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Emmaus House History 


(as shared by Fr. Gene Merz, SJ, on the occasion of  the 25th Anniversary, September 12, 1999)


The Story in Four Parts:

Chapter 1: The Dream and its Historical Context

Chapter 2: Early Beginnings; Aim and Scope of the Ministry

Chapter 3: The Lived Vision

Chapter 4: The Dream continued; A New Vision


The Story’s Foundation (Luke 24:13-35)


Chapter 1: The Dream and its Historical Context (1973-1974)


In 1973 Bishop Maurice J. Dingman contacted Dick Rice, SJ, regarding the possibility of Jesuits coming to Des Moines. A meeting was held on June 17, 1974 at Bishop Dingman’s home with Bishop Dingman, DM Chancellor Ed Pfeffer, Buck Stanton, SJ, Gary Brophy, SJ, Gene Merz, SJ, and the priests and religions from the Diocese of  Des Moines. 


Bishop Dingman expressed his desire that the Society of Jesus begin a prayer house in the Diocese. Gene assured Bishop Dingman that whatever foundation that would be begun would have prayer as a high priority, but not a prayer house. Gene urged a small apologetic community Merz arrived in Des Moines on July 31, 1974, the Feast of St. Ignatius, and began to live at Emmaus at 1437 Woodland ave. on August 1, 1974.Fr. John Lorenz was the first visitor to welcome them to des Moines. 


Ignatius sent Jesuits in pairs to different dioceses when called by the bishop of the diocese for renewal. The missioning of Jesuits to Des Moines at the request of Bishop Dingman tapped deeply into the roots of Jesuit history and charism. The renewal the Jesuits would serve would be based primarily on the Spiritual Exercises in retreats and spiritual direction. Bishop Dingman assured Gary and Gene that  it was not a question of his helping the Jesuits give the retreats, but rather modeling the seriousness of his intent concerning renewal. Bishop Dingman soon began five years of spiritual direction with Gene. 



Chapter 2: Early Beginnings; Aim and Scope of the Ministry


The Early Jesuit community consisted of Gary Brophy, Paul Thetreau, Bob Brodzeller, Jerry Petz (Detroit Province), and Gene Merz. Tad Guzie, Dick Porter and Deve bream joined the community in the latter part of the 1970’s. Once or twice a month these men would meet for dinner and companionship. 


Three of the first four Jesuits have died: Gary Brophy, Paul Thetreau, Jerry Petz. Four of the first six Jesuits have died: Petz, Brophy, Thetreau and Brehm. Pail Thetreau, Bob Brodzeller Dave Brehm and Dick Porter began ministry at the hospitals during the period 1975-1979. 


It became clear that the people of Des Moines were hungry for a solid, apostolic spirituality which would help them to integrate their busy lives. People quickly began to come to Emmaus for directed retreats, spiritual direction, simps, prayerful Eucharists and conversation regarding their  lives and ministry. This gathering of people soon led to the forming of  the larger Emmaus' community which included lay women and men, religious women and diocesan priests. There was some uneasiness evidenced by some people  with the coming of the Jesuits into the diocese. Prudence, patience and perseverance were necessary in the early years. 


Due to bad health, Gary Brophy  left in 1976 for Toronto because of his kidney problem that eventually led to his death. Mary Dingman [sister of Bishop Dingman] made her first retreat with Gene in 1976. Gene, realizing that the heavy demand for spiritual directors began a two year program to train spiritual directors. May Dingman and fifteen priests, lay women an men comprised this group. They met weekly at the bishop’s house. 


Gene hired [Sr.] Mary Dingman in 1978 to serve with him at Emmaus. Bishop Dingman had initial fears and misgivings:”Can she do the work?” “Would people think this is a form of nepotism?” Gene assured Bishop Dingman that in three years he would be known as the brother of Mary Dingman. 


People began coming to Emmaus before going to work in downtown Des Moines. They spent ten to twenty minutes in quiet prayer in the chapel. Others did the same in the evening before returning to their homes. These people made the Examen of Consciousness at this time and found it a big help in being present to their husbands, wives and children. The concerns and worries of the work day were left in the quiet chapel at Emmaus. The front door was always unlocked.Children of the neighborhood became frequent visitors in search of cookies and loving attention. The Emmaus community began monthly meetings. Good books were reread and the custom of soup for lunch after Eucharist quickly began n institution in thereby days. 


Three significant births came from Emmaus:

First: Bishop Dozier, Memphis Diocese, made annual retreats with Gene at Emmaus and at the Novitiate in St. Paul, MN until he died. During an early retreat at Emmaus, the dream was formulated of welcoming fallen away Catholics back to the Church. He instituted a year long careful plan of instruction for the Diocese of Memphis. The civic auditorium could not hold all the people who came from the Diocese of Memphis, different parts of the United states, and around the world.


Second: The Emmaus program for priests was a grace flowing from an early retreat at Emmaus for Frank Bognanno.


Third: The present eleven year history  of Bethany House in fort Dodge, Iowa in the Diocese of Sioux City.


Fr. Gene left Des Moines on July 31, 1979 to serve within his own Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus. 



Chapter 3: The Lived Vision


Larry Jonas, SJ, and Jim Gladstone, SJ, came to Emmaus in 1980. During his three years of renewal work for the Wisconsin Province Gene continued to make Emmaus his home community.


Bob Leiweke arrived in Des Moines in the fall of 1980. He stayed two years until the fall of 1982, when he was assigned to the the Servant Mission in the Omaha Archdiocese.  [Sr.] Mary Dingman began two day programs os spiritual direction in the Omaha/Council Bluffs area. In 1981 the Wisconsin Provincial, Joe Labaj, SJ, requested that the Emmaus Community be transferred to the Diocese of Des Moines with the assurance of the Provinces’ continued spiritual ministry to the Diocese of Des Mines.


Bernard Mulheres SJ, (Chicago Province) arrived in Des Moines to replace Bob Leiweke. He stayed nine months. Bob Hilbert, SJ, St. Francis Indian Mission, Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota, arrived at Emmaus in August, 1983 on his motorcycle.


In 1986 Methodist Hospital began negotiations to purchase Emmaus property and found a new home for Emmaus at 1521 Center Street. The transaction was completed in August,1987. The Emmaus Community contributed $40,000 to the renovation. The Wisconsin Province sold the original Emmaus House to the Emmaus community for the original purchase price of $19,00000. Emmaus borrowed $50,000.00 from the Diocese [of Des Moines] to cover its bills. Mary Dingman began a 12 year process of paying off the debt. 


Bishop William Bullock arrived in Des Moines in the spring of 1987. The final move to the new Emmaus community took place on December 7, 1987. Jim Dougherty, SJ, (Missouri Province) arrived in the fall of 1987 to be Director of the Emmaus community. Bishop Bullock changed the name of Emmaus Community, Inc, to Emmaus House, Inc. A board of directors was established. 


In August 1990 Jim Dougherty left Emmaus because of poor health and Mary Dingman began three and a half years of ministry alone at Emmaus.


At the invitation of the newly installed Bishop Joe Charron, Benno Komely, SJ, was invited to Emmaus in August, 1993. He became the co-director with Mary to model team ministry more intentionally. In 1996 Benno Komley left to begin ministry at a retreat house in Michigan. 



Chapter 4: The Dream continues with a New Vision



Fr. Dan Krettek, Des Moines Diocesan priest, was assigned by Bishop Charron to Emmaus. This assignment was made possible because Paul Mahowold, SJ, was willing to take Dan’s parishes.


MaryDingman gracefully embraced retirement from Emmaus after twenty long, faithful, generous years of service. In August, 1998, Sr. Charlotte Huetterman, OSM, joined the Emmaus ministry as co-director. 


In September, 1999, Emmaus celebrated its 25th anniversary. Bishop Joseph Charron presided over a beautiful liturgy at St. Ambrose Cathedral and a dinner followed at the Diocesan Center. Mary and Gene were honored for their service to the Emmaus community.



The Story’s Foundation (Luke 24:13-35)


The Emmaus Story in Luke 24:13-35 is the inspiration for the name given Emmaus by the Jesuits in 1974.  It is the paradigm of spiritual direction. We are to understand the events in our [lives] in terms of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our identity is found only in relationship to God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus gives meaning and shape to our human experiences. 


Intimacy with God is no small matter. Let us continue to share the good news of how our eyes have been opened and how we have recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Let us pray for each other as we journey on into the future.  ~Fr. Gene Merz, SJ



Addendum - And the story continues…

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