Editor’s Note: Most residents of Idyllwild call it a special place — special because of its people. We’re expanding our artist series to include a broader segment of those residents whose contributions to Idyllwild make it a better place.
Father Dan Rondeau, vicar of St. Hugh’s Episcopal Church in Idyllwild, knew early on that he wanted to help heal others. He did not know how greatly his life would change when, as he faced death, others fought to heal him. He could also not foresee how often his early resolves would be tested and his life journey would be altered.
Born in Minnesota and raised in San Diego, Dan Rondeau knew healing was his life’s path. “While in high school I had decided to become a doctor,” he said. “I knew I wanted to help others, to heal others.” He entered San Diego State as a pre-med/biology major. Then, in the first of series of serendipitous turns that would change his path, he spent a summer between sophomore and junior years volunteering for San Diego-based Sisters of Social Service. “College students hung out with elementary and pre-teen kids from some of San Diego’s poorest areas,” Rondeau recalled. “It was my first experience with spiritual, psychic and social injuries that a doctor could not fix. I thought, during this summer, that maybe this is the healing I am called to do.”
Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, in what he described as a “good Catholic family,” Rondeau had earlier felt the call to enter the priesthood, but had not acted on it. But after that pivotal summer, and having experienced healing in a different form, he responded to the call to spiritual service.
At the end of his junior year at San Diego State, he was accepted into seminary at the University of San Diego. During his two years at seminary in San Diego, Rondeau was fast-tracked for advancement. He was sent to seminary in Rome at the Gregorian University, staffed by Jesuits. Classmates included two men who are now Cardinals within the church, Timothy Dolan (New York) and Daniel DiNardo (Houston/Galveston). Few American seminarians are accorded the honor of studying in Rome, and Rondeau’s life was unfolding with great promise. He was ordained a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church in 1975.
But in a second crossroads moment, Rondeau began to struggle with the Catholic Church requirement for priestly celibacy. “I took a year off in 1976,” he recalled. “I had to examine whether I could live it, this life with this requirement, whether I could forgo being a husband and a father.”
“I got a job teaching fifth grade at St. Adelaide’s School in Highland [Ca.] and during that year I settled on truly being called to be a priest. I needed to respond to God. In February 1977, I was ordained a priest and assigned to St. John of the Cross Church in Lemon Grove.”
With this posting, Rondeau’s path would again change unexpectedly. “St. John had a school attached,” he recalled. “Carol Tripoli was the fifth-grade teacher and vice principal and I was associate pastor. Then the principal of the school died unexpectedly, Carol became principal, and because the pastor was in Ireland, I was now involved in running the parish of 4,000 families and the school. In the course of the transition, the new responsibilities, and many business meetings with Carol, I fell in love.”
Rondeau said it tested his faith, his courage, and exposed him to censure from colleagues, but in the end he decided to follow his heart.
“I found I had a dual calling – to
follow God and to follow my heart.”
Rondeau left the Roman Catholic priesthood. In 1980 he and Carol married. In 1983 he earned a master’s degree in social work from San Diego State. “I thought, with the degree I could get to do many of the things I could have done as a priest, healing spiritual and psychic wounds.”
In 1983, he was offered a job as a youth minister within the Episcopal Church, with the requirement that he complete a semester of study at the Bloy House Episcopal Theological School in Claremont. Rondeau already had degrees from the Catholic seminary in Rome that were the equivalent of a master’s degree in divinity.
That year, Rondeau was “received” into the Episcopal Church ministry. He quickly advanced though a series of postings that eventually led in 1993 to St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, a prestigious parish of which President Gerald and Betty Ford were members. Rondeau remained at St. Margaret’s for 15 years, until 2008, serving at various times as rector and associate rector. “I played a big part in the growth of the church,” said Rondeau. “During that time a school was built, and we added a middle school. I also served as chaplain of the school.”
Then, once again, Rondeau’s life would change dramatically and unexpectedly. An avid hiker, and in top physical shape, Rondeau was meeting new parents at St. Margaret’s school on a Friday in October, 2008. “We had a great welcoming party,” he recalled. On Saturday morning his feet were numb. He thought nothing of it and continued to work. At the end of Saturday the numbness had moved up to his knees. On Sunday morning when it had progressed to his waist, he told Carol he thought he needed to see a doctor. An initial diagnosis of Guillian-Barre syndrome was done without the prescribed lumbar puncture and Rondeau was sent home. Guillian-Barre is a very rare disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves, and recovery rates are generally high. But by Monday morning, he could not stand. He was hospitalized and within days was unconscious. Rondeau describes it as an eight month “wilderness” of unconsciousness in which he was kept alive by a ventilator and feeding tube.
“After initial treatment at Eisenhower showed no improvement, I was consigned to Kindred Hospital in Ontario, ostensibly to be weaned off the ventilator but actually to be warehoused to slowly die.
“Carol and our sons fought with the insurance companies to get second opinions or to get me transferred to another hospital. They succeeded in getting my case before a state of California independent review board who ordered Blue Cross/Blue Shield to have me transferred to UCLA Medical Center.” While there, doctors diagnosed Rondeau, not with Guillian-Barre, but with Mononeuritis Multiplex. “It has similar symptoms but different treatment protocols,” said Rondeau. “I began to recover. I regained consciousness June 1, 2009, transferred to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, and was discharged Nov. 6, 2009, more than a year after becoming sick.”
Rondeau said during his months of unconsciousness he dreamed — dreams in which he was fearful for his wife and sons’ welfare. Then, in his dreams, he remembered thinking that now he would die and, if that was as it must be, he was ready. But he remembered feeling a presence, a peaceful and calm presence, that told him he would not die, “‘not this day or this way.’ I trusted this and went to sleep.”
After physical rehabilitation and discharge from the hospital, serendipity again intervened. Retiring from the ministry in 2009, he was contacted to be a spiritual counselor by a parishioner of St. Hugh’s in Idyllwild. “Carol and I had always thought we would like to live in the mountains,” he said. In 2011 he began coming to St. Hugh’s to conduct Eucharist once a month for the small mountain congregation. In January, 2014, he became St. Hugh’s vicar and an Idyllwild resident.
Called to heal and serve others, Rondeau recovered from near death when his family fought to find healing for him. He awakened from an unconscious wilderness when a gentle reassuring presence told him he would live. He resumed his mission to heal others in what he calls a “holy” environment – Idyllwild. “My hope is that this congregation [St. Hugh’s] will reconnect with the community and be a place of healing and peace within this holy place of Idyllwild – a place of outreach to other communities of faith, for them to join us in initiatives to heal the community.”
Rondeau is especially gratified by the response from the community to the annual Service of Solace at St. Hugh’s that has joined other faith traditions, a mission to the elderly in which other Idyllwild churches also participate, and the Gender Based Symposium of which he is co-chair. “I want St. Hugh’s to be a place to bring people together, to heal, to share and to grow.”