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Jubilarian Profile: Missionary, Chaplain Marks 50 Years Professed

This is the ninth in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2010. The last issue of HNP Today featured Anthony Carrozzo, OFM

PHILADELPHIA — William DeBiase, OFM, of St. Francis Inn here, a former Japanese missionary for almost 30 years, says that Japan will always hold a special place in his heart, but the Province is home.

What is especially homey about the Province? “The whole thing,” he said. “It’s home. What’s special about anyone’s home? You can take the good and the bad because it’s home.”

Bill, who is marking 50 years as a friar this summer, took time out from a busy schedule recently to talk to HNP Today about his ministry as he approaches his jubilee. He spoke by phone to us, while catching his breath at the Juniper Friary in Philly between trips to Florida and Kansas, as a preacher for Food for the Poor, a relief agency serving the Caribbean and Latin America, which he sees as part of his Ministry of the Word role.

Is he retired? “From what?” jokes the affable friar. “That time will come, but for my age, I have to be thankful that I can still do these things.”

At 78, Bill, works at the Inn, ministering as a part-time chaplain at the Lourdes Medical Center in nearby Burlington, N.J., traveling for Food for the Poor, and embracing the Internet as a frequent blogger and Facebook user. “I don’t really know what retirement entails. Some will say I’m retired now. But at my age, I certainly have enough to do.”

Neither Retired nor Tired
With such an active schedule, it would be hard to consider Bill retired.

His ministry began in 1966 in Japan, after deciding as a cleric that he wanted to be a missionary. After three years of Japanese language school, he was initially assigned to care for a small parish in the mountains, and, later, a mid-size church. “It was me and 50,000 Japanese,” he joked. He felt called to Japan after being a GI there during the Korean War. “I always felt a tug to return back there.”

What was he doing in Japan? “Funny you should ask,” he laughed. “The Provincials always asked me the same thing. I would get up in the morning, open the church, and close the church at night.”

On a serious note, Bill said the ministry challenges were very different in Japan, especially in 1976 when he was transferred to the international Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo, a ministry that welcomed 800 to 1,000 parishioners on a Sunday.

Most of the parishioners were expatriates, he said, and his ministry included trying to make them feel at home. Expats often looked to the church for their roots, more so than when they were back home. “Especially for the women,” he said. The guys’ lives didn’t change that much. They got up and went to work, just like home. But the women, on the other hand, had to contend with a new language and daily life. It was much more difficult. I helped them adjust and to manage stress.”

But the people, he said, made all the challenges worthwhile.

In 1994, Bill left Japan for India to work with lepers, but only for a short time because he became sick. He soon was asked by the Province to minister in the Holy Land, which needed a priest who spoke Japanese. For two years, he was attached to the Commissariat of the Holy Land, and served as a pilgrim guide, editor of a magazine, and pastor of a small parish.

Return to the States
In 1996, he returned to the States, after being away for 30 years. “That’s a long time,” he recalls. The transition back is still difficult. “There’s a different mentality in the States, everything has to be done right now. It’s a ‘now’ sort of thing; which is difficult to articulate.” Another difference between East and West, he said, is bluntness. “Western people have a tendency to say what’s on their minds. Asians are more reluctant. But that’s a good thing.”

When Bill returned home, he was first assigned to Siena College in Upstate New York, where he worked with students and loved it. With a master’s degree from Siena in secondary education administration, and his bachelor’s from St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., it was a good fit. He attended seminary at Callicoon, N.Y. He also worked with the Filipino community in nearby Albany, and ministered at the Province’s St. Francis Chapel in a busy shopping mall in Colonie.

Shortly after, he was asked to go to St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. “Most of the good things in my life have happened by accident,” he said, and this move was one of them. When he got the letter that the Province sends out every three years to survey friars about their current ministry and whether they want a transfer, Bill answered that he was happy. But he added a caveat: He wasn’t necessarily interested in moving, but if he was needed elsewhere, he would go.

In 2002, the Province asked him to help Charles Finnegan, OFM, start a retreat center in inner city Philadephia. While the retreat center never took shape as planned, Bill, by then a member of the Province’s Ministry of the Word, stayed in Philly.

Social Media Fan
One of his latest ventures is using the Internet and social media, which he calls, “a great tool for evangelization.” With a weekly blog and more than 150 friends on Facebook, Bill said he is reaching out to people in new ways. He said he gets ideas for blog topics by brainstorming, and includes weekly meditations. A recent blog posting discussed Dorothy Day.

“I don’t know if I use the Internet to the highest capability, but I can see that I’m touching people. I can sit in my room and press a button and reach 400 or 500 people. It’s like a Sunday sermon. Whether they’re listening to it is not my concern, but I’m reaching them.”

It’s ironic that Bill embraced technology so well, since, he jokingly says, he hates the 21st century. “I want to go back to the mid 20th century. Like 1948 or 1950, when telephones didn’t cut off; people were nice; you called the doctor and he could take you; if you had a hangnail you didn’t have to go to 15 specialists to take care of it; when you made a call you got someone instead of a stupid machine.”

But he will admit that having technology, most of which he can use himself, at his fingertips is helpful. He likes to embed links in his blog, which is called, simply, “Franciscan,” of information and video that he finds in his Internet research. He’s even considering making his own videos.

“I see the Internet as a very important component of my ministry. It’s a beautiful tool. For someone who doesn’t like the 21st century, I’m doing all right.”

He is also doing quite well with his latest hobby — baking bread.

“I never had time to cultivate a hobby; I had a lot of interests, but not a lot of time.” He bakes bread to serve to volunteers and staff at the Inn and in the hospital chaplain office. His favorites are honey whole wheat, rustic Italian and a cinnamon bread, which he serves with coffee. “It’s nothing fancy, but as my mother used to say, ‘It keeps me off the street corners.’”

He also manages to visit his native New York City approximately every six weeks to visit his brother and sister-in-law, nieces and nephews. “I’m the reason for everyone getting together.”

Bill has returned to Japan twice since 1996.

His Blog Profile
His profile on “Franciscan” gives insight on his personality: “It really is about time I got to do this profile. Because of the nature of the animal, there are going to be a lot of ‘I’s,’ please excuse. I was born in NYC many years ago. I entered the Franciscan Order, Holy Name Province, in July 1960. Ordained a Franciscan priest in 1966. Shortly after ordination, I was sent to Japan where I spent the next glorious 28 years working as missionary. In 1994 I went to India to work with lepers; unfortunately, I got sick and had to cut my stay short. The next stop was the Holy Land. Two more very happy years. Finally, after 30 years out of the country, I returned to the States. My first posting was to a chapel in a shopping mall outside of Albany, N.Y. In my spare time, I worked with the Filipino community in Albany, and also with the collegiates at Siena College. In 2002, I was transfered to St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen run by the Franciscans of the Holy Name Province.”

Perhaps Bill best sums up his 50-year ministry in his own words: “I’m thankful I’m a member of Holy Name Province. They’ve managed to keep me out of jail for 50 years.”

Bill will be commemorated with nine other golden jubilarians at the Province’s annual jubilee celebration on June 24.

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Holy Name Province. Upcoming issues of HNP Today will feature Fintan Duffy, OFM, and Bishop Capistran Heim, OFM.