Deacon Walt Wilson’s one-of-a-kind hands on ministry

Judy and Deacon Walt Wilson from Our Lady of the Black Hills Church, Piedmont

By Laurie Hallstrom

“I just do stuff,” said Deacon Walt Wilson, Piedmont. He is age 80 and has a lot of stories, but he has just as many handyman projects under his belt.

His carpentry, stonework, tiling, and plumbing have helped Our Lady of the Black Hills Church, Piedmont; Sioux Spiritual Center, Howes; and Terra Sancta Retreat Center, Rapid City.

Feb. 7, he will be ordained 40 years. Only two other West River deacons have been ordained longer — Dcn. Ben Black Bear of St. Francis was ordained June 19, 1976, and Dcn. Joe Witte of Hot Springs was ordained September 22, 1979. These are incredible track records according to Dcn.  Greg Sass, diocesan director of the Permanent Diaconate. Most deacons are ordained closer to retirement age. Dcn. Sass said, “Then, a 10 year anniversary is a real milestone.”

Wilson had a Catholic education, starting East River with Sacred Heart Parish School in Aberdeen, and minor seminary at Marty Mission through Blue Cloud Abbey. West River he is a graduate of Cathedral High School in Rapid City.

Referring to Cathedral High school he said, “I don’t know why they let me in. I had a flat top haircut and smoked cigarettes,” he said.

He recalled his first day of high school. “(Religion teacher) Fr. Richard Plante liked me, and I got along with him. He was pretty robust and when he entered the classroom everyone jumped up. He said, ‘Hey who are you? You are new here.’ I answered all his questions, and I must have gotten the answers right. After class, Fr. Plante told me to stay. He stuck his hand out to shake and said, ‘I like you Wilson, you‘ve got spunk.’ He was a good friend from then on.”

Wilson graduated from Rapid City Cathedral High School in 1957. “I played football and it’s the only thing that kept me in school. We had a good team — my senior year we were undefeated,” he said.

He married his wife, Judy, Oct. 10, 1959.  They had two boys, two girls, and took in a passel of foster children, one of whom they adopted, a daughter.

He enlisted in the Navy and was a Machinist Mate 2nd class — working with boilers and steam engines. He was  discharged in 1961. “When I got out, I went to work for Northwest Engineering laying pipe on Omaha St., when it was a gravel road. Then, the meat packing plant was looking for a refrigeration man. I worked there for 34 years doing whatever they wanted me to do. I was the plant engineer the last 20 years,” he said.

Piedmont Parish

In 1979, Fr. Emilio Nebiolo, an Air Force Chaplain and the priest assigned to St. Mary Parish, Piedmont, initiated building a new church because the Piedmont area was growing. “A friend of mine and I dug the basement for it. When we had the groundbreaking ceremony, I borrowed a big front end loader from another friend. Bishop (Harold) Dimmerling said,  ‘Hey Wilson where are the shovels?’ I said we don’t do things ‘token’ here in Piedmont. I said get on the loader and you’re going to do a bucket full of dirt. He said, “I can’t do that,” and I said yes you can, get in the seat, I’ll hide on the other side and I’ll run the controls. So, he got up there, we had a hard hat for him that said  ‘Bish’ on it. It was kind of fun.”

That is not the end of his labor for Our Lady of the Black Hills parish. With the aid of family members, he tapped into the Black Hawk water supply, installed a well pump and septic tank, and tiled around the tabernacle and baptismal font. Outdoors, he made a stone grotto and for Christmas 2020 he built a manger to hold the new statues purchased by his pastor, Fr. Andrzej Wyrostek .

Fr. Chris Keeler, SJ, was the first resident priest in the Piedmont rectory. Father Keeler wore many hats while serving in the Diocese of Rapid City, including director of Catholic Social Services from 1976 to 1985, and he was a columnist for the West River Catholic. Father Keeler was a good friend of the two Jesuits who were starting a diaconate ministry in the diocese — Frs. John Hatcher and Pat McCorkell. Father Keeler talked Wilson into considering the ministry.

Sioux Spiritual Center

Deacon Wilson was ordained in 1981 by Bishop Dimmerling at Our Lady of the Black Hills Church, the same year as two other diaconate classmates, Claude Sauer and Gary Cooper were ordained.

Recalling his training, he said, “We had a retreat, with Fr Harry Eglsaer, SJ. I was sitting in a recliner near the east side. I kicked my boots off, and pretty quick Fr. Harry said, ‘Lets go to the chapel and have Mass, then we will have our dinner.’

“At the sign of peace my wife kissed me on the cheek and said, ‘you have had enough peace for everybody here.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about. After Mass we  were walking back for dinner and I asked her. ‘You fell asleep while Fr. Harry was talking, and you snored so loud he had to cut his talk off because no one could hear. Don’t sit in that chair anymore, I couldn’t reach you to kick you and wake you up.’”

The Sioux Spiritual Center has undergone several expansions over the years . He helped Fr. Jim Stehr, SJ, put plumbing in for the basement bathrooms. More recently, in November 2020,“I worked on the spring and cistern they use to feed water from. The stream was only flowing a gallon a minute, I thought of a better way to capture water from the spring.” With the aid of his son and grandson he increased the water to five or six gallons a minute.

Terra Sancta Retreat Center

His handy work is especially visible at Terra Sancta Retreat Center, where his daughter Reeny Wilson is the director.  His rock masonry work can be seen in the base for the St. Kateri Tekakwitha statue, in the St. Kateri Courtyard; in the 12 stone pillars that hold the communion rails from when the Benedictine Sisters owned the building that are now part of the landscape in front of the Holy Cross Chapel; as well as in the altar and ambo of the Cenacle, the small chapel. He poured concrete for the crucifix on the hill and set the steel base for the cross. He set the outside altar, ambo and  built a fire pit. For the stations of the cross, leading up the hillside, he set the posts and poured the concrete. Referring to the granite tablets, “I put the stations in and I got them in order,” he chuckled.

For the Children’s Memorial Garden, Dcn. Wilson designed, fabricated and installed the edifice where children’s names are hung. He said he made it look like the front of the chapel and added two sets of iron that look like angels’ wings.