The DeBiase family in 2014 in front of Bill's childhood home, taking an annual Christmas photo after Mass. Bill is on the right.

My Uncle, the Franciscan Priest – An Example of Selflessness

Sean DeBiase Features, Home Page – News

This installment of Franciscan Influences, a series published by HNP Today since 2010, is written by the great-nephew of a friar who died a year ago. It reflects on the lessons he learned at family gatherings and through one-on-one conversations and describes his great-uncle’s passion to bring out the goodness of the world. The previous installment was written by Megeen White Testa about her experience with Franciscan Mission Service.

When you’re a little kid, you get excited about anything a grown-up tells you is a surprise – even if you know what the “surprise” is. As a youngster, every few months I’d be woken up and told we had to go to my grandparents for a surprise. I never needed an excuse to visit Lala – as I affectionately called my grandmother – and Gramps since they had a dog and we didn’t. But I can remember making it to 4th or 5th grade before I realized that the Saturday morning surprise was always the same. It meant William DeBiase, OFM, my grandfather’s brother, had taken the train into town and was waiting to have breakfast. Lala would always make blueberry muffins and leave a couple of plain for me since my childhood self hated anything associated with being healthy. In fact, Uncle Bill called me “The Oreo Kid” because I was so hyper as a child. Not once in my life did I call him William. And the only time I ever called him “Father” would be during the living room confessions or Mass he would offer when in town. To me, he was always just Uncle Bill.

The author as a child with his Uncle Bill outside the family home in Queens. (Photo courtesy of Sean DeBiase)

I think about Uncle Bill a lot, especially now – around the time that he died last year. I recall sitting at family gatherings, half asleep, listening to him and my grandfather tell stories about growing up in the house that my grandparents still owned – and proudly owned until my grandmother’s passing in 2017. Sometimes, he would come to town mid-week and we’d have an excuse to have family dinner on a Tuesday. Uncle Bill was an active, sturdy man who had enough gas in his tank to run around with me well into his 70s. He once ended a family football game by bruising my 9-year-old ribs. In his heyday, he was a stud fullback among other athletic talents. After laying me out, he cheered me up by letting me yank his elastic suspenders and giggle as they slapped back against his still-built chest.

My uncle served as a machine gunner in the 7th Infantry during The Korean Conflict and was wounded during the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Though hurt, he carried his fallen brothers to safety, an image that is featured on the Korean War Memorial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For his actions in combat, he received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. I wish I could give more detail regarding his service to our nation, but he rarely spoke of his experiences. He was a humble man who never wanted glory for himself in any way, shape, or form. I vividly remember the first time I saw him take off his shirt to swim. The shrapnel scars on his body made a lasting impression on me. The humility my uncle showed so easily is an attribute I hope to instill in my own children someday. I have always speculated about the role that my uncle’s military service played in his vocation.

From all family accounts, Uncle Bill changed after the war. According to my grandfather, his brother attended Mass daily upon his return from the service. He had a serious girlfriend when he left for Korea, but broke off the relationship to follow God’s call. On July 14, 1959, he was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, New Jersey, where he professed his first vows one year later. On Aug. 22, 1963, he professed his final vows, and on March 5, 1966, he was ordained to the priesthood at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C. As I reviewed his vocational history, I could not help but notice that my uncle served God in many locations during his nearly 60 years of ministry.

Consistency, Cultures, and Clapton
Like all Franciscans, Uncle Bill took a vow to live in poverty. He took that vow seriously and did what he could to impart his selfless philosophy on us all. From what I gather, he was quite the renaissance man throughout his ministry – being truly open to what God was asking of him at any given time. While serving the people of Tokyo in missionary service, my uncle worked to combat human trafficking, among other roles. He also taught me how to use chopsticks and would give us all foot rubs with the Japanese massage techniques he learned during his 28 years there. After a short assignment in the Holy Land, he came home to serve at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. Education was a priority for my uncle, as was staying youthful. During a visit to Siena, I was shocked by how many college kids took the time to say “hi” to my uncle while we were walking on campus.

Bill DeBiase at MetLife Stadium in 2015 during a warm-up session of  the Washington Redskins. (Photo courtesy of the author)

When he moved to West Philadelphia, I started calling him “The Fresh Prince” after the tv show whose main character grew up there. Uncle Bill loved the people of Philadelphia and even became a de facto Phillies fan, probably partly out of fear for what might happen to him if they knew he was a New York Mets fan at heart. He was also a diehard Washington Redskins fan, and once had the opportunity to be on the field with his beloved team for warmups. I would have loved to hear my uncle’s take on Washington’s current name conundrum, as social justice and sports were two of his favorite topics. He was committed to immersing himself in the cultures in which he lived. Later in life, Uncle Bill utilized social media to deliver homilies to his friends around the globe. He even developed an interest in baking. His specialty was cinnamon soda bread, but what my uncle really saw in baking was another opportunity to make others smile.

When he arrived home from the Holy Land, Tokyo, or wherever he was serving, our family celebrated as if he was the prodigal son. However, to me, Uncle Bill was much more comparable to a saint than a lost son. He was the salt of the Earth.

Uncle Bill was the epitome of a consistent demeanor. He would greet everyone with a loud, jolly “hiya,” followed by a myriad of questions about your life. Forget about his life as a decorated member of the service. I cannot recall my uncle ever talking about himself. As I got older and began to love rock ‘n’ roll, my dad told me that Uncle Bill knew Eric Clapton from his time in Tokyo. There was only one Catholic church in Tokyo, and Mr. Clapton found my uncle there while seeking spiritual guidance while on tour. When I asked my uncle about that musical hero of mine, all he told me was, “Eric is a fine young man,” before reverting the conversation back to my studies or athletics.

Eric Clapton was not the only noteworthy person my uncle befriended throughout his ministry. He was close friends with Baseball Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio, as well as actress Brooke Shields. He knew the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, and once called in a favor to get my father tickets to Tom Seaver Day at Shea Stadium. He also brought the rest of the family to meet his friend Mother Teresa, with whom he served lepers in Calcutta. People often talk about being selfless and those who do random acts of kindness. In so many ways, my uncle was the definition of those qualities. He accomplished so much with not much to show for it beyond the impression that he made on countless individuals around the globe.

Example of Humility and Service
For the last years of his life, Uncle Bill was cared for by the incredible laypeople who ran the Franciscan homes where he was living. As he began to slow down, I remember a sense of joy coming over me, as my uncle was finally being cared for, rather than doing the caring. However, he never stopped living simply. One Saturday when my wife and I visited, I offered to bring him any lunch he wanted. Rather than requesting a big steak or a nice Italian meal from a high-end restaurant, he asked for a BLT sandwich. To me, this microscopic moment sums up Uncle Bill’s life so perfectly. Many people (including me, at times) would look at my uncle and see a man who had “nothing.” In reality, he had everything – God, family, and an undying passion to bring out the goodness this world has to offer.

Bill, left, at the wedding of his great-nephew in 2015. (Photo courtesy of the author)

My last conversation with my uncle came in March of last year, just before his death. For the six years that it took me to complete my master’s degree (plus the two years I neglected the task), my uncle’s focus was on guiding me and insisting on the importance of my own education. He was my Mr. Miyagi. During that final phone conversation, I was able to deliver him the news that he so wanted to hear – that I would graduate in May with my master’s in secondary education.

Although I found his nagging to be incredibly annoying, he was right all along. I would be a liar if I completed this paragraph without acknowledging that a major reason that I am a teacher is the example of service that my uncle set for me. The fulfillment one can obtain from guiding and caring for others is a realization I may have never come to if not for him.

As I look back at the more than 29 years I shared this earth with my uncle, I’m grateful for many things – every surprise visit, every family Mass in the living room, every ride I gave him to the train, and every time he let me pull his suspenders. I cannot help but consider the times I was arrogant and tried to ignore the tasks of selflessness that Uncle Bill challenged me to achieve. Much like a coach trying to get the most out of his players, my uncle was never afraid to ask the hard questions and push each one of us to be our best. I’ll miss those impromptu pep talks.

My uncle was a man dedicated to God and His people. Although he was full of surprises and knowledge, one fact that will be a surprise to none is that Uncle Bill – Fr. Bill – is in eternal splendor with God, his parents, and siblings, praying for each and every one of us through his intercession. And being a betting man, myself, I’m willing to wager he has built up a little clout with God over 88 years as His servant.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon him.

— Sean DeBiase grew up in Middle Village, New York – three blocks from where his uncle grew up – and currently lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he teaches history. His father, a deacon and a nephew of Bill DeBiase, OFM, has planned a homily to deliver at a memorial Mass for their beloved relative on a date still to be determined.

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