After six months without a pastor, the Catholic churches of Chewelah, Valley and Springdale have been assigned a permanent priest.
Fr. Jeffrey Lewis, originally from Spokane, started conducting weekend Masses at the beginning of July at St. Mary of the Rosary (Chewelah), Sacred Heart (Springdale), Holy Ghost Church and St. Joseph’s Mission (Valley), which all share one priest. He takes the place of Fr. Vincent Van Dao Nguyen, who was removed from his position as pastor in January due to health issues.
Since then, Sister Judith Nilles, who is originally from Chewelah, acted as parish administrator while substitute priests conducted weekend Masses.
“The parishioners are thankful to have their own priest again,” Lewis said. “It is hard not having a daily presence of a priest.”
Lewis attended Washington State University for undergraduate and graduate school before starting at Bishop White seminary school in Spokane in January of 2006. He was ordained into the Catholic Diocese of Spokane on May 26, 2011 by Bishop Blaise Cupich and spent his first year after ordination at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes as one of two priests.
During that time, he conducted eight of sixteen masses in addition to baptismal preparations, sacramental prayer for children, and RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). He also started, and led, the youth group among many other responsibilities required for such a large parish.
Although he did not expect to be moved after only a year at the Cathedral, Lewis said it was a good experience for his newest assignment in the Chewelah area.
Lewis now lives in Valley at the priest’s home, known as the rectory, and runs day-to-day activities through the St. Mary’s office in Chewelah with secretary Brenda St. John.
Lewis said the local parishes have had bad luck in recent years with Fr. Vincent having to leave, although he is now back working in Spokane, and the priest before him who made it clear from the beginning that he did not want to be there. He left after only a year.
Also, Lewis said two of the worst child abusers in church history were local priests back to back in the 70s and 80s.
His first focus is to find out exactly what each parish community needs but wants to gather as much information as possible before making major changes. Lewis’ goals include expanding confession times, implementing ideas to enrich Sunday masses and youth experiences, and plans to bring back a regular Daily Mass schedule beginning in September.
“I want to be the most effective pastor as possible,” Lewis said.
He is glad to be a part of this community, and other priests in the diocese believe it is a “great” assignment to have, Lewis said. He enjoys the various outdoor activities the area has to offer and not having to drive in the city.
While attending WSU, Lewis received a Bachelor of Arts degree in human resource management in 2002, and a Master’s of Business Administration in 2004 while working as a teacher’s assistant for the university.
Lewis said his business education makes him a good administrator for the parish, which is part of the job for any pastor especially in a small parish community.
He thinks every priest should have some background in business because it gives them an overall sense of the day to day operations of the church because they serve as managers as well as pastors.
“Priests know how to pray, but few know how to manage,” Lewis said.
Growing up in the Mead area in Spokane, Lewis completed all his sacraments from Baptism to Confirmation at St. Thomas More Parish.
However, he did not seriously consider a vocation as a priest until his senior year in undergraduate school when his future plans were not working out as expected.
Also, although he graduated with an MBA during a time when the ecomony was at its best, he never got called back for jobs he should have been the perfect candidate for.
“I took it as a sign,” Lewis said. “I wanted to give seminary a fair shake.”
And once he chose that route, “God was pushing me through” and it seemed to be just where he belonged.
Local Catholic masses are on Saturday at 5 p.m. in Chewelah, Saturday at 7 p.m. in Springdale, Sunday at 8 a.m. at Holy Ghost in Valley or St. Joseph’s Mission (the location rotates in the summer) and Sunday at 10 a.m. in Chewelah.
By Kellie Trudeau, The Independent Staff
In This Photo: Fr. Jeffrey Lewis