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Time of change for Hays Catholic community


It was bad enough finding out they would be losing their junior high/high school principal they had come to know and love.

But students and staff at Hays Catholic Schools learned less than two weeks later they also will be without one of their favorite religion teachers, as well one of their chaplains, for the next school year.

When they returned from Easter break on April 2, students at Thomas More Prep-Marian Junior-Senior High School, learned their principal of the past four years, Bill DeWitt, would be leaving at the end of the school year. He will move to Lawrence, where he will serve as assistant principal and athletic director at Lawrence High School.

Sunday, numerous changes for priests were announced at church services throughout the Salina Diocese.

Two of those changes involved Hays parishes -- and Hays Catholic Schools.

Father Fred Gatschet, chaplain of the Comeau Catholic Campus Center at Fort Hays State University since 1999, has been assigned to be parochial administrator at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hays. For the past 135 years, St. Joseph had been run by priests from the Capuchin Franciscan order, which announced in 2012 that it would be leaving the Hays parish this year.

Father Peter O'Donnell, chaplain of TMP-Marian Junior High and parochial vicar at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, will leave the diocese later this summer to pursue a degree in canon law at Catholic University of America in Washington, with the intention of returning in 2015 to serve in the chancery in a marriage tribunal in addition to his duties as a parish priest.

Gatschet will remain chaplain at the FHSU campus center in addition to taking over at St. Joseph, but he will have to give up his teaching duties at TMP, where he taught six religion classes a day to sophomores and seniors.

"I will still be in town and certainly intend to remain active to some degree in the school," Gatschet said in a message to parents Monday. "It has been a joy to be a part of the TMP legacy!"

"As a St. Joseph parishioner, I'm glad to see it," said Holy Family Principal Rachel Wentling, who served as assistant principal at TMP for several years before moving to Holy Family last fall. "But as a Catholic school educator, I'm really sad to see him not be in the classroom. Students really like Father Fred."

O'Donnell came to Hays, and IHM, last year to fill the void left when parochial vicar Father Josh Werth was assigned to take care of two parishes in Rooks County after Father Galen Long died in February 2012.

O'Donnell, who grew up in Manhattan and was ordained a priest in 2010, spent two years as parochial vicar at St. Mary, Queen of the Universe Parish in Salina and was chaplain at Sacred Heart Junior-Senior High School before coming to Hays.

He was a fixture at TMP junior high activities and also frequented Holy Family, which is in the same building as O'Donnell's parish office.

"He is really loved by all our students," said Wentling, whose two children are students at Holy Family.

Father Charles Awotwi, parochial vicar in the Beloit area the past two years, will serve in the same position at St. Joseph parish as well as assistant chaplain at the FHSU campus center. A replacement for O'Donnell at IHM has yet to be named.

DeWitt, whose contract at TMP goes through June 30, also said he has yet to decide on a replacement for Gatschet in the classroom at TMP. DeWitt said he would meet with Father Earl Befort, the TMP chaplain, to "talk about the position and where we want to go with it."

O'Donnell said he "learned a lot as a priest" during his short time in Hays, and enjoyed meeting youngsters of all ages.

"I've been blessed to be able to serve here," he said. "What made Hays so positive is that I had the opportunity to interact with (students) of several ages."

He said he would welcome working with students in Catholic schools when he returns to the diocese in 2015 if he is needed in that capacity.

"I'm open to whatever the bishop needs me to do," he said, "but I do enjoy Catholic schools."

The feeling is mutual for those involved in Catholic schools in Hays.

"The children are very, very sad," said Holy Family sixth-grade teacher Shirley Dinkel, whose students were looking forward to seeing O'Donnell a lot next year as seventh-graders at TMP Junior High.

"They really love Father Peter," Dinkel added. "One of the kids said, 'I'm glad I didn't know all year that he was leaving, or I would have been sad all year.' He has such a way with them."