Our website is made possible by displaying online ads to our visitors.
Please consider supporting us by whitelisting our site.

Pope donates watch to benefit Wisconsin foundation's scholarship program

First slide

GREEN BAY, Wis. — A dream that Doug LaViolette had for well over a year — something he said a few friends told him was "crazy"— has come true.

The Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation received a watch from Pope Francis for its "Once Upon a Time Collection," a watch assemblage that will be auctioned online in 2022 to mark the foundation's 30th anniversary.

All the watches "will have been owned and worn by an individual who has made a difference in the world," according to the foundation. Details on the auction will be released Feb. 2 — or as the foundation states, "2.22.22."

The foundation was established to honor the life of Brian LaViolette, a student at De Pere High School in De Pere, Wis., who died Aug. 8, 1992, at age 15, in a drowning accident. His family promised the day of his funeral that "great things" would be accomplished in his name and memory.

Since then, the foundation has awarded more than 1,000 scholarships to students locally, nationally and internationally.

"Seventy-five percent of all Brian's scholarships honor someone else," LaViolette, foundation president, told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.

The foundation also is known for its support of the military. The reason? LaViolette said the day Brian died a letter had arrived inviting him to visit the U.S. Military Academy in New York.

The donation also came with a photo of Pope Francis wearing the watch. It was accompanied by a letter signed by Father Fabio Salerno, the pope's personal secretary.

It reads, "On behalf of the Holy Father, I am pleased to send you, here enclosed, a watch belonging to him for the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation.

"Pope Francis assures a remembrance for the soul of Brian in his prayers and imparts you, the family LaViolette and the members of the foundation his apostolic blessings, as a pledge of peace in the Lord."

The casual Swatch watch was first introduced in Switzerland in the 1980s. The brand's name is a contraction of "second watch."

"We talk about the importance of time," said LaViolette, but for Pope Francis, he noted, "many material things are not important to him, from what we can tell, and his wristwatch reflects that."

LaViolette and his wife, Renee, are members of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay.

Michael and Rocky Calawerts, members of St. John the Evangelist and St. Agnes parishes in Green Bay, are co-chairs of the $1.5 million capital campaign the foundation has undertaken.

"It was a year ago that I called the bishop (Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay) about his watch request, and I know, because it was Thanksgiving," Calawerts said after a news conference to announce the pope's gift.

Calawerts said he and his wife were drawn to co-chair the capital campaign because it was Aug. 8, 1992, when they learned the "incredible news" they would adopt their first child, Lucas, the same day the LaViolettes lost their son. "We have a connection," he said.

Bishop Ricken sent the formal request to Pope Francis for the watch donation.

The process leading to the request began with an Episcopal priest in Rome. That priest, the Rev. Austin Rios, rector of St. Paul's Within the Walls Church in Rome, was Brian's best friend and was with him and two other friends the day Brian died.

The two first met when Rev. Rios moved as a boy with his family from Texas to De Pere.

"We basically did everything together," he said, speaking remotely from Rome during a Nov. 23 news conference the foundation held about the pope's watch donation. "I always resonated with Brian, because he was never afraid of the deeper questions, and I (wasn't), too. We connected on that level."

Aug. 8, 1992, he said, "I got to share a really meaningful conversation with him, not knowing it would be his last one on earth. ... Our conversation was all about what we wanted to be when we grew up."

Rev. Rios — who was the third recipient of a scholarship from the foundation and has lived in Rome for 10 years — was "so significant in opening the gates to the Vatican originally," LaViolette said during the news conference.

Rev. Rios said he has met Pope Francis several times. "This is a project that resonates with anyone who has a heart," and Pope Francis does, he said. "I praise God for that."

In a statement provided for the news conference, Bishop Ricken described the pope as "man of great generosity."

"I suspect when he heard the story of this unique watch collection being assembled to continue the legacy of providing yearly scholarships, it truly touched his heart," the bishop said.

"Knowing that the foundation was established by the LaViolette family following the tragic loss of their beloved son Brian, only made the request more compelling," he added. "I am blessed to have played a small role in the facilitation of this donation and pray for a successful outcome to the auction."

In addition to the pope's watch, the foundation has acquired watches that were worn by Green Bay Packers kicker and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Jan Stenerud (who began his pro career with the Kansas City Chiefs); Medal of Honor recipient Salvatore Giunta; comedian and philanthropist Jerry Lewis; actor and Korean War Silver Star recipient James McEachin; actress Priscilla Presley; Gen. George Patton‘s grandson George Patton Waters; and Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient Sgt. Donald Jakeway, who parachuted into Normandy, France, on D-Day June 6, 1944.

For more info

More information about the Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation can be found at briansjourney.com.

Barthel writes for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021