"My heart is full of gratitude as I reflect on the blessings that have come from working for the Catholic Community Foundation.” – Mark Conzemius, retiring President
We asked Conzemius some questions about his three-decade tenure as a lay leader in the Church.
How did you get involved with the CCFESD?
My wife, Jeanie, and I had no idea what we were getting into when we said “yes” to Bishop Robert Carlson’s invitation to move our family from Denver to Sioux Falls nearly 30 years ago. He got my name from somebody in the Archdiocese who knew former Newman Center Director, Fr. Dave McCauley. I had never run a foundation – or worked for the church. And even though I grew up in northern Minnesota, Jeanie was from New Hampshire, a long way from South Dakota.
In short, there was no reason for us to say “yes” to Bishop Carlson’s invitation to be the first full-time President of the CCFESD – except for God’s providence. I like to call this, God’s “providential choreography.” No one but God could have scripted all of the things that have happened to us over our lifetime, including the past 30 years working for the CCFESD. I am truly blessed! I absolutely could not have imagined that I would have worked for 30 years with Church leaders and lay leaders from business, media and government from across eastern SD, spreading the Gospel message.
The CCFESD is one of the highest per capita Catholic foundations in the country. What do you attribute to the CCFESD’s success?
We are a ministry to donors. Our mission is to help people grow deeper in love with Christ by sharing their gifts in gratitude to God. We help donors see all they have as a gift from God and a natural expression of their gratitude is to share their blessings with others. In short, we help donors support the ministries that they care about.
You’ve been at this a long time. What has been the key for you personally?
First of all, it’s my wife, Jeanie. In addition to being an amazing wife, she is an incredible mother and grandmother - and an advocate for anyone in need. Anything that I’ve accomplished professionally I credit Jeanie for her support and encouragement and for helping me believe in myself. She’s the most giving person that I have ever met.
It’s being grounded in prayer and seeing this work as ministry. In addition to medical and dental benefits, Bishop Carlson provided us with spiritual direction. This has been a key to my spiritual growth and prayer life.
Are there any particular people that you want to thank?
I want to thank Bishop Carlson for his visionary leadership and trust in the Lord as he took a risk in hiring me thirty years ago. My special thanks also to Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who was the Diocese of Sioux Falls' Apostolic Administrator from 2004-2005, Bishop Paul Swain and now Bishop Don DeGrood for their leadership of our Diocese and support of the mission of the CCFESD. It's been a privilege to work with these faith-filled, dedicated leaders. I've learned a great deal from each of them.
If I have been able to accomplish anything these past years, it is because of the staff who I currently work with, and who I have had the privilege to work with over the years. I am very blessed to work with individuals who are so committed to helping individual donors be the stewards that God desires them to be.
I truly believe that we have one of the finest Boards of Directors in this country. Men and women who are truly committed to the work of Jesus Christ in His Church through the CCFESD.
What were your favorite projects that you worked on? Why?
The building of the Broom Tree Retreat Center. I can still remember receiving a phone call from Pastor Don, and his wife Helen, Berheim. He called three times over two years encouraging Bishop Carlson and the Diocese of SF to purchase the Broom Tree Renewal Center. We politely told him each time that we didn’t have money to purchase it. When one of our former board members heard
about this, he called me one Saturday afternoon and simply asked if he gave us the money to purchase Broom Tree would the Diocese turn it into a Catholic retreat center? We purchased it and shortly after held a CCFESD board meeting on site. The board members and other individuals rallied behind Bishop Carlson, offering their individual gifts and the rest is history. Broom Tree now serves thousands of retreatants every year, with hundreds of seminarians and priests from around the country doing 30-day silent retreats. It’s having a tremendous impact on our Church – and personally, I was able to go on a retreat with my 90-year-old dad, my brother, and my son!
Being a part of the restoration of the Cathedral was a humbling, inspiring, incredible project. When Bishop Paul Swain arrived from Madison, WI, where he witnessed the destruction of their cathedral by fire, he took on with urgency the completion of the most complex phase in the restoration of our Cathedral - securing the infrastructure and beautifying the interior. And now I've been able to witness the "evangelist in stone" charism of the Cathedral as it attracts people from all geographies and walks of life. I’m still in awe of its beauty and sacredness. God is present in this holy place that is a civic landmark and the “Mother Church” of our Diocese. And just this fall we were privileged to help Fr. Morgan raise over $10M for the next phase that will allow the priests to move back into the rectory, provide a fully functioning organ that will last for hundreds of years, and endowments for sustainable funding for music and liturgy.
Bishop Dudley Hospitality House. The city of Sioux Falls needed someone to take the lead in addressing the growing homeless population in the region. Bishop Swain announced the effort in February and simultaneously we developed a collaborative plan and the funding, miraculously welcoming the first homeless guests 11 months later. As a champion for the most vulnerable, I'm confident that Bishop Dudley approves.
Mater Ecclesiae Monastery for Eucharistic adoration and intercessory prayer. I recall Bishop Carlson coming home from a retreat at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. He mentioned meeting a group of Sisters who were dedicated to Eucharistic adoration and praying for the Bishop, priests, and people of the Diocese where they live. With his appreciation for the power of prayer, he invited the Perpetual Adoration Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to consider setting up a community in the Diocese of Sioux Falls. Six months later the first Adoration Sisters arrived and five years ago we were able to build a permanent home on the campus of our Cathedral.
What are some of the moments that you will remember the most?
Journey to Holiness and Our Legacy of Faith Celebrations. Celebrating our Catholic faith with these large Diocesan weekend gatherings was amazing. The culmination of each was the celebration of the Eucharist with a parade of parishes with thousands of faithful packed into the Arena. I will always remember our special celebration when, in gratitude for the gift of our Catholic faith, 153 families established “Our Legacy of Faith” endowments valued at a total of $2.6M for a variety of parishes, schools, and Diocesan ministries that they designated.
I remember well the relief and joy of the parishioner who funded endowments through his estate that now annually contribute $60,000 to one of our Newman Centers to help pay for a FOCUS missionary team, pay for the education and formation of one seminarian a year, and annually helps to fund a staff position at Broom Tree. He was so relieved to know that we could handle such a gift - and do it with Catholic values.
Teachers of Excellence. One of the most enjoyable projects has been helping a donor set up an endowment that annually recognizes ten "Teachers of Excellence" at the Bishop O'Gorman Catholic Schools with a $10,000 check – and provides a special meal for all the staff and faculty to kick off the new school year.
What is one of the most difficult challenges that you faced in your time with the CCFESD?
Two come to mind. The first was when Bishop Carlson was diagnosed with bladder cancer and he underwent two surgeries and treatment in one year. The second was the nearly two years in which we did not have a bishop. It was a reminder of how important it is to have a spiritual shepherd to lead our flock.
Do you have any regrets?
If I could do anything over again, it would be to practice better work-home life balance. I’ve learned that my most important identity is not as President of the CCFESD but as a husband and father. Related to this, I wish I would have prayed and trusted the Lord more.
What’s one thing that you look forward to in the CCFESD’s future?
Even though by almost all standards we’ve been successful, we still have a long way to go in reaching all the people of our Diocese in a meaningful, engaging way that encourages them to consider treating the Church and charity like one of their children in their estate plan. We have received and expect to receive a total of 471 charitable estate gifts. With 35,000 Catholic households in East River South Dakota, we still have a long way to go. The CCFESD has a terrific team led by incoming President/CEO Tony Menke. The future is full of hope.
Any final thoughts that you would like to share?
I am so very blessed to work for the CCFESD, with each of our donors and the beneficiaries that they support. As I look forward to transitioning to my next phase as "President Emeritus" it reminds me of one of my favorite sayings, "I know not what the future holds, but I know WHO holds the future!"