Time to heal: Sheridan priest experienced reconciliation

2010-06-27T00:00:00Z Time to heal: Sheridan priest experienced reconciliationCasper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
June 27, 2010 12:00 am  • 

CASPER — Holy Name is a congregation of about 1,200 people, nestled in a quiet Sheridan neighborhood.

Standing in the church foyer, Father Rob Spaulding greets the arriving parishioners. He grabs their hands and welcomes them with a joke or smile.

He is almost as nervous as he has ever been.

He plans to give the homily he’s prayed over almost since coming here nearly a year ago. Spaulding wanted time to get to know the parishioners, to build a community, before he formally told them his story.

He’s not afraid to answer questions. People will form their own opinions. But he worries about whether his congregation will accept him. Will it hurt his ability to share God’s message?

Spaulding begins the homily with a reading from the Gospel of John, when Jesus forgives his disciples for abandoning him in his crucifixion and for huddling frightened in a room instead of spreading the news about his resurrection. Jesus says, “Peace be with you,” reconciling the relationship so they can move forward, so his followers can become disciples on fire once again.

Spaulding knows the promise of the spirit is true, he said, because he’s experienced reconciliation in his own life.

• • •

At Campbell County High School in Gillette, Spaulding built the resume of an overachiever: valedictorian, class of 1996; a national champion in DECA, a business and marketing competition; marching band drum major; and a one-time national qualifier in debate.

He played the oboe, saxophone and guitar. He played piano in the St. Matthew’s music group.

At the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Spaulding was the music director at St. Paul’s Newman Center, a church serving the Catholic community.

He earned three degrees in six years, including a bachelor’s in music and a master’s in business. In 2001, he won the Tobin Memorial Award given annually to one outstanding male graduate.

In 2002, he enrolled in seminary at St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., near Chicago — 1,000 miles from Wyoming.

• • •

It was a Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005. Semester classes would start soon. Spaulding, then 27, needed a breather and went for a walk around the forested road circling the campus’ lake.

He ran into fellow seminarian Mark Rowlands, and they went out for a drink to catch up after the summer.

At Emil’s, a sports bar and pizzeria, they met other seminarians, including Jared Cheek, 23, and Matty Molnar, 28.

Spaulding had two Long Island Iced Teas.

At about 12:30 a.m., the group called it a night. Walking toward the door, Rowlands pulled Spaulding aside and told him he should drive because he’d had the least to drink. Rowlands got in the front passenger seat, Cheek and Molnar in the back.

Someone suggested a drive around the lake. Spaulding drove the car across the bridge. Someone egged him on: Go faster. Go faster.

The speed limit was 25 mph. He was going about 55 when he felt the tire slip.

Molnar was killed, and Cheek was in a coma, hooked to a ventilator.

Rowlands walked away from the crash with a broken arm.

Spaulding’s scapula was broken, and his kidney torn. Nurses removed the glass from his face and cleaned the blood from the cuts.

• • •

Growing up in St. Marys, Kan., Jared Cheek loved basketball, cross country and golf. During his senior year, he played in the state finals on the football team.

Though his parents divorced when he was 9, his mom, Joan Magette,  and his dad, Rick Cheek, raised him in the Catholic Church.

“The words people around here used were, ‘He was on fire with his faith,’ ” Joan said.

At the hospital after the wreck, a doctor told Magette there was no brain activity.

“He has to be so proud of the death that he had,” Magette said. “I don’t know if that’s possible, but nobody gets to have the honor that he had that day.”

Pam Molnar didn’t believe the news. She had talked to her son just the night before.

“I’m where I need to be,” he told her. “I’ll let you go and I’ll talk to you later. I love you, Mom.”

Growing up in Prairie Village, just on the Kansas side of Kansas City, Molnar was shy and reserved in Catholic grade school.

In 1993, as a high school freshman, he went to World Youth Day in Denver.

“That was the beginning of all this,” Pam Molnar said. “That’s when he decided. He didn’t know what he was going to do, but it was going to be something with the church.”

• • •

On May 2, 2006, Spaulding pleaded guilty to three felonies — two counts of reckless homicide and one count of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol.

His blood-alcohol content at the time of the crash was 0.135 percent, almost twice the legal level for driving. He was driving twice the speed limit.

He was sentenced to 30 months of intensive probation, 18 months of house arrest and 250 hours of community service. He also was ordered to pay $5,000 to the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

When it was Joan Magette’s turn to address the court, the tears came almost immediately.

Jared was her oldest child, she said. Everyone was anxious to see where his passions would lead, what he would accomplish. She was counting on him to help strengthen her own faith.

But sending Spaulding to prison will only add to her pain, she said.

Pam Molnar told the court that her son would forgive. If Spaulding still wants to be a priest, she hoped he would be allowed to do it.

“People ask me how I feel about losing my son and how I must hate the guy that was driving. I do not hate ‘the guy’ — he has a name — who was driving,” Pam Molnar read from her victim’s impact statement. “Hate is a terrible word. Hate is like a cancer that eats away at your heart and soul and makes you a bitter person.”

• • •

In April 2006, Spaulding and his parents drove to Kansas. He met with Rick Cheek, Cheek’s father, Joan Magette, and then Pam Molnar.

He didn’t expect forgiveness and didn’t ask for it, but they all gave it.

People sometimes tell Rob that God must have had a reason. God must have needed Molnar and Cheek in heaven.

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Spaulding said. “God did not cause this to happen. I did. But God has been part of rebuilding it since the time of the crash.”

After sentencing, Spaulding wore a court-ordered monitoring device for nine months. He could leave the rectory at St. Mary Parish in Buffalo Grove, Ill., only for work, school, church and community service. He talked to 20 high schools in Chicago about the crash and sat on victim impact panels.

After everything, he still wanted to be a priest. But Mundelein Seminary asked him to wait at least two years before applying again. It needed time to heal.

In August 2006, Spaulding asked the Wyoming Diocese to continue his studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Seminarians must be sponsored by dioceses, and Wyoming’s support had never faltered.

Spaulding graduated from the seminary May 13, 2009, was ordained a transitional deacon May 22, and went to Holy Name Catholic Community in Sheridan at the end of June. He was ordained a priest Aug. 10, 2009, in Laramie. Pam Molnar and Joan Magette drove from Kansas to be there.

Bishop Paul Etienne of the Wyoming Diocese said the diocese’s decision to stand with Spaulding was the right one.

“For all of us, as Catholics and Christians, the cross is at the heart of our lives,” Etienne said. “The trials are different, but if we deal with them appropriately, they are all a source of insight, not just into ourselves, but to the human experience.

“This is one of those encounters of the cross. It involves real death and resurrection.”

• • •

Amy Rojo has heard the story, but she cries anyway.

Last year, she struggled in church. Her son had gotten into trouble. She felt judged and isolated.

Then, Father Rob came. He was young, just 31 years old, and so vibrant.

“I went every Sunday just to listen to him preach, to hear that homily,” Rojo said. He challenged the parish to invite new people into their homes, to get to know one another as a community.

Her son pointed out that she already knew Father Rob.

“Remember when we posted the names of the people we were praying for on our refrigerator? We prayed for him. He was the one in the accident.”

Rojo didn’t know Spaulding then, and she didn’t know the circumstances. She just knew he needed love. She had prayed for him as a mother of three boys.

Rojo reached out to Spaulding. She shared her family’s story and then listened as Spaulding shared his.

She told him, “Father Rob, you are now in a position to reach out to serve others. You can bring faith and hope and love to those that are in despair.”

And maybe that’s the good that rises from the broken glass and twisted metal, the life that comes from those cut short. For those who hurt, regret, are living every day with the consequences of their mistakes, Father Rob can listen. He can walk beside them and say that healing and reconciliation are possible. He knows, because both happened to him.

“For me, when I think of love in action and reconciliation, the families of Matty and Jared are examples of living the Christian message, of living the life of Christ that each one of us is called to do,” he said.

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