John Wells attended his last Saint Francis Community Services Board of Directors meeting in May (2015), ending more than 50 years of service to the ministry he says gave him the happiest years of his life. On May 29th, the Board of Directors recognized his contributions with the designation “Board Member Emeritus.”
Wells’ service to Saint Francis began in 1961, when as a young man in his early 20s, he joined the staff at the Ellsworth unit. He worked in Ellsworth about four years before traveling with his friend and mentor, Fr. Peter Francis, to Lake Placid, New York, where they established Camelot, a residential facility for boys. Wells stayed in New York for several years, eventually returning to Kansas as the associate national director of Saint Francis. Later, he served as interim CEO for 15 months (1980-1981) while the Board of Directors conducted a search for a new priest to lead Saint Francis, following the retirement of The Rev. Dr. William E. Craig.
As the effective head of Saint Francis, Wells wanted to ensure a smooth transition, so he decided to leave Saint Francis when The Rev. Canon N. Kenneth Yates assumed leadership in 1981.
He had another reason, too.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” he says. “But, we were missionaries; we couldn’t make any money, and I had two kids getting ready to go into high school. My first job away from Saint Francis doubled my salary; within two years, it quadrupled. I didn’t want to leave, but at least that took some of the edge off. My wife said, though, that I was never the same after I left Saint Francis.”
New ways to serve
After leaving Saint Francis, he built a career in senior living services, running retirement communities. He worked 11 years for Presbyterian Manors of Mid-America, then managed Larksfield Place in Wichita for 19 years, retiring about 10 years ago. His heart was never far from Saint Francis, though.
“Off and on, I’ve always done anything they asked me to,” he says. “If they needed a speaker in Wichita or help raising funds, I’d go help. My involvement has always been pretty regular.”
Sometime in the early 1990s, he received a call from Saint Francis president, The Rev. Cannon Phillip J. Rapp, inviting him to lunch.
“Well, when anybody from Saint Francis calls, I’m there. So, I drove to Salina and he asked me if I would consider coming back to Saint Francis as a board member.”
He said yes and served on the board a couple years before stepping down in 1995.
He continued to volunteer his services and support Saint Francis financially, when a chance encounter with The Very Rev. Edward Fellhauer at a funeral led to a consulting position with Saint Francis. Fr. Ed wanted to expand service delivery to children and families and asked Wells to explore opportunities in western Kansas. Before long, Fr. Ed had convinced him to rejoin the Board of Directors where he has served since 2006.
Over the years, he’s seen Saint Francis grow from a residential ministry for boys to a multi-service ministry serving children and families through a wide range of programs and services.
“It’s the second most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do – leaving now,” he says. “I feel we are just on the verge of taking the most exciting path Saint Francis has ever taken. I’m so happy, but it makes me really sad that I won’t be a part of it.”
Many years ago, back in Ellsworth, John Wells used to train new employees. He already knew well the draw Saint Francis holds for those who want to serve, give hope, and help others get a fair shot at life. He would tell those new employees that if Saint Francis could keep them for 18 months, Saint Francis would have them for life.
“Saint Francis gets in your blood,” he says. “Once you’re hooked, it’s hard to wiggle off.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Hi-Lites. John Wells passed away in 2019.