Monday, May 30, 2011

Meet the man behind the many letters to the Duluth News Tribune

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Father Richard Partika has been writing monthly letters to the editor for decades, always defending his Catholic faith and his principles.


You know the name — Father Richard Partika — and his unwavering stands in support of life and in defense of the Catholic Church.

You know because every 30 days or so he and his opinions are published in the letters to the editor section of the News Tribune. He’d be in more often if we let him, no doubt, if we didn’t insist writers wait at least a month between submissions to give others a chance to have their words read.

For half a century, Father Richard Partika — “Father Dick,” to his friends — has been writing, and sometimes ranting, to the paper, making his a household name across the Northland and leaving him with a reputation as a fiery, never-back-down individual.

Or as something less polite: “Partika is one of the most dangerous people in this town,” an angry newspaper reader once wrote in an e-mail that found its way back to Partika.

So just who is he, the man behind all those letters?

I know I’ve wondered, especially after once being told Partika grew up in a Duluth orphanage. In March, when Partika announced in a letter (how else?) that he was suffering the early stages of dementia, I requested an interview.

He met me in the lobby of the Westwood Apartment building, a commanding brick structure at the southwestern end of the College of St. Scholastica campus. A four-room apartment has been his home there since June 2000. He has it decorated with religious statues and with photocopies of old family pictures that he tacked to the walls. Piles of papers cluttered most flat surfaces, including near his well-worn typewriter.

I sat down. The homily began.

Partika was born 85 years ago, on April 26, 1926, right here in Duluth in St. Mary’s Hospital. His family first came to Duluth four decades earlier, in 1885, he said. His grandfather worked for the Great Northern Railroad. The family settled in the West End, the neighborhood now known as Lincoln Park. They attended St. Clement’s, the Catholic church for the neighborhood’s many German-speaking immigrants.

Partika’s father, Frank, was the youngest of six siblings. After he grew up, he worked as a part-time cabbie, as a part-time bartender at the Kozy (back when it was a respectable, “family gathering place,” as Partika defended it) and in a used-car office.

But mostly Partika’s father was a “victim of the Depression,” he said. “He never had a steady job. He spent much of his time walking the streets, looking for work. I think he drew a lot of criticism in his life for that. He wasn’t taking care of his family very well, he was told. He was not able to take care of his three young kids. I feel for him.”

Frank Partika wasn’t able to care very well for his wife, either. In 1929, before she was even 30 years old, Lillian Partika was diagnosed with spinal paralysis.

Partika can still remember, as a 3-year-old, watching his mother grabbing for the walls and then holding on for support as she made her way from room to room.

Within a year she was bedridden and a resident of St. Ann’s, a nursing home on 20th Avenue West and Third Street, a building that originally was a Catholic orphanage and that also was the original site of St. Mary’s Hospital.

‘A lot better than living on the streets’

In November 1930, with his mother in a nursing home, unable to walk, with his father walking the streets, unable to find decent work, and with other relatives scattered and struggling and unable to take them in, Partika, his older sister Eileen and his younger brother Irving were sent to live at St. James Orphans Home on Woodland Avenue.

The sheer size of the four-story, brick structure was menacing. It stretched nearly a city block long and featured massive pillars, wide balconies and ornate architecture. The orphanage looked like a combination of a school and a Southern plantation, and no matter how warm it was inside, it was unable to shake its cold, institutional aura.

It looked nothing like it does today as Woodland Hills, a nonprofit agency and “a proud champion for children,” as its slogan boasts.

St. James orphanage could have made a similar claim, Partika insisted.

“It was a very nice place. We had very good nuns and priests running it,” he said, dispelling immediately the negative Hollywood stereotypes of early 20th-century orphanages. “It was as normal as you could possibly make it. Sure, kids were lonesome for their families and wanted their families restored. But it just couldn’t be.”

“It sure was a lot better than living on the streets, I guess,” Irving Partika, 83, said by phone from his home in Outagamie County, Wis., where he retired as a sergeant from the sheriff’s department.

“It was my home and I loved it,” said Eileen, now 86; she lives today in Weyauwega, Wis., near her seven daughters. “I loved the nuns. They were just beautiful to all of us. … We went there as babies and stayed all through our grade school years. They were so good to us there; they took us places (like) on boat trips every year.

“My mother didn’t want us separated. In the orphanage we could still be brothers and sister,” she said. “We lived with it and were lucky to be together. We ate dinner together and went to church at the same time, things like that. It was just wonderful. It couldn’t be beat.”

The Partika children were among 75 or 80 children at a time at St. James, ranging from babies through eighth-graders. Only the babies were ever adopted, Partika recalled.

The boys lived in the building’s western reaches, separated by age. Girls occupied the east and were similarly divided. Above the girls — a quick staircase climb away, so the girls could help with them — were the babies. The babies were separated according to whether they could walk.

Between the boys’ and girls’ dorms was a chapel. The nuns lived on the second floor. Playrooms were in the basement. A dining room was on the first floor, which also was where the children welcomed visitors, including the Partika children’s father. Classrooms filled the first floor, too, for kindergarteners through seventh-graders. Eighth-graders were sent to school at nearby St. John’s, a parish operating to this day.

“The idea was to get (the eighth-graders) to leave (and) to go out into the rest of the world,” Partika recalled.

Three priests lived at the orphanage. A bedroom was reserved for the bishop of the Diocese of Duluth, who often stayed overnight when he visited because poor road conditions resulted in long and difficult journeys back into town.

Msgr. Michael Boland was the orphanage’s administrator. “He ran everything. He was in charge. The kids loved him. If we were down in the playrooms, he’d come down and he’d visit with us,” listening to the radio, playing cards or shooting pool, Partika recalled.

Sister Eulalie O’Donovan was in charge of what Partika called “the boys’ department,” where the boys lived. She, too, played cards and other games with the children and often brought them snacks.

Sister Yvonne Campbell was in charge of all the sisters and the internal workings of the place and was monsignor’s secretary.

Sister Corona, who was German, ran the “baby department,” followed by Sister Carmelita, who brought her uncle and aunt, Albert and Mary Stepan of St. Cloud, Minn., to milk the orphanage’s cows and to work its 120-acre farm. The kids called them Uncle Albert and Aunt Mary, as that’s how their niece introduced them.

As often as possible, relatives and Msgr. Boland took the Partika children to visit their mother.

“They knew we missed our mother very much,” Partika said.

‘Was in good hands’

On Feb. 10, 1939, after 10 bed-ridden years at St. Ann’s, Partika’s mother died. She was just 39 and the youngest of her brothers and sisters. She was buried in a cemetery in Hermantown at what had been her family’s farm while she was growing up. The farm had been cleared by her grandfather in 1862.

“She was in good hands the last 10 years of her life, and she knew it,” said Partika, who was 12 when his mother died. “She appreciated everyone at St. Ann’s. She became a convert while she was there. … I used to pray regularly when I was a kid that my mother would get better and we’d all be together again. But it didn’t work out that way.”

A year later, in 1940, done with the eighth grade, Partika left the orphanage. He stayed with his father, who had remarried, but he also bounced around to other relatives and their homes in and around downtown. He got a job delivering the Duluth Herald in the afternoons. His route was from Lake Avenue to Third Avenue East and down to Superior Street.

“I lost money,” he said. “With the Carter Hotel and Hotel Duluth, I had customers who were either never home or who moved away without paying. … My favorite paper customers were Ignatz Kozarek at … Kozy’s Bar and Gene Poirier in the barbershop under the Carter Hotel across from Roach Radio.”

His brother worked for the paper, too, selling copies on the street and stuffing inserts into the Sunday editions on Saturday nights. Irving Partika, who’d graduate from Washington Junior High and Central High, also worked as a bellhop at the Spalding Hotel before joining the merchant marines and then serving in the South Pacific in World War II.

“I had a lot of jobs,” Irving Partika chuckled, recalling his efforts to support and help his brother and sister.

“To me he was the hero of the family,” Partika said of Irving. “I give him credit. He took all the grief and paid all the bills. He never kept anything for himself. I have the greatest admiration for him. He’s the greatest guy on Earth.”

Partika had plenty of jobs himself. In addition to hawking newspapers, he installed car radios and tested tubes for Don Roach’s radio shop. His sister did the bookkeeping for the shop, which was on Second Avenue East, beneath the Studebaker dealership, as Partika recalled.

Off to seminary

In the fall of 1940, Partika enrolled as a ninth-grader at Washington Junior High School — but stayed only two weeks. A priest working for Catholic Charities — Father Lawrence A. Glenn, later the pastor of St. James Catholic Church in West Duluth and bishop in Crookston, Minn. — encouraged him to attend Cathedral Junior High School instead. When Partika said he couldn’t afford the tuition, Glenn agreed to pay it. A year at Cathedral was all Partika needed to decide what he wanted to do with his life: He wanted to be a priest, like the ones he so admired at St. James orphanage.

“They were marvelous models of dedication,” Partika said. “Learning to cope with things has a lot to do with the people around you and how they deal with tough things. I think lovingly of those people at St. James.”

It didn’t hurt that Partika’s uncle, his father’s oldest brother, who was just 9 months old when the family first came to Duluth, was a priest — the priest who baptized Partika, in fact, at St. Clement’s. Wilfrid Partika was ordained in 1911 and served St. Clement’s from 1926 to 1936 when he suffered a massive stroke. He was bedridden in the infirmary at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., for nearly 10 years until he died at age 63.

Partika went off to seminary in 1941. His education there also was paid for by Father Glenn. It included five years at Nazareth Hall on Lake Johanna north of St. Paul and six years at St. Paul Seminary.

He lost his father while at seminary. Frank Partika died of a stress-caused heart attack in 1949. He was just 44.

Richard Partika became Father Richard Partika in 1951, returning back home to Duluth for his ordination at Sacred Heart Cathedral. On Thursday, he’ll celebrate 60 years in the priesthood.

The first parish he served was Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing, from July 1951 to September 1959. Then he went to St. Isidore’s in Sturgeon Lake for seven years where he also served the mission parish of St. Joseph in Split Rock Township. In 1966, he became priest at St. Anthony’s in Duluth [my parish] for 14 months before moving to the Iron Range for a four-month stint at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Buhl. In January 1970 he started three and a half years of service at another Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, this one in Cloquet. That was followed by 11 years at Babbitt’s St. Pius Church.

In the mid-1980s, while returning from a trip to Hawaii, Partika suffered a fainting spell, the first of 10 he’d endure through the years. Three happened while he was saying Mass; nearly all of them occurred during morning hours, leading him to decline now to say Mass or to officiate at funerals held in the mornings. Doctors never did figure out what caused his lightheadedness and blackouts, not even during a five-day stay in the hospital.

“I’ve gotten various fuzzy answers,” Partika said. “Frankly, I don’t care anymore what’s causing them. Not at my age. If it happens again it happens.”

Hoping a smaller, less-demanding parish would be easier on his health, the bishop, in 1984, sent Partika from Babbitt to St. Joseph’s in Beroun, Minn. He remained there a little more than a year.

His next move, his final move, was one he requested. He wanted to return home to Duluth. His stepbrothers and stepsisters were getting older. He wanted to get to know them while he could. In 1985, he became priest at St. Margaret Mary in Duluth‘s Morgan Park neighborhood. But his plan didn’t work out. “Clyde Iron and Diamond Tool both closed and my relatives moved,” he said. “So they’re still like distant cousins.”

He remained at St. Margaret Mary until his retirement 13 years later.

“I liked all the parishes I was in,” he said. “I have wonderful friends in all of them. In a way they’re all your family. I had so many places and homes I could go drop in at any time of day. I used to stop in all kinds of places.”

Though retired, Partika still says Mass six days a week at a small altar in his living room. For the past 11 years he also has said the 4:30 p.m. Mass every Saturday at the Benedictine Health Center next door to his apartment building. He can walk over without going outside.

‘Important enough to write about’

Partika’s many letters to the editor started in the 1960s. Father Billy Larkin wanted to write but wasn’t very tactful. Knowing Father Partika shared his views, he encouraged the younger priest to write. The letters continue to this day. Partika’s latest was published this past week.

“There are certain issues important enough to write about, and not enough people do,” Partika said. “I write mostly in response to distortions and statements made publicly that I feel are harmful. Somebody should be writing on these issues, and I don’t feel anyone else is doing it. No one else is speaking up.”

What about being called “one of the most dangerous people” in Duluth?

“So be it,” he said. “When they attack me, I figure, ‘Well, that’s par for the course; you have to take it.’ Decent people don’t enjoy viciousness.”

Partika doesn’t know how long he’ll keep writing. As long as he can, he supposes, and as long as he has something to say.

“It depends what I keep finding, what I keep running into,” he said. “I hate to see people get by with vicious attacks on the Church. When they attack the Church and distort the teaching, that reflects on a lot of people, and I don’t like to see that happen.”

Father Partika isn’t the oldest or longest-serving priest in the Duluth diocese. Those distinctions go to Father Vince Arimond, who turned 90 on April 15 (Partika is eighth-oldest), and Father James Crossman, who was ordained as a priest on June 6, 1946 (Partika is the diocese’s third-longest-serving priest).

But because of his frequent and many letters to the editor, Partika probably is the Twin Ports’ best-known cleric.

“He’s a very good man who is a very good priest and who is very concerned about two things,” Father Jim Bissonette, the priest at St. James Catholic Church in West Duluth, told me. When he was a boy, Bissonette was an altar boy for Partika in Babbitt; the two remained close.

“He’s concerned about the teachings of the Church and he’s concerned about the salvation of people’s souls,” Bissonette said. “He feels a responsibility to talk about what he believes. When he writes to the paper he’s writing as a priest and as an individual. His thoughts are his and he has his reasons for them.

“If (his oft-harsh critics) ever got to know him, they would understand he is doing his level best to get across to people what he believes is the truth and that he cares about them. He understands that not everyone thinks the same way he does.”

And let’s thank the heavens for that. What a boring world it would be if everyone shared the same opinions — and how unproductive, as solutions come from a diversity of viewpoints. That includes those with which everyone doesn’t necessarily agree. Duluth News Tribune

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