ST. FRANCIS — There’s no “moderate’ in Rick Wendell’s approach to life. Whether on the hockey rink, ski slopes, hunting fields training his Labrador-retriever dogs, the seat of a motorcycle or behind a wheel of a car, Wendell pushes himself to the limit.
His full-steam ahead approach nearly sidelined him permanently the summer before college, when he crashed his motorcycle, putting him in a Minnesota emergency room, followed by an immediate trip to the operating room where he underwent eight hours of surgery. His helmet saved his life, believes Wendell, whose left wrist contains a ragged scar — a reminder of his brush with death.
“People started saying to me, ‘God’s saving you for something special,’” said Wendell in an interview with your Catholic Herald.
He suspects the “something special” will occur on Saturday, May 20 when he and four other men will be ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
For Wendell, 46, being ordained in the cathedral is a homecoming. On Valentine’s Day 1960, he was baptized in the same church, the parish where his parents, Thomas and Patricia Wendell, were married.
Coming back to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is also a homecoming for Wendell, who spent his high school years living in Afton in the Superior Diocese, later moved to Utah, Colorado, North Dakota and even Cozumel, Mexico. But the spiritual journey he traveled to return to the Catholic Church involved even more mileage.
Wendell described his early family life as centered around the Catholic faith. Thomas and Patricia took their three sons to Mass weekly, always sitting in the same front row pew — even if they arrived late, much to the chagrin of young Rick. The three boys were altar servers and a close relative, Fr. Frank Kamp, is a Divine Word Missionary priest. Wendell attended parochial schools, including Hill-Murray High School, a private college preparatory school located in Maplewood, a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.
Sometime after high school, however, Wendell’s Catholic faith became less important to him.
He earned a bachelor of science degree (pre-med/biology) from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, but after working for a short time in a hospital emergency room to “build his resume,” Wendell abruptly quit and headed west for the ski slopes, becoming a ski instructor.
Looking back, Wendell recalled the party-filled years as a time in his life when he was searching for truth, “and no one seemed to know what truth was.”
“I didn’t doubt there was a God,” he said of his thoughts at the time. “God just didn’t seem to be relevant to me. By this time, I was not attending Mass anymore,” he added.
Wendell was also doing construction, eventually moving back to Minnesota and starting his own company, Briar Oaks Builders.
By society’s standards he was living the good life, he said. At age 27, he had 15 employees, was building golf course homes, and had all the trappings of success.
“I was living the life. I had a big boat, multiple cars, all kinds of toys,” said Wendell, adding he dated a lot, with no intention of marrying.
But at age 29, he met a woman who changed his mind about marriage. He became engaged, and said, like the rest of his life, “If you’re going to do something, do it large.” The couple arranged to have their wedding at St. Paul Cathedral in St. Paul, had booked the local country club for the reception, had purchased the bride’s dress and had even taken the pre-marriage classes required by the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.
On a Friday afternoon in early summer, however, Wendell, 30, while working on a landscaping project at his home, cut himself in the neck — a cut that required stitches.
The stitches were inserted without incident, but as he and his mother were leaving the hospital, Wendell had a reaction to the anesthetic and went into cardiac arrest.
Medical personnel tried to revive him, even shocking him with the paddles, but seemingly to no avail. At one point, doctors told his mother and his fiancée he likely wouldn’t make it. When his father came to see him in the hospital, he was told to put down the flowers and card he was bringing his son and instead say his good-byes.
Wendell said he knows he was unconscious during this period, but he has vivid memories of the experience. He remembers seeing light, an intense, pure light unlike anything he had ever experienced. While the voices around him begged him to cling to life, Wendell remembers wanting to go to the light.
“I don’t (just) believe in God; I know there’s a God,” said Wendell as he looks back on the experience. “I never knew I could be loved like that,” he said describing the feeling he received from being in the light. “I know there is a God; God is and God is everywhere. I understood eternity for the first time.”
Doctors were able to revive Wendell, who admitted he is unable to prove the experience he said he had with the light.
“I can’t prove it, except I am a well-documented medical miracle,” he said, adding, “Everything about my life (following the experience) is different.”
While Wendell made a physical recovery from the cardiac arrest, emotionally, he struggled.
“I left the hospital and I’m in the same skin as before, but everything is different,” he said, describing his feelings. “I did not know what to do. I wanted to go home (to the light); I knew I did not want to be here. I lost my fear of death,” explained Wendell, saying on his worst days, he even thought about walking in front of a bus to achieve his goal of eternal life.
Instead, one day, he wandered into the empty cathedral, the same cathedral where he was to be married in several months. He picked up a piece of paper from the ground and found on it instructions for praying a novena, something he had never done.
Wendell began praying the novena, which was to be done in a church, but one evening after work, he couldn’t find an open church in which to pray. He approached a convent he knew in Hudson and asked to use their chapel.
The sisters welcomed him and in time, he began praying the rosary regularly with them.
About this time, Wendell also learned about Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, site of alleged Marian apparitions. He was further intrigued with Medjugorje when he called a high school friend, who had become a travel agent, to ask her help in planning his honeymoon. The friend said she had just returned from Medjugorje.
Instead of booking a honeymoon trip, Wendell found himself planning a trip to Europe and to Medjugorje for himself and his 62-year-old mother. He noted, at the time he wasn’t sure how to pay for the trip, but days later, opened his mailbox and found an unexpected refund from his insurance company for $3,800.
The trip to Medjugorje was life-changing, noted Wendell, and included hours of confession to a priest from Ireland. While there, Wendell said he felt the first stirrings of his call to priesthood.
“My response, ‘I am the worst sinner in the world,’” he recalled. He also remembers thinking he loved his fiancée, they had names chosen for their unborn children. “You must be thinking of someone else,” he said he told God.
Sometime after returning from his trip, however, he and his fiancée mutually called off the engagement. Wendell kept pushing away the thought of priesthood, even trying to escape it by relocating to Cozumel, Mexico. He eventually turned his energies to a non-profit organization he founded, Covenant Ministries, to sponsor Catholic events.
Wendell also began sharing his faith story with groups of people and eventually went to the Diocese of Bismarck with the intention of pursuing priesthood.
On a subsequent trip to Medjugorje, he met a man he described as “a great, big behemoth of a man. He had big tattoos on his arm and I remember thinking to myself, what’s this guy doing here?” The man was Michael Lightner, now associate pastor at St. Francis Borgia Parish, Cedarburg.
Sometime after that first meeting, Wendell was startled when Lighnter walked into a meeting he was having with the bishop in North Dakota.
The friendship between the two men grew and in 2003 they decided together to return to their home state — Fr. Lightner is from Green Bay — to pursue priesthood for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
As he approaches priesthood, Wendell said he believes he has been given a supernatural gift of faith that he hopes to share with anyone who will listen.
“I’m betting my whole life that the Catholic Church is the church of Jesus Christ. I’m betting my economic future, my reproductive future, my whole life that this is the truth; he is the Way of Life,” said Wendell.
He said he is looking forward to being with people at different phases of their life, and he expects his varied experiences will help him connect with his parishioners.
As a priest, Wendell hopes he can bring others to know the love he’s found in the Catholic Church and through Jesus.