Rev. John DiBacco, of St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, retires
The Rev. John DiBacco thought he had his career all mapped out in 1962, the year he graduated from the former Wheeling College with a chemistry degree.
He appeared to have a lock on a federal government job, and a high school in Wisconsin already wanted to hire him as a chemistry teacher.
Of course, his dad, who ran a string of successful businesses back home in Tucker County, kept an open door. Young John could always go to work for him.
Then Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of the parish where the DiBacco family faithfully attended Mass, offered a thought by way of the time bridge.
Aquinas was the 13th century theologian who said Catholic faith can sing harmony — or at least hold a tune — with philosophy and other traditional branches of knowledge.
Not that there still isn’t a divine mystery to it all.
“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary,” Aquinas wrote. “To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
“So I became a priest,” DiBacco said.
And it was just as easy as it was complicated for DiBacco, 79, who retired Wednesday from St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Star City, capping a 53-year career in active ministry.
“Yeah, finally did it,” he said, chuckling. “I’d been threatening to for a while.”
As a young man, he’d also been thinking about the priesthood for a while.
Only one way to know for sure
When DiBacco stepped on the campus of Wheeling College as a freshman in fall 1958, the institution was still finding its infrastructure legs.
The school that became Wheeling Jesuit University, and now, Wheeling University, was founded four years earlier, through a partnership between the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Society for Jesus of the Maryland Province, an active order of Jesuit brothers in the neighboring state.
“Three buildings and lots of Jesuits,” is how the kid from the mountains of Tucker first regarded the place.
DiBacco studied philosophy (in Latin), went to Mass (in Latin) and had a good time socially, even with the academic rigor required of all that Latin and all those equations in Chem Lab.
He found out one could seriously do good works, while not taking one’s self too seriously, as he watched the Rev. William Troy go about his day-to-day.
Troy was an energetic Jesuit priest who was president of the school.
Whatever the event, be it an official social function or a house party, Troy would be there.
If you wanted to see him, you didn’t make an appointment — you walked through the open door of his office.
More often than not, you’d see this president driving himself around in a rusted-out, rattle-trap maintenance truck.
He spearheaded the construction of new buildings on campus while making himself known in the community, as he worked on several outreach causes across Wheeling and the region.
That sense of joyful purpose kept tapping DiBacco on the shoulder. He was a good chemistry student, but he was a good Catholic, too.
And the soon-to-be graduate had been doing some serious thinking when he showed up in the president’s office that one afternoon.
“So I talked to Father Troy, and I said, ‘I think I want to do what you’re doing.’ ”
The priest and president told him he’d never know for sure unless he went to the seminary.
DiBacco did, in Baltimore.
Five years later, with his proud dad in the front pew, he went back to St. Thomas Aquinas in Tucker County to say his first Mass as an ordained priest on May 13, 1967.
A shepherd’s duties
It didn’t take long for 2020 to get here, he said.
There were appointments to Martinsburg, Wheeling, Clarksburg and Morgantown, where he served at the former St. Theresa’s before landing in Star City.
Baptisms, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
Wedding Masses and Funeral Masses, too.
“You get attached,” he said.
Especially in Morgantown, he said, where he spent 27 years, all told, of his priesthood. He’ll be a University City retiree, he said.
In 1975, he helped found Christian Help in Morgantown, and is heartened, he said, that the organization is still doing good work here.
He was equally heartened by the parishioners of St. Mary’s five years ago when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
At St. Mary’s, everyone stepped in to help the ailing priest, especially during those services when he was saying Mass while weakened by the chemotherapy.
Today, he said, he’s successfully managing his illness while looking forward to his 80th birthday in November.
“A lot of good people here got me through it,” he said. “They gave me hope.”
That word, “hope,” has both weight and lightness, in his vocabulary.
Of the coronavirus — and being Catholic in West Virginia
DiBacco is hopeful the country and the world will eventually crawl out from under the shadow of COVID-19.
“I think we opened back up too soon,” he said.
Still, he said, people are tenacious.
Add the Catholics of West Virginia to that list, he said, especially in light of the recent scandal in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, the state’s lone Catholic diocese.
That scandal, over charges of lavish spending and sexual impropriety, led to the ouster of now-former Bishop Michael Bransfield, whom DiBacco definitely did not count as a friend.
“Yeah, we never did get along,” DiBacco said.
“He had no concept of what it really means to be a priest.”
In turn, he appreciates the current work of Bishop Mark Brennan, Bransfield’s replacement.
“I think he’s a decent man,” DiBacco said.
“He inherited a bad situation, but before the pandemic, he was everywhere in the diocese, going out to the churches and actually meeting people.”
Can one truly go to church and worship communally in the age of COVID-19?
“We may never come back to where we were,” he said. “And maybe you like settling in and watching Mass on TV with your coffee.”
Hey, he said, chuckling again, faith is faith, right?
As Thomas Aquinas said, no explanation necessary.