Mention the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) to folks who experienced adolescence a number of years ago and you’ll elicit memories of summer lake outings, winter skating parties, dances and athletic events.

On the spiritual side, many will associate CYO with Search for Christian Maturity, commonly abbreviated to Fr. John Endejan, right, directed the Catholic Youth Organization in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee for more than 17 years. In this undated photo, he is meeting with three of the youth who participated in the organization’s programs. (Catholic Herald file photo) Search, a 1960s and ’70s retreat program.

“There are literally thousands of people out there who were involved with the Search program,” Dean Lex, who himself was heavily involved as a participant and leader, told the Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. “It was a good way to think more about God at a time when most people don’t,” Lex added, at a time when retreats at places other than dedicated retreat houses were “few and far between.”

In the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the program’s primary faces belonged to two priests who, ironically, died within a week of one another in January: Frs. John Endejan and R. Michael Grellinger. Bracketed by parish assignments, the two served terms as, respectively, director and associate director of the archdiocesan CYO.

Search veterans, now middle-aged, remembered “Fr. John” and “Fr. Mike” recently. Lex called the former “a wonderful man.” Lex and Sue Schultz met through Search and became close enough to Fr. Endejan that they asked him to preside at their 1977 wedding. Now members of St. Sebastian Parish, Milwaukee, Dean and Sue Lex remained in touch with the priest through the years, last seeing him in hospice care the day before he died. From the time they met, “We were lifelong friends,” said Sue.

Dean Lex recalled Fr. Grellinger’s “good sense of humor” and “good way with people. He was always available.” Both priests, Lex added, were popular individuals.

While Fr. Endejan introduced the Indiana-rooted Search program to the archdiocese and oversaw Search retreats for collegians and high school upperclassmen, Fr. Grellinger was active in a Search offshoot called Twilight. Twilight offered nights of recollection to high schoolers, either in their home parishes or at the now dismantled Old St. Mary School in downtown Milwaukee, also the site of Search weekend retreats.

“The CYO program was home for many of us because of Fr. John and Fr. Mike,” Ann Nadolny Luckey, a member of St. Francis Borgia, Cedarburg, said in an email to the Catholic Herald.

The priests “were extremely instrumental, influencing hundreds, if not thousands, of youths through the CYO program ….  I would venture to say that in almost every parish in the Milwaukee/Waukesha/Racine/Fond du Lac area there is an adult who was impacted by this CYO program,” wrote Luckey, who attended St. Joseph Church, Waukesha, during high school.

Coming together with “kids from all over (the archdiocese) was the neatest thing” about Search and Twilight, Luckey said in a subsequent phone interview.

Retreat program participants took on leadership and planning roles in Search, formed bands and socialized in other ways, forged friendships that have lasted as long as four decades and sometimes – as in the case of Dean and Sue Lex – even married.

“Fr. John’s influence – it was such a ripple effect,” mused Luckey. “It affected how we raised our own children.”

Luckey, like Dean and Sue Lex, kept in contact with Fr. Endejan in the years following her Search involvement.

“He was just a good person,” Luckey said. “He was so kind. He listened. He always was very calm.”

If Fr. Grellinger’s jokes were laughable, Fr. Endejan, according to Luckey, “had some groaners.” She related that, when Fr. Endejan left the pastorate at St. Matthias Parish, Milwaukee, to become rector at the cathedral, St. Matthias parishioners – to the priest’s delight – presented him with a gag gift: a book bearing a title, “Fr. John’s Funniest Jokes” and consisting entirely of empty pages.

Frs. Endejan and Grellinger motivated young people they mentored to be active in the life of the church as adults, according to the CYO alumni.

Fr. Grellinger was 77 when he died Jan. 7, Fr. Endejan, 82, at his death Jan. 13. In addition to CYO leadership, both priests’ archdiocesan assignments included working with youth as Scouting chaplains. Fr. Grellinger also served as chaplain at a now shuttered girls’ high school, St. Mary’s Academy, was an EMT on the Hartland Fire Department, chaplain for the ATF and the Pewaukee Police Department and did some officiating at youth sporting events in his spare time.