It's been 35 years since Father Gene Sitzmann came to Cherokee as a priest for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux City. He was hired at the Cherokee Mental Health Institute (CMHI) after completing an internship under the direction of Bob Alexander in 1970. Since then he has been the Family Therapy Supervisor, Chaplain-Educator and volunteer Chaplain at the hospital.
CMHI has been fortunate to be a location of an accredited center for pastoral education in the field of clinical ministry since the late 1960's. There are only 391 such centers in the nation, most of which, are located in larger cities with big hospitals.
Sitzmann has been active in providing Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at CMHI since he arrived in 1970. In addition, Sitzmann has served as pastor of Visitation Catholic Church at Maryhill for over three decades and more recently pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in Quimby.
Early on he predicted that the CPE program would be in jeopardy of being cut if he didn't do something visionary to help it continue. He knew a program for pastoral education was needed in smaller rural areas, because like corporations and the hospital, churches were 'downsizing' as well. Rural areas would be left out if a program wasn't developed that would help keep rural areas healthy and active. He also knew that any program he developed needed to be freestanding without the aide of government support.
He foresaw the need to make plans for the changes and with the help of a Board of Directors and a vision he developed The Ecumenical Institute in 1993. The institute provides a Certified Pastoral Education program for both ministers and lay people of all religious denominations. The program brings the science of psychology to those who provide pastoral care in communities in an attempt to give them the tools to better care for those in need of help.
On Sunday May 1, Sitzmann was honored at a special retirement dinner for his life's work both in the community and for the Ecumenical Institute. More than one hundred and seventy people, including 45 alumni, attended the event which was held at the Conference Center of Western Iowa Technical College in Cherokee. Also honored was Rev. Bob Alexander, founder the original CPE program at the Mental Health Institute.
Sitzmann says that the founding of the Ecumenical Institute has been his life's goal and is proud to have been part of its development. The next step for the institute has been developing its vision for the next ten years. The goal is to give students of the program the tools they need to find what is needed in their communities and follow through with developing programs to address those needs. The institute works with people they believe will remain in their respective communities who are willing to move out beyond their own churches to build up their communities in areas of need.
For his retirement Sitzmann was honored with a special memory book containing pictures and anecdotes of former students which now exceeds 400 in number. In addition, supporters of the Ecumenical Institute presented Rev. Sitzmann with a symbolic check for $92,355, the amount of cash and pledges raised for a special scholarship fund in his honor.
Sitzmann says that he has been on 'fast forward' his whole life and now that retirement is here he knows he has to learn to slow down and really visit with people. His travels will be more for rest and relaxation and not for sightseeing. He plans to do a little fishing and likes to windsurf in Aruba. He will also help fill in as he can for the St. John the Baptist Church in Quimby.