took was me saying why don’t you just call him. So that was just an awesome thing. She went from sleeping on a cardboard thing to back home sleeping on a bed living with her family.

It was a place with a lot of drugs. A lot of people were selling drugs and people would stand on the corner right outside of our building. And cars would drive up and they would sell them drugs - crack or something like that. And I would always be out there like, you know, just telling them get out of here. You can't do this here, you know. And they would run away when they saw me or apologize because they knew who I was. Well, one day, this one guy was not moving and he just wanted to call my bluff and he said, “No, I’m not leaving.” So I said, “Fine, I'm not leaving either.” And I had the collar on, you know, the priest's collar and I buttoned it all the way up and I stood right next to him and a car would come in and they would look at me and drive away really quickly. And he would be so mad, he started yelling at me – cursing. you know. Racial stuff, everything. Making fun of me because I'm a priest. All this stuff. And on and on. Finally, you know, he said well “I'm going to be here longer than you – you have to go in there sometime.” And I said, “Oh yeah!” and I sat down on the sidewalk. Instantly regretted, it because it was really hot. I think I burned my bottom, but I just sat there -- I was going to sit there and make him mad. Finally, he almost kicked me, but he was so mad he just left. And I remember putting my head in my hands – it was a hundred and some degrees in Phoenix. I was in the blacks, you know. My outfit – that’s what I call these -- the collar, the blacks and I think I’ve already burned – I can’t feel my bottom. I’m sitting there and I put my head down, you know. I'm just rubbing my eyes. And then after a while, I went into my office. Two days later, this homeless woman came into my office and she said, “Are you OK, Chaplain?” I saw you crying on the corner on Sunday. And I said, “I wasn't crying.” And she said, “Well, we think you were crying. It looks like you gave up hope. Don't ever give up hope. You are our hope, Chaplain. Don't ever give up hope.” It was really neat. But that day, I think I wasn't crying, but I was just I was really overwhelmed with the drugs and the violence and the poverty and homelessness and all of that and so on. It was just so much. So, yeah, there were times when I just really got down. But it was the people there, like that woman, who lifted me up.

I think [I want to help people] probably because of my folks - my parents. My dad was a doctor and my mom is a nurse and, when she wasn't caring for all of us, she would help Dad. I always remember hearing them talk about their patients. Mom was trying to balance the books, you know, and doing all the bills. She would say “Well you know Ms. Johnson hasn't paid.” And Dad would say, “Ah, honey, you know she can't afford it.” Mom would draw a line through it and like you're right and they would just forgive that you know. Or so and so, this family needs to pay us and Dad would say “Put them down for five dollars.” OK, you know, so that was their way – that’s how they served others, you know - I think they just did what they could to help people. That instilled in me, even as a young person, this desire when I'm older I want to do things like that.

I'm not trained as a counselor in that regard, but the way we found, the best thing we found, the best way to be able to help folks like that who are severely mentally ill would be to offer the same things every day in the same schedule. And . . . I think just to talk to them calmly. So this is kind of interesting. I remember hearing this before I got there -- there was a man severely mentally ill. Just would not talk to anyone. . . . Wouldn't communicate or anything, but he showed up for dinner every night. Then there’s this other director – this other priest before me -- he was leaving so they're having a party. And this man walked up to him and said, “I want to thank you for all those years of service.” And my friend said, “I didn’t even know you could talk.” He never talked in 8 years. Then he said, “No, I can talk.” He said, “But I just have a lot of problems.” But he said, “The . . . only thing I knew that was right in this world was that there'd be a dinner at five thirty here every single night.” And so he built his whole world around . . . just knowing that he had dinner at five thirty made sense of his life, you know. That's pretty cool. So we try to stick with the same schedule every day and just tell people you know it’s at five thirty – it’s only four thirty now and the other thing is just to speak to people calmly. Sometimes they would be angry or they wouldn't understand or they would be yelling and you would say “Sir, you know the rules. If you continue to be angry, you won’t be able to eat here tonight. If you hit me, it's going to be a week you can't come back, you know.” Sometimes they might do that or would threaten us or throw the food in our face and we would say and now you can't come back for a week. So you just keep the rules. Talk to them calmly and have a set schedule.