Ministry is ‘hands and feet and voice’ for addicts

A priest, a nun and an attorney were well settled into their life’s work when, as they tell it, God brought them together and called them in directions they never expected.

Father Tim Kruthaupt was a late vocation priest in the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Sister Donna Marie Palya, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, spent 45 years in Catholic school education. And Lou Wagner was an attorney in Pittsburgh.

From those varied backgrounds and a chain of encounters, they set the wheels in motion to found SpiritLife, Inc., a faith-based nondenominational addiction treatment facility in the rural community of Penn Run.

Since their first client, Gary L., walked up the sidewalk on Oct. 5, 2015, looking for help, the center has served more than 2,000 men and women who are seeking healing from their addictions and hope for their futures.

According to, more than 72,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses in 2017.

“The Church is called to respond to this,” Father Kruthaupt said. “We feel that we can be the hands and feet and voice in the midst of this horrific illness of addiction.”

Three paths to SpiritLife

SpiritLife goes beyond providing medically competent, appropriate treatment. The 208-acre campus is in a remote area with woods, ponds, trails and a 20-acre lake. There’s a feeling of peace, and, as Sister Donna Marie said, “This is holy ground.” She calls it a miracle how a nun, a priest and an attorney got together to make it happen.

“We believe it was God’s plan,” she said.

When the facility was honored with the diocese’s 2017 Salt and Light Award, Wagner, who became the executive director, said, “Who could have dreamed that three rolling stones could become the cornerstones of the miracle that has become SpiritLife?”

None of them had planned to open an addiction treatment center.

Father Kruthaupt was busy with parish life. Sister Donna Marie retired from education and was working in the gift shop at St. Vincent Basilica in Latrobe. Wagner’s family was trying to heal from a member’s addiction.

Father Kruthaupt, who had been an attorney with federal law enforcement, was widowed in 1981 and raised his son with his family’s help. He began the permanent diaconate program in 1998 in Maryland, but felt called to the priesthood after a job transfer landed him in southwestern Pennsylvania. He entered St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe several months after taking an early retirement.

A seminary assignment placed him as an assistant chaplain at Torrance State Hospital, where he met Father George Hnatko, the Orthodox chaplain.

“He told me about a place called the Eastern Orthodox Foundation, where they were caring for a lot of people who used to be in the hospital,” Father Kruthaupt said.

At one time Torrance had 3,000 residents, but in a national movement aimed to deinstitutionalize mental health patients, the population dropped to 300. The emerging trend was for outpatient treatment, which often left patients with nowhere to go.

“Father George built a dormitory, and he invited these dear people to come and he would care for them,” Father Kruthaupt said. “From 1966 to 2009, they served 10,800 homeless and indigent people.”

Father Hnatko in 2004 invited him to visit the campus. Father Kruthaupt was moved by how the residents responded to the tranquility of the site and the care they received.

He was 55 when he was ordained in 2007. A couple of years later he learned about the worldwide Cenacolo Community (which means “upper room”) that focuses on work, prayer and spiritual healing for people with addictions. He explored the possibility of having a community is his area.

SpiritLife’s chapel is adorned with Orthodox icons. Courtesy photo

A mission of healing

It was around that time that Father Hnatko sought assistance for his struggling community. In addition to serving the homeless, it had expanded as a personal care home. Father Kruthaupt, then assigned to a nearby parish, stepped in to see what he could do. And so did Sister Donna Marie. The two had worked together when Father Kruthaupt was at Holy Family Parish in Latrobe and she was the school principal.

Meanwhile, Wagner was discouraged by the lack of long-term resources for people with addictions and was trying to implement recovery projects in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He heard about Father Kruthaupt’s interest in the Cenacolo Community, and soon after the two met, they focused instead on leasing the Eastern Orthodox Foundation’s now-closed facility.

“We believed that it was an ideal location for not only inpatient treatment but also as an inpatient residential facility,” Wagner said. “We started working on getting it licensed and credentialed.”

They opened SpiritLife on the feast of St. Faustina, the patron saint of mercy. Her picture hangs in the entrance to the main building.

SpiritLife has 14 beds for detox and 48 beds for those in treatment. Recent financing is being used to remodel and reopen dormitories for expanding programs.

“For most people, it’s not ‘one and done,’” Wagner said. “The national average is that it takes seven inpatient rehabs in order to get six months clean. Recidivism is kind of built into it, and it’s common to see people more than once.”

Clients have daily schedules of counseling in programs under the direction of Dr. VonZell Wade, who is in recovery himself. Family programs are held on weekends, because SpiritLife recognizes that addiction affects the whole family.

Activities include hiking, art, gardening, kayaking, fishing and a golf course that’s also open to the public.

“That lets them know that there are other things in life besides drugs,” Sister Donna Marie said.

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The chapel — a quiet place for reflection and prayer — has beautiful icons from its original construction for the Orthodox faith. A priest from St. Vincent Archabbey comes every Sunday to celebrate Mass, and there are services for other denominations.

Sister Donna Marie does the accounting and payroll and her door is open if people want to talk.

“We don’t push religion down anyone’s throat,” she said. “But we don’t hesitate in having opportunities for prayer. I have had many sessions with beautiful people talking about God, and praying together if they request it. Sometimes I cry with them. There’s a lot of joy in helping and being present.”

Father Kruthaupt considers it a gift that he was able to help launch the center.

“Hopefully we will be able to achieve the mission of SpiritLife, which is healing,” he said.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.