By Tracey Primrose
Close your eyes and imagine your childhood home. Even if many decades have passed since you left to forge your way in the world, those memories of shared experiences with parents and siblings are easy to recall. All that history is part of growing up—it is not typically part of growing old.
But Jesuit Fathers Frank Case and Dick Case are enjoying an opportunity not experienced by many siblings. After long lives of service to the Society of Jesus and the people of God, the brothers have come home to Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, the Jesuits West Province’s health care/retirement facility high on a hilltop in beautiful Los Gatos, California. While Dick serves in a part-time administrative role at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Frank’s full-time mission, like every Jesuit in Los Gatos, is to pray for the Church and the Society of Jesus.
The brothers play gin rummy together, watch sports (both are avid Gonzaga basketball fans), read and spend time in prayer. They accompany each other and their fellow Jesuits on a journey that is, for them, practical and no nonsense: They say they are at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center to die, a fact that does not appear to ruffle them in the least.
While it’s a quick, two-hour flight from nearby San Jose to Seattle, where the brothers were raised, the Case family has not lived in the bustling house on 37th Ave. in Washington Park for many decades. But the memories of their happy childhood home loom large for Frank and Dick.
Their dad was a Congregationalist, and according to Dick, their mom was a “renegade Catholic who didn’t take priests all too seriously,” a theme echoed by the self-deprecating brothers. Because Elwell Case was not Catholic, he and Helen Danz were married at the rectory of her local parish, not in the church. Seeking a more hospitable environment, Helen found St. Joseph’s, a Jesuit parish, where the growing family of seven children found a home and the boys went to grade school. Frank, born in 1938, came first, and Dick followed four years later. Dick adored his older brother, but he also had something to prove. Their ongoing slugfest was part good-natured fun and part winner-takes-all-fist-to-shoulder combat. And no matter how hard the blow, neither brother flinched.
Frank led the way at Seattle Prep, followed by Dick, Stuart and Ross. Their sisters went to Forest Ridge Convent of the Sacred Heart. Like many who entered the Society during those years, Frank recalls being profoundly influenced by his Jesuit teachers, most just a few years older than their students. He entered the Jesuits after graduating from high school in 1956, one of 10 members of his class to do so. Dick recalls being shocked by Frank’s decision. He got over it—seven years later Dick announced that he too was becoming a Jesuit.
Dick’s vocation was perhaps more surprising than his older brother’s. After graduating from Seattle Prep, Dick attended Seattle University, but he dreamed of becoming a rancher. As a teenager, he had lived and worked on a dude ranch in Eastern Washington and, later, visited ranches in South America with his dad on something of a reconnaissance mission. A pilot at 17 and an instructor at 19, Dick’s plans were upended when he heard God’s call while on retreat at Seattle University. “It hit me between the eyes.”
Meanwhile, Frank was working his way through the long course of academic preparation and training that Jesuits refer to as formation. He earned graduate degrees in philosophy and theology and spent two and a half years teaching and coaching the golf team at Gonzaga Prep in Spokane. He furthered his studies with a master’s degree and a doctorate in economics before beginning an academic career as a professor at Seattle University and, later, rector of the Jesuit community.
For his part, Dick was also going through the same rigorous formation program, although his studies took him to the Netherlands. Dick is completely without guile when he says, “Frank is more of an intellectual. I am not a great intellectual by any stretch.” This from a man who learned Dutch for no other reason than to study theology.
In 1974, the Case family was rocked by tragedy. A student in Amsterdam at the time, Dick was listening to his small transistor radio when he learned about a Turkish Airlines crash outside Paris. With deepening dread, he remembered that his sister, Phyllis, and her husband were on their way home to London after vacationing in Istanbul. Dick knew viscerally that they were gone and, after the shock wore off, he cried for three days. Phyllis and her husband left behind two toddlers who were brought to Seattle, to the house on 37th Ave., where seven others had been raised. In their early 60s, the Case parents were beginning again.
When he returned home from theology studies, Dick was ordained and missioned to Gonzaga Prep, where his brother had served, to work in campus ministry. That summer, he left the comfort of Spokane for a remote Alaskan village at the mouth of the Yukon River to fill in for a pastor who was away for six weeks. Always interested in missionary work, Dick began studying the Yup’ik language at the University of Alaska and with a year of instruction under his belt, headed to the villages of Chevak and Newtok along the Bering Coast. His long service in Alaska included time in Tununak, Toksook Bay, Nightmute, Bethel, St. Mary’s and Fairbanks, where he held leadership positions with the diocese. Both pastor and pilot, he would routinely shuttle passengers, particularly the Bishop of Fairbanks, to remote areas. He got to know the last frontier from the cockpit of a small Cessna and fell head over heels in love with Alaska and its rugged, faithful, loving people.
Frank’s frontier, although not as remote, was just as formidable. In 1986, he was tapped to serve as provincial of the then-Oregon Province Jesuits and, after four years, was missioned to Rome to serve as an assistant to Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ. In addition to his love for going on long walks in the ancient city, Frank greatly admired his boss, Fr. Kolvenbach, who had a “marvelous sense of humor.” He spent 15 years in the role of regional assistant for the United States and three years as General Secretary of the Society of Jesus. He returned to the U.S. in 2008 but still dreams in Italian.
In 2008, Dick tied up his plane for the last time. With the exception of a few years as rector of Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma and six years as president of Gonzaga Prep, he had served in Alaska for more than two decades. His next mission took him back to Spokane to be the pastor of St. Aloysius, the Jesuit parish on the campus of Gonzaga University. In 2011, after decades spent on different continents, the Case brothers were reunited when Frank came to Spokane to serve as Gonzaga’s vice president for mission and ministry. He was also the chaplain for the men’s basketball team, a dream job for the fanatical Zags fan.
After Dick was missioned to serve as assistant superior at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in 2017, Frank moved down two years later. They are part of a wonderful community of retired and infirm Jesuits who are bonded not only because they answered Christ’s call, but because they are preparing for the time when the Lord will call them again. Death is part of life at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, and while the community has suffered tremendous losses in the last year alone, Dick is quick to offer that the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is about freedom, so that we ultimately desire only what God wants for us. “I have worked for most of my life to try to be indifferent and let it happen the way it happens.
Frank echoes that sentiment, saying that although Sacred Heart Jesuit Center is where his earthly pilgrimage will end, he has nothing but gratitude and happiness, particularly when he thinks about his vocation as a Jesuit. “Here, where our assignment is to be praying for the Church and the Society of Jesus, I feel like every day I am waking up with God. So, I’m here. It’s just the last step.”
When Frank became a Jesuit 65 years ago, his father wrote him a letter. He recalls that it said something like this: “Dear Frank, you have chosen to do an important thing with your life. Anything important will have difficulties associated with it. Unless the difficulties become chronic, stick with it because the grass will always look greener on the other side of the fence.”
He stuck with it. Why? His voice breaking with emotion, Frank says, “It is a vocation of falling in love.”