Uganda rehab facility named for addiction ministry priest

| November 7, 2018 | 0 Comments

Father Bill Whittier cuts the ribbon Sept. 25 on a new rehabilitation center in Gulu, Uganda, that was named for him. At the far right is Father Samuel Mwaka Okidi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Gulu with whom Father Whittier has collaborated in addiction recovery ministry. Courtesy Father Whittier

Father Bill Whittier, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of St.  Paul and Minneapolis, spent his 84th birthday Sept. 25 being honored for his work with alcoholics in Uganda.

That day, a new addiction treatment facility in Gulu, Uganda, was named for Father Whittier at its “inauguration and official launch.” For the celebration, Father Whittier made his fourth trip in a decade to Gulu, where he has assisted Father Samuel Mwaka Okidi in his work with alcoholics.

Father Whittier said it was “so gratifying to see the work that had finally been accomplished, and hopefully it will go from there. And to tie it in with my birthday … is kind of special also.”

The facility was named the “Fr. Bill W. Treatment and Rehabilitation Center.” The priest wanted it to be “Fr. Bill W.” instead of his full name because one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, was known as “Bill W.”

“Father Bill Whittier has ever impressed me as a selfless, dedicated, available and a very generous priest,” said Father Okidi, a priest of the Archdiocese of Gulu, in an email to The Catholic Spirit.

Father Okidi said that Father Whittier helped him lay a foundation for his ministry advancing the care of alcoholics in north Uganda, an area beset by poverty due, in part, to the ongoing Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency. Father Okidi said “many people use alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism in the face of many challenges” from the insurgency. The city of Gulu has a population of more than 150,000.

In 2008, Father Whittier began assisting Father Okidi’s organization, Program for Prevention Awareness, Counseling and Treatment of Alcoholism, or PACTA. Father Okidi founded the organization in 2004.

“The unfortunate thing is [that] alcoholism is the big issue over there because during the war, they drove everyone off their villages, so no one had anything to do but drink,” Father Whittier said. “But even over there, people talk about the importance of alcoholism as a basic problem, but no one does anything about it except Father Sam.”

Father Whittier has trained staff in the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and worked with a weeklong treatment camp. He primarily helped raise financial support for the new rehabilitation center and donated a vehicle to PACTA. He saw his work in Uganda as a culmination of the other work with alcoholics he’s done around the world.

“Human nature is the same and disease is the same,” Father Whittier said. “Alcoholics and addicts are not bad people that need punishment, but sick people who need healing, and that’s so ignored.”

Ordained in 1961, Father Whittier first became interested in ministering to alcoholics while serving as pastor of St. Pius X in White Bear Lake from 1971-1978. There he hosted a priest from Kentucky in an addiction counseling training program at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Center City. The visiting priest encouraged Father Whittier to explore counseling alcoholics and join him for a training in Los Angeles.

Father Whittier went to that training in 1978 for a year after serving at St. Pius X. He returned to Minnesota as pastor of St. Edward in Bloomington from 1979-1982, but didn’t work in addiction ministry there. However, as pastor of St. Bridget of Sweden in Lindstrom from 1982-1994, he ministered to people recovering from addiction at Hazelden.

“It kind of got me moving into the whole ministry of alcoholism and addiction,” Father Whittier said. “They kind of modeled it [for me], too, because Hazelden started very small.”

While at St. Bridget, Father Whittier connected to a ministry for alcoholics in Nigeria. He went to the country several times and helped start a rehabilitation center.

After St. Bridget, Father Whittier received permission from Archbishop John Roach to do more work with alcoholics overseas, and he ministered in India from 1994-1996. There Father Whittier worked with the Kripa Foundation, a non-governmental agency that assists people with chemical dependency and HIV.

Father Whittier returned to Minnesota in 1996 and assisted at a couple parishes until his retirement in 1999. During his last assignment at St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake, he made connections in the Philippines via he priest he knew. He ministered there for a couple years, teaching addiction counseling at a college and helping people in addiction recovery for a couple years. Then he returned to India to work with Kripa until 2011.

Father Whittier occasionally returned to the United States, and one visit led to his latest venture in Uganda. While assisting at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Minnetonka in 2007, he learned of Father Okidi from parishioners Pete and Dottie Truax. The couple had been hosting Father Okidi while he was recovering from hip surgery in the Twin Cities.

Father Okidi shared about his work with Father Whittier, and Father Whittier said Father Okidi needed support in growing his ministry in an metropolitan area of north Uganda that didn’t have an addiction treatment center.

Now that’s changed. The center will provide residential treatment for alcoholics up to 90 day, or more if needed, Father Okidi said.

“It will carry on his legacy of dedication and love with support from men and women of good will who care for addicts,” Father Okidi said of the rehabilitation center.

Father Whittier said he doesn’t plan to travel to Uganda again, but he will maintain contact with Father Okidi and continue to fundraise to support for his work.

 

More information: Father Whittier 763-544-5359

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