Fr. William David Willett, a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro, passed away on April 20, 2016 at the age of 69.
Fr. Willett spent many years serving as a dedicated military chaplain – a vocation that took him across the ocean and far from his close-knit Fancy Farm community, and far from the diocese he called home.
Nevertheless, through prayer and written correspondence, he strove to remain close in spirit to the place that had formed him.
Fr. Willett was born on June 29, 1946, and raised in the agricultural community of Fancy Farm, where his parents and eight other siblings were closely connected to the local parish of St. Jerome. This hardworking family of farmers grew tobacco and corn and operated a small dairy, beef and pig business.
A product of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth education, David Willett graduated from Murray State University with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and business. He joined the Army in 1967 as an infantryman and served in the Vietnam War with the 2 BN 8th CAV, 1st Calvary Division as a squad leader.
David Willett was wounded in Vietnam, and was presented with the Purple Heart.
He received a direct commission in the U.S. Army Reserves as a second lieutenant in the staff specialist branch and as a chaplain candidate in 1976.
After studying at St. Mary’s College Seminary and at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, David Willett graduated from with a Master’s of Divinity in 1979, and was ordained a priest on Jan. 13 of that year.
Fr. Willett was also a graduate of the Chaplain Basic and Advanced Courses, Basic Airborne and Jump Master Courses, Air Assault School, School Combined Arms Staff Service School, Command and General Staff College, and the Division Chaplain Course, and Installation Chaplain Course.
Fr. J. Patrick Reynolds, vicar general of the Diocese of Owensboro, gave the homily at Fr. Willett’s April 25 funeral Mass at St. Jerome. He said that Fr. Willett had written extensively to Bishop now-Emeritus John J. McRaith – the bishop of the diocese during the majority of Fr. Willett’s deployment years.
“Many priests of the diocese had little opportunity to know David Willett, as he was away serving as an Army chaplain for so many years,” said Fr. Reynolds in his homily. “But his heart was always in the diocese.”
Fr. Reynolds said there are “hundreds of letters” that Fr. Willett sent to Bishop McRaith over the years, always keeping the bishop informed “about his duties, activities and upcoming assignments.”
Fr. Reynolds added that Bishop McRaith’s letters to Fr. Willett always began with “Thank you so much for the check” – for Fr. Willett had “tithed to the diocese every month.”
This financial assistance had helped lay ministry programs, diocese mission parishes and the building of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Oak Grove, located near Fort Campbell and attended by many retired military families.
Fr. Reynolds, who had not attended seminary with Fr. Willett but had been a close peer as newly-ordained priests, said that Fr. Willett always told Bishop McRaith that “if you need me, you can always call me home.”
“But David also knew the great ministerial needs of military personnel and their families,” said Fr. Reynolds, “since there was such a terrific shortage of priest chaplains.”
Fr. Darrell Venters, pastor of St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm, had served the local Catholic community with Fr. Willett as associate pastor during this past year.
Fr. Willett “knew people and they knew him,” said Fr. Venters of community, which included the farmers who connected with his agricultural heritage, and the retired military personnel who also lived locally.
He described Fr. Willett as “very dedicated to his work” and “in tune with what we needed to do for the people of the parish.”
Heather Mendiola, coordinator of Sacred Heart Catholic Community at Fort Campbell’s Soldiers Chapel, had worked with Fr. Willett for many years, and had kept in touch after his retirement.
After his retirement Fr. Willett would head down to Fort Campbell whenever possible to assist with First Communions and other sacramental needs.
“He’d be so happy to be back at Soldiers Chapel,” she said. “He was never gone; his presence was always there.”
Mendiola spoke of the “huge” retired military personnel community in Oak Grove “that just adored him.”
Once, at a five-hour long UMT (Unit Ministry Team) training at Fort Campbell, Fr. Willett came and spoke to the three priests and 80 lay chaplains about serving as a military chaplain.
“I was in awe just to listen to his story,” said Mendiola.
She said Fr. Willett was a great spiritual support for the military families he served.
“He was a beautiful soul,” she said. “His presence is going to be truly missed.”
Fr. Willett’s assignments included 7th Transportation BN, 2BN 504 INF, attachments to 2 BN 327 INF (101 Airborne DIV) and 1BN 325 INF (82 Airborne DIV) while serving in the Sinai, Egypt, 1 BN 508 INF, and 2 BN 505 INF while assigned to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He then served with the 6 Transportation BN at Ft. Eustis, Virginia, before being moved to Germany to the 1 BN 69 AR at Kitzingen, FRG and then as the 1BDE Chaplain, 3ID at Schweinfurt, Germany.
While stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany he was sent to the Persian Gulf War where he served with the 210th Field Artillery BDE supporting the 2D Armored Calvary Regiment. After returning from Germany he was stationed at Ft. Campbell, KY as the Aviation BDE Chaplain and the deputy 101st Division Chaplain.
He returned to Germany at Illesheim as the 11 Aviation Regiment Chaplain where that unit was deployed to Bosnia for eight months. Returning from Bosnia, Fr. Willett was assigned as the 410 BSB Chaplain before returning to the states at FORSCOM, Fort Hood in June 2000 and served as the Deputy Command COSCOM Chaplain and deputy Garrison Chaplain in Post Chapel as OIC.
In January 2002 he was assigned as the SETAF Command Chaplain in Vicenza, Italy. On February 2, 2004 Fr. Willett was moved to Aberdeen Proving Grounds as the Post and Garrison Command Chaplain.
He retired from active duty in June 2005. However, in June 2009 the Army recalled him for two years – one year in Iraq, and the same day he left that assignment he boarded a C-17 ammunition plane and flew to Afghanistan for another year.
He retired after those two assignments in June 2011.
Fr. Willett’s awards include Bronze Star (2OLC), Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal (4OLC), Air Medal, Armed Forces Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal (1OLC), Army Achievement Medal (2OLC), Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Medal (2), Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (4BS), Southwest Asia Service Medal (2), Armed Services Service Medal, Multinational Forces & Observers Medal (2 Service Periods), Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Kuwait Liberation Medal – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Liberation Medal – Kuwait, NATO Service Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, Master Parachutist Badge and the Air Assault Badge.
Fr. Willett was preceded in death by his parents, Joseph “Harold” and Mary Eula Mills Willett, and his sisters, Marian Willett and Jean M. Willett.
Fr. Willett is survived by his sisters, Judy Johnson of DeMoine, Iowa; Mary Ann Volgelwede of Delaware, Kentucky; and Carol Speed of Fancy Farm, Kentucky; his brothers, Elton Willett of Memphis, Tennessee; Joseph L. Willett of Fancy Farm, Kentucky; and Kenneth Willett of Hoover, Alabama; as well as several nieces and nephews.
His funeral Mass was held at 11 a.m. at St. Jerome Parish in Fancy Farm on April 25, 2016, with Fr. Darrell Venters officiating. Burial with full military honors followed in St. Jerome Cemetery.
Fr. Willett specifically requested no flowers or gifts. Any expressions of sympathy are requested to take the form of donations to St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, 200 Hill Drive, St. Meinrad, IN, 47577.