November 14, 2014

Honorees committed to leaving ‘this world a better place’

An archdiocesan celebration of Catholic education on Nov. 5 honored four individuals whose Catholic values mark their lives. Sitting, from left, are honorees Daniel Elsener, Beth Elsener and Robert Desautels. Standing, from left, are honoree Father James Wilmoth, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin and keynote speaker Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington. (Photo by Rob Banayote)

An archdiocesan celebration of Catholic education on Nov. 5 honored four individuals whose Catholic values mark their lives. Sitting, from left, are honorees Daniel Elsener, Beth Elsener and Robert Desautels. Standing, from left, are honoree Father James Wilmoth, Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin and keynote speaker Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington. (Photo by Rob Banayote)

By John Shaughnessy

One of the greatest opportunities we have in life is “to leave this world a better place than we found it.”

That insight from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin reflects the lives of the four people who were honored during the 2014 Celebrating Catholic School Values event on Nov. 5 at Union Station in Indianapolis.

(Related story: Record $6.1 million raised to send children to Catholic schools)

As this year’s recipients of the Career Achievement Awards, Father James Wilmoth and Robert Desautels have lived that way of life. So have Daniel and Beth Elsener, this year’s recipients of the Community Service Award.

“Thank you for sharing your testimony and the testimony of your lives,” the archbishop told the four recipients.

Father Wilmoth was touched by the honor that was presented to him in his 50th year as a priest, an honor that also salutes his 50 years of involvement in Catholic schools. He was also moved by the standing ovation from the 600 people at the event as he received his award.

Looking back on his life earlier this year, the 75-year-old Father Wilmoth reflected on the influence of his parents, teachers and coaches, noting, “Great role models—examples of faith and trust in God. And now, many years later, I still have people that God has sent into my life who inspire me and give me energy and happiness.”

Father Wilmoth’s many admirers say the same things about him in his longtime roles as the pastor of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis and the chaplain of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

They tell stories of how he has used his own money to help children attend a Catholic school, and how he has paid for class field trips, pro-life pilgrimages, athletic equipment, shoes, groceries, and medical and funeral expenses.

“If Father receives a little cash for celebrating a wedding Mass, it will be in some poor person’s hand for food within 24 hours,” one friend shared.

Another friend called him “one of the happiest priests you will ever meet.”

Father Wilmoth has kept that joy and love for people even during the tragedies he witnessed when he served as a chaplain for the Indianapolis Fire Department for 29 years and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department for 17 years.

“I’ve been so lucky,” he said, flashing his trademark smile. “The people in the parishes have made it so easy for me, and all those parishes had schools. That’s what makes you young. Being around grade school and high school kids just gives you a spark of life.

“It’s all just been a wonderful blessing from God.”

That same blessing in life has been experienced by fellow honoree Robert Desautels.

He says he’s been greatly influenced by the advice his mother gave her children, advice she paraphrased from St. Theodora Guerin, Indiana’s only saint: “We’re not asked to do all the good in the world, just what we can.”

Desautels has done more than his share.

For about 35 years, he has been involved in the Serra Club of Indianapolis, even serving as its president in the club’s efforts to promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

The father of three grown children and grandfather of six has also served as president and board member of the Catholic Youth Organization.

“It’s all part of helping kids grow up,” he said.

Desautels has also blessed the Church in his professional career. Before retiring in August, he was the senior manager for convention services at Visit Indy, where he helped the archdiocese plan its 175th anniversary celebration at Lucas Oil Stadium. He also assisted the archdiocese in hosting the National Catholic Educational Association convention and several National Catholic Youth Conferences in Indianapolis.

A member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, Desautels has served there as a lector, former president of the parish council, and extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

“My family believes in Catholic education, and the values it provides,” he said. “I also believe it is my responsibility to live and grow in the Catholic faith. Being recognized is very nice, but it only emphasizes the fact that as a product of Catholic education, I should be living the kind of life that I am responsible for—and which I have been blessed to receive.”

That attitude also reflects the approach to life of Daniel and Beth Elsener, recipients of the Community Service Award. Similar to Desautels and Father Wilmoth, the Elseners say that approach comes from the influence of their parents.

“I think it comes from both sets of our parents,” Beth said. “They had very strong faith. And it’s a big part of our marriage and our children’s lives.”

In their 38 years of marriage, the Elseners have welcomed their nine children into their lives. They have also strived to touch the lives of other children in the area of Catholic education where Dan was a teacher, principal and superintendent of schools before his current role as the president of Marian University in Indianapolis.

In nominating the couple from St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis for the Community Service Award, one person wrote, “The acceptance of God’s vocation for them as individuals and as a married couple has meant a recognition that the advancement of Catholic education lies at the very heart of their life’s purpose and ministry.

“With a growing, young family, Beth and Dan together accepted the sacrifices that often must be made to serve as an educator in the Catholic school system.”

That commitment led the couple in 1992 to Indianapolis, where Dan served the archdiocese as the executive director of Catholic education and the executive director of stewardship and development while Beth focused on their children’s education at St. Roch School, St. Barnabas School and Roncalli High School.

Beth also encouraged Dan to become the president of Marian in 2001. Since then, student enrollment at Marian has increased yearly, the college officially became a university, and the school’s College of Osteopathic Medicine became Indiana’s first new medical school in more than 100 years.

In working to make Marian a great Catholic university in Indianapolis, Dan has been consistent in what he views as the foundation and the path to that goal.

“Faith is the bedrock,” he said. “We see God in everything.”

That view has also shaped the Elseners’ marriage and their family.

“Everything we’ve done has been a leap of faith,” Beth said. “And it’s just been great.” †

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