April 17, 2015

John E. Etling led Catholic Charities Terre Haute for 32 years

By Sean Gallagher

John E. EtlingJohn E. Etling, who led Catholic Charities Terre Haute from its inception in 1973 until retiring in 2005, died on April 6. He was 85.

The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on April 11 at St. Patrick Church in Terre Haute. Burial followed at Calvary Cemetery, also in Terre Haute.

Born on June 28, 1929, in Terre Haute, Etling earned degrees in education at his hometown’s Indiana State University and at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati. He also served in the U.S. Navy from 1951-53 during the Korean War.

During his teaching career, Etling taught in public schools in and around Terre Haute and at the Gibault School for Boys, which is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.

Etling’s oldest child, John C. Etling, was in eighth grade when his father helped start Catholic Charities Terre Haute. He took over from his father as agency director in 2005.

“He didn’t like meetings a lot,” said Etling of his father. “He wanted to get things going and see action take place.

“I think my dad understood a lot of the ways to get things done, who to call, who to make a compelling case to, who would be moved and accept that call to action.”

Sometimes it was the younger Etling and his siblings that were called into action as what he described as “reluctant volunteers.”

Etling said that the burgeoning services of Catholic Charities Terre Haute that his father spearheaded “became part of our family, a common thread, a part of our DNA.”

He recalled a story when he was a college student in 1980 to describe how his father served—and continues to serve—as an inspiration for him in reaching out to people in need.

His father had asked him to help care for Cuban refugees who were part of the Mariel boatlift, which saw as many as 125,000 Cubans flee the communist country for the U.S. that year.

A couple of city and county officials came to the younger Etling to protest the welcoming of the refugees. John E. Etling then came and spoke to the officials and convinced them, in part by “getting in their faces,” to allow the refugees to stay.

“He stood up for the little guy, the underdog,” Etling said of his father. “He told me that when you know you’re on the side of God, you can’t lose. When you really know that God’s on your side, what else do you need?”

In addition to being an advocate to people in need, John E. Etling was always ready to lend a hand to people who asked for help.

In the days before cell phones, Etling kept a phone on his night stand at home through which he could take phone calls to Catholic Charities Terre Haute at all hours.

“He knew that a crisis, a trauma, a house fire didn’t know what time it was,” Etling’s son said. “A crisis just doesn’t have a clock. It happens when it happens.”

Etling said that his father showed his selflessness first at home, where he was father of 10 children.

“You can’t have that many kids and be very selfish,” he said of his father. “He certainly put others first in his life. I think he knew that, for a lot of people, their only chance was going to be through some of the programs that Catholic Charities could provide here in this community.”

Among the programs that John E. Etling helped establish were Bethany House, an emergency homeless shelter, Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank, Ryves Youth Center at Etling Hall and Terre Haute Catholic Charities’ Christmas Store.

“John’s passion for serving some of the most vulnerable people in and around Terre Haute was absolutely infectious,” said David Siler, executive director for the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. “My first tour of the agency with John lasted about four hours and, by the end, I was in awe of what he was able to accomplish, and my own passion for our work took a quantum leap forward.”

Many people in need across west central Indiana continue to be served through the programs that John E. Etling was critical in starting and which are operated by many staff members and volunteers.

“The legacy that he left is a legacy of caring, a legacy of providing help,” said Etling of his father. “When you do that, you make everybody better.”

John E. Etling’s survivors include his wife of 59 years, Patricia Jeanne (Carbon) Etling, children, Pamela Devine, Patti Beddow, Paje Felts, Polly Harshberger, Miranda Goodale and James, Jay, John, Joseph, and 31 grandchildren.

Etling, who was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church years after beginning his service with Catholic Charities Terre Haute, was a longtime member of St. Patrick Parish and the Knights of Columbus.

In 1995, Etling received from St. John Paul II the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Award, the highest Church honor a lay person can receive. He also received an honorary doctorate degree in humanities from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods, the archdiocese’s Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Respect Life Award, the Award of Merit given by the Knights of Columbus Council #541 in Terre Haute, and a Sagamore of the Wabash award from the State of Indiana.

Memorial contributions can be sent to Catholic Charities Terre Haute, 1801 Poplar Street, Terre Haute, IN 47803. †

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