Tag Archives: Des Moines

Working wonders at St. Gregory’s

Legates’ addiction-treatment program helps people be who God calls them to be . . .

Michael and Rose Marie Vasquez, members of Legatus’ Des Moines Chapter

Barb Conner was in a “dark place” in 2008 when she boarded the plane in Boston and alighted in Iowa. Drinking, complicated by “unresolved issues,” had taken her life in a downward spiral. She had tried AA but found its approach “very negative,” regarding alcoholism as a disease and addiction as a permanent condition.

Her husband and daughters had desperately helped her research treatment options. Online they discovered St. Gregory Retreat Centers, which experts have touted as the most advanced, comprehensive alcohol and drug addiction recovery program in America. They spoke with co-founder Rose Marie Vasquez, who assured them that help was available.

“I was fearful about going,” Conner admitted. “But I found St. Gregory to be a truly peaceful place. They treat the whole person and take an honest approach to substance abuse: that it’s by choice that we drink abusively and that we need to get to the bottom of the reasons we do.”

From tragedy, inspiration

Michael and Rose Marie Vasquez, members of Legatus’ Des Moines Chapter, founded St. Gregory Retreat Centers in answer to a need discerned in tragedy.

“A dear friend of our son’s had a big problem with methamphetamines,” Rose Marie remembered. “We explored a normal course in substance-abuse treatment for him, but saw lots of holes in how it works.” Although the young man did well for a while, he got back on meth and died in a car wreck.

“But through that tragedy Michael and I felt inspiration: that God was calling us to found a place with a new standard of treatment – one that moved beyond addiction and empowered people to be who God wants them to be.”

The couple was in a position to do so, having recently sold their health care company. “Our first step,” Michael said, “was asking, what are the best treatment approaches out there and how can we build something new and better based upon research that proved successful?”

The St. Gregory model is built on the fact that the body goes through a level of chemical dependency, which has a psycho-social impact. “Once you become dependent on a drug, it ends up forming your values system,” Michael explained. “When treatment starts to pull that dependency away, you need to jump in and not only physically get a person off dependency, but change their thinking and rebuild their virtues and values so they can get to the point of making good decisions.”

Since 2006, St. Gregory patients have gone through a seven-week program of neuropsychological repair, behavior-modification training, life-skills exercises, and cognitive behavior therapy in a format not available through any other program in America. St. Gregory’s is state-licensed, internationally accredited and accepts health insurance. Its staff of over 100 can accommodate over 100 guests at its two single-sex residential-living retreat centers.


The Vasquezes named their venture after St. Gregory the Wonder Worker, a third-century bishop renowned for miraculous cures and conversions. They see a source of wonder in their patients as well: While the national average success rate one year after leaving a substance-abuse treatment program is only 12%, their program has maintained a 70% success rate over the last four years.

Medical director Dr. Charles V. Wadle says he’s proud of the Center’s new initiative called Harbor View Medical, a specialty clinic for people addicted to pain killers and prescription drugs.

“We’re dealing with a national epidemic of doctors over-prescribing medicines that can lead to abuse or dependence,” he said, noting that the majority of St. Gregory patients abuse drugs or alcohol versus being physically, although not necessarily psychologically, dependent upon them.

Randy Kiel, founder of Kardia Counseling, shares in Wadle’s concern. A mental-health counselor with a private psychotherapy practice in the Des Moines area, he has referred his own patients to St. Gregory’s and provided post-treatment counseling for those who have completed the program.

“St. Gregory moves peoples’ minds and spirits and brain structure into accommodating a different disposition of living,” Kiel said. “They help people get away from that one-day-away-from-addiction mindset relapse. Addiction doesn’t represent a true mindset. It’s a disorder to recover from, not a condition to suffer from your whole life.”

The program is also special because of its Catholicity, Kiel continued. “They offer grace at St. Gregory. They give people the room to receive an invitation to addressing the spiritual element of their persons. This is a genuinely Catholic approach, subtle but strong.”

Only about 30% of St. Gregory patients have identified themselves as Catholic. But the faith, though not a part of the formal treatment program, is omnipresent. Two deacons are on staff and a full-time chaplain has just been assigned to celebrate the sacraments, including daily Mass at the retreat house chapels. And in August, three Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary with backgrounds in nursing, social work and theological formation moved into their new convent on the women’s campus.

Proposing, not imposing

This exposure to religion, Wadle said, lends the Centers a “therapeutic reality” even if a patient doesn’t directly engage the faith. However, he has seen the program lead to several conversions and many instances of fallen-away Catholics “re-embracing the faith.”

And then there are people like Barb Conners. After her stay, she confided to Rose Marie Vasquez that, although she had embraced sobriety, “something was still missing.” Rose Marie then invited her back for a conference in 2011 about being sober for Christ.

This time she alighted in Iowa not in darkness, but with clouds parted. But the heavens opened wide after she met with a priest and unburdened that remaining unresolved issue impeding her full recovery: 10 years earlier she had painfully agreed to her 15-year-old daughter’s abortion.

“It was a terrible decision I was still blaming myself for,” she said. “I’d pushed it down deep inside and not dealt with it. I came back home joyful and rejuvenated, and since then I’ve been able to talk with the whole family about it. St. Gregory taught me how to be who God really wants me to be. And that gives real peace.”

Matthew A. Rarey is Legatus magazine’s editorial assistant.

Find out more by contacting St. Gregory’s Retreat Center at (515) 421-4080 or online via their website.

Chaplain won’t let cancer keep him down

Des Moines chaplain Monsignor Frank Bognanno not afraid to go to great heights . . .

Monsignor Frank Bognanno

Monsignor Frank Bognanno
Des Moines Chapter

At 72, Monsignor Frank Bognanno continues going onward and upward in life. Former chancellor of the Des Moines diocese, past chairman of the National Association for Catechumenal Ministry and current pastor of Christ the King Parish in Des Moines, he has a rare distinction among clerics, having completed several triathlons. His latest upward challenge has been with the return of a “thankfully minimal form of prostate cancer,” and he expects to be OK. It didn’t hinder him from recently climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to promote cancer research, awareness and prevention.

Tell us about your call to the priesthood.

When I was in the fifth grade, a priest gave a mission at our parish. He said that some of you boys should think about becoming a priest. I felt he was talking to me. I never got it out of my mind. When I got to high school, I thought maybe I would get married, become a dentist. But no, I felt I should become a priest.

After going to Loras College I went to St. Bernard Seminary, both in Dubuque, Iowa, and was ordained in 1965. That was the same year everything changed in the Church with the Second Vatican Council.

How did you become acquainted with Legatus?

When I was at St. Augustine Church in Des Moines, one of our parishioners, Bob Galligan, told me about Legatus and Tom Monaghan. Bob introduced us. Several of my parishioners were able to qualify. They started up a chapter and I was its first chaplain, but it went into limbo for about three years.

When it was reignited about eight years ago, another priest was chaplain. Then I became chaplain again, probably around 2006. I like the concept of bringing together leaders to reinforce one another in the faith.

What impact has Legatus had on your diocese?

It’s difficult to gauge the impact because so much of what Legates do, they do in their work lives. I should mention that the current governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad, is a former member of Legatus and a good Catholic and very popular. He’s a member of my parish.

We have about 15 member couples, so I’d like to see us move forward with more members. I’d also like to see a stronger emphasis on the New Evangelization, especially through acquainting members with the skills they can use to share the faith with fallen-away Catholics in particular. I’m going give a talk to the chapter about this in September.

You have a vocation, of course. Any avocations?

I’m a member of the Rotary Club and also the Iowa Board of Medicine. I’m also involved with Above and Beyond Cancer, an organization meant to show that cancer doesn’t have the last word: You can go up and above yourself. Although I had prostate cancer and it has returned, I just literally went up and above myself with a hiking trip up Mount Kilimanjaro [in January 2012]. I said Mass while going up.

Any lessons you’ve learned as a priest that are especially apt for business leaders?

To obey the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and what one discerns as the will of God in any situation — even if it means moving beyond one’s comfort zone. Following those inspirations with courage and prudence pays huge dividends.

Can you recommend any devotions?

Devotion to The Divine Mercy, which Blessed John Paul II defined as the love of God in the face of weakness and sin. We need to bring the love of Jesus to the weaknesses of our culture, which needs guidance. But guidance can’t be done by reason alone. It needs to be guided by faith as well. Reason guided by faith, done with love, is Divine Mercy coming to meet the challenges of our culture.