Steve Houge retires from archdiocese after 44 years

| March 22, 2017 | 0 Comments

Steve Houge stands at the counter of the print shop Feb. 16 at the former chancery on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A legacy left in print

Steve Houge had a good gig as a twenty-something working in the print shop at St. Thomas College in St. Paul in the early 1970s. Despite having a Catholic employer, he had never heard of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

So when he interviewed with the archdiocese to start its print shop in 1973, he had a question for his interviewers: “How long have you been around?” Likely amused, his interviewers, including Archbishop Leo Byrne, told him a long time; the organization wasn’t going to fold. Afterward, Houge called his wife, Eva, from a pay phone to tell her, “Hey, I think they’re solid.”

He took the job.

Ever the storyteller, this anecdote was one of many that Houge shared at his retirement reception at the archdiocese’s chancery in St. Paul March 16, also his 66th birthday. Houge officially retired March 17 as the archdiocese’s printing services manager, a position he had for 44 years under the leadership of six archbishops.

Family man

Houge proudly describes himself as a “St. Paul guy,” having grown up in a neighborhood behind the State Capitol. He graduated from St. Paul’s former Mechanic Arts High School in 1969 and later St. Paul Technical Vocational Institute, now St. Paul College, finishing a two-year degree in one year. Hockey has been a major part of his life; he played in high school and has been coaching all levels of the sport since 1982. He continues to coach the “Governors” at St. Paul’s Johnson Senior High School, which he calls the “team of my heart.”

Houge said many of his life lessons have come from working in the chancery. Without hesitating, he names the most influential people in his life, starting with Mert Lassonde, who hired him.

“Mert taught me how to be a man, about being a husband, father and grandfather,” said Houge, who attends St. Ambrose in Woodbury.

That relationship was important to Houge, whose father died in a car accident in 1965 when Houge was 14. His mother died a few years later, leaving him, his sister and three brothers.

Houge said Lassonde, who during his time at the archdiocese worked as a special assistant for Archbishops Leo Binz, Leo Byrne, John Roach and Harry Flynn, was tough because he cared; Lassonde was a retired master sergeant in the Air Force before he came to the chancery.

“He would say to me, ‘Don’t go sideways on me,’” Houge recalled, adding that Lassonde gave him the best advice — to prioritize God, family and work, and also to take care of himself. Houge has shared that same advice with colleagues.

“He said to me once, ‘I love you.’ And I said, ‘I love you, too.’ And that’s hard to say — ‘I love you’ — to a guy,” Houge said. “And now I can do that. I never used to be able to hug. But now I hug everyone.”

Lassonde, 85, reciprocates the sentiments, describing Houge as a “great model for how to live with integrity,” and noting his energy, knowledge, positivity, honesty and “can-do spirit.”

“He’s like a son to me,” said Lassonde, a parishioner of All Saints in Lakeville who worked with Houge for 25 years. “I just love the guy.”

“He talks at 90 miles a minute. He really gets his juices flowing,” Lassonde added with a laugh. “It’s nice to know somebody like that.”

Those “father-son” relationships continued in the print shop. Bob Saunders worked alongside Houge for nearly 32 years and has assumed his responsibilities of running the department.

“He treated me right,” Saunders said. “As I reflect back on when my father was sick in 2010 … he [Houge] told me, ‘You do what you gotta do. If you need time off, you take time off.’ It didn’t matter how busy we were. He’s a special person.”

Thirty years conjure many memories for Saunders. But the most significant memory, he said, was when Houge visited him in the hospital in 2008 when Saunders was seriously ill. Doctors had just taken him out of a medically-induced coma, and Houge was the first person he recognized.

“He came in the room, and he was all happy to see my eyes open,” Saunders said, adding that Houge would visit him once or twice a week in recovery, sometimes during his physical therapy sessions, supporting and encouraging him.

“I’ll miss him,” Saunders said. “I hope he has a healthy, happy retirement, which he deserves.”

Reverence and respect

While Houge wasn’t Catholic when he started, he converted about 10 years in. Clergy had a tremendous impact on him, he said. He regarded former vicar general Msgr. Ambrose Hayden as a “good buddy.” From his files, he could pull out personal handwritten letters from Archbishop Leo Binz, who served from 1962 to 1975. And he described several occasions when priests and bishops helped him in spiritual emergencies.

In 2005, for instance, Houge’s brother, who wasn’t Catholic, wanted a priest to be at the side of his dying daughter in the hospital. But he didn’t want just any priest — he wanted a bishop.

“My brother assumed a bishop was probably a little closer to God than a priest was,” Houge said.

Because Houge’s brother and niece were in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Houge called on its then-leader, Bishop John Kinney, former auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese, whom he had known for 20 years. It was Bishop Kinney’s day off, so Houge left a message with the receptionist.

“I said, ‘Just tell him Steve the printer is asking for this,’” he recalled.

A few hours later, Houge received a call from Bishop Kinney; he had prayed over and baptized Houge’s niece, who died shortly after. Houge said Archbishop Flynn and other clergy sent flowers for her funeral, and later, the archbishop sent a letter to his brother and sister-in-law.

“To this day, they pull that letter out,” Houge said.

There was also the time when another one of Houge’s brothers was in hospice. He wasn’t religious, Houge said, but wanted someone to pray with him. So, Houge called Father John Paul Erickson, director of worship for the archdiocese. He came right away. Later, Houge’s sister asked if Father Erickson would offer the funeral rite.

“When I asked him, he said, ‘You tell your brother, whatever he needs, I’ll take care of it for him,’” Houge recalled.

Houge made prayer part of his workday. Each morning when he got to work, he read a prayer to St. Patrick, helping him to operate with a customer-service mentality, something he said he learned from Lassonde and Msgr. Hayden. Serving the chancery offices, parishes and Catholic organizations in the archdiocese, Houge asked people what he could do for them, not what he didn’t have to do.

Respect went a long way, too.

“I always knew when people were asking me a question or were giving me direction,” Houge said. “I never got myself sideways. When people ask me for my opinion, I’ll give it.”

Houge valued quality, service and timeliness, even working overnight to complete projects he received last-minute.

“It always made me feel good that [I] gave somebody back something that they enjoyed, a nice piece. That’s what motivated me to work harder,” he said.

Houge said the archdiocese’s child protection work has been his most important project.

“The protection of children touches my heart. It’s a wonderful department that we started, and I see the benefits,” Houge said.

While Houge has produced thousands of print pieces over the years, he said the most memorable were the worship aids and programs for the funerals of St. Paul police officers Ron Ryan Jr. and Tim Jones, who were killed in the line of duty Aug. 26, 1994. Ryan was responding to a call in the parking lot of Sacred Heart on St. Paul’s East Side when he was shot. In pursuit of the shooter, Jones and his K-9 also were shot and killed.

“It was painful,” said Houge, who knew Ryan and his parents.

Next chapter

In retirement, Houge plans to spend time in Texas before returning to help train his two hockey-playing grandsons, who attend St. Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic School, and his granddaughter, who plays for the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

Houge said it was the people who kept him at the chancery for more than four decades.

“I used to think your only good friends are people who you’ve grown up with. No,” he said. “I’ve met people later in my life who are remarkable. Your good friends are the ones you can count on when you’re down.”

Many familiar faces — including Lassonde, Archbishop Emeritus Flynn, Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens — gathered at the March 16 reception to wish him well.

Retired priest Father James Notebaart, who confirmed Houge, brought the first project Houge printed for him in October 1974 — pieces for Coadjutor Archbishop Byrne’s funeral and burial rite.

“He’s the glue that made this place work for all those years,” Father Notebaart said of Houge. He also read from the homily of Archbishop Byrne’s burial rite about service, which he said described Houge and his wife, who have one son, Jason.

Archbishop Emeritus Flynn told the group that Houge always “joyfully responded” and brought God to everyone at the chancery through his joy.

Houge shared that he’s been “blessed” working at the chancery and left the group with a verse from Timothy that was displayed on his computer monitor: “I competed well. I finished the race and kept the faith.”

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