September 26, 2014

Award recipients find ‘deep meaning’ in bringing their Catholic education and values to life

By John Shaughnessy

Celebrating Catholic School Values Awards dinner logoThe essence of a person’s life can sometimes be captured in a song title, a short phrase or a few words of wisdom.

No matter how difficult the challenge, Father James Wilmoth has always followed the same approach in serving God, students and parishioners, “We’ll make it work. We’ll find a way.”

For Daniel and Beth Elsener, their “all-in” approach to life as a couple could be summarized in the words Dan once shared: “If you’re going to do something, you ought to make it big, and you ought to make it fun. Do something a little different. I mean, who has nine kids these days? If I’m in, I’m all in.”

For Robert Desautels, his life has been influenced by the advice his mother gave her children: “Always look for the good in another person, and you’ll be a better person yourself.”

19th Annual Celebrating Catholic School Values Award Event
Date and time:
Nov. 5, 6-8 p.m.
Location: Grand Hall of Union Station at Crown Plaza Hotel in Indianapolis
Featured speaker: Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington
Honorees: Father James Wilmoth, pastor of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis, and Robert Desautels of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis will receive Career Achievement Awards. Daniel and Beth Elsener of St. Barnabas Parish of Indianapolis will receive the Community Service Award.
Purpose: While honoring people who live the values of their Catholic education, the event raises funds for scholarships to help low-income families enroll their children in the Catholic school of their choice.
Corporate sponsorship and ticket information: Contact Rosemary O’Brien in the archdiocese’s stewardship and development office by phone at 317-236-1568 or 1-800-382-9836, ext. 1568. She can also be reached by e-mail at

In following those philosophies, Desautels, Father Wilmoth and the Elseners have led lives that exemplify their Catholic faith and Catholic education. And the archdiocese will honor them during the Celebrating Catholic School Values Awards dinner in Indianapolis on Nov. 5.

Father Wilmoth and Desautels will receive Career Achievement Awards, while the Elseners will be honored with the Community Service Award.

Here are the stories of the recipients.

Father James Wilmoth

Father James Wilmoth was stunned when he received the phone call telling him he would be honored with a Career Achievement Award.

“I didn’t know there was an award for doing what you love to do,” the pastor of St. Roch Parish in Indianapolis said with a laugh. “I’m in my 50th year of being a priest, and the added icing on the cake is that I’ve been involved in Catholic schools for 50 years. It’s all just been a wonderful blessing from God.”

That feeling is shared by the schools and the parishes where the 75-year-old priest has served since being ordained on May 2, 1965. Indeed, love for Father Wilmoth overflowed earlier this year when the “family” of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis created a nine-minute-long video to cheer its chaplain as he battled prostate cancer.

Titled “We Love Father Wilmoth,” the video is set to “Happy,” a relentlessly upbeat song that has the contagious effect of making people smile—a quality Father Wilmoth has always had while supporting and cheering students at St. Roch and Roncalli schools.

“It’s an opportunity to bring Christ to them in their extracurricular stuff,” said Father Wilmoth, who always wears his Roman collar to events because he loves representing the Church in every situation. “The kids give you so much energy with their smiles, their friendliness and their laughter that you just want to keep doing it.”

He knows so much about giving, friends say. 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 trips, 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.

His joy shined in August when his doctor told him that after 44 straight days of radiation treatment and hormone therapy that his cancer was in remission.

“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.”

Robert Desautels

Another lesson in wisdom that Robert Desautels learned from his mother is to always be thankful to the people who have helped you along the way—and to show that gratitude by making a commitment to help others.

So when Desautels learned he will be honored with a Career Achievement Award, he began to list the influences that have shaped his life.

“I was taught by the Sisters of Providence who formed me at St. Joan of Arc School. The brothers of Holy Cross at Cathedral High School helped prepare me for college, and the Jesuit fathers of Xavier University helped me to get work. I won’t ever forget what the sisters, brothers and fathers did for me.”

He’s been returning the thanks ever since.

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 six grandchildren 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 Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. He also assisted the archdiocese in hosting the National Catholic Educational Association Convention and several National Catholic Youth Conferences in Indianapolis.

Downplaying his contributions, he saluted his wife of nearly 45 years, Theresa. His face glowed as he talked about her 25 years as a Catholic school teacher and assistant principal, before retiring at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

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.”

Daniel and Beth Elsener

Daniel and Beth Elsener’s “all-in” approach to life began with their commitment to each other and their openness to have nine children.

They have continued to touch lives ever since, especially in the area of Catholic education, where Dan started his career as a teacher, principal and superintendent of schools.

In nominating them 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, and were a united presence at the fundraising events and social engagements that were a function of Dan’s position.”

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 College in 2001—the beginning of a 13-year-and-continuing journey that has transformed the college, has had a spiritual influence on the archdiocese, and has had an academic and health-related impact on the city and state.

During that time, 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. Marian has also established the Academy for Teaching and Learning Leadership to train principals and other school administrators.

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 approach has always connected the Elseners—who have been married 38 years—as a couple and a family.

“I think it comes from both of our parents,” Beth said. “They had very strong faith. And it’s a big part of our marriage and our children’s lives. Everything we’ve done has been a leap of faith. And it’s just been great. It has a very deep meaning to all of us.” †

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