This article is a part of a series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, providing a look back on their ministerial journey, and what they are doing now.The most recent article profiled Francis Soucy, OFM.
BUTLER, N.J. — He may be living at the Holy Name Province retirement house in Butler, but William “Bill” DeBiase, OFM, is writing the sequel of sorts to nearly six decades of work that, in its heyday, included assignments in Japan, India, the Holy Land and, closer to home, Pennsylvania and New York.
His present-day work takes place in more mundane surroundings – at a desk in his cozy room at St. Anthony Friary, where Bill is catching up on one of his favorite pastimes – writing.
It’s not an international parish in Tokyo, or a leprosarium in Calcutta, or even a soup kitchen in Philadelphia – all of which were major stops along Bill’s ministerial journey. But for him, writing is the perfect retirement ministry.
Bill authors a blog in which he shares spiritual insight and a lifetime of stories and faith experiences. Although he prefers face-to-face conversation to blogs and Facebook posts, Bill admits that 21st century technology and social media platforms enable him to reach far more people with a click of the mouse.
Since moving into the retirement house in autumn 2017, Bill has pursued his passion for writing with another project. He is penning “Franciscan Musings” – a series of short publications of contemporary poetic reflections on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Bill plans to cover the entire life of the Franciscan patron by the time he completes the series.
In one reflection, Bill uses the relationship that Francis had with God to illustrate how “people can have fun in their own relationship with God.” In another reflection, he focuses on the responsibility to forgotten people, illustrated through the lifetime that Francis spent caring for the poor, sick and disenfranchised.
Interestingly, Bill doesn’t reference Francis by name in any of the reflections, explaining that “Franciscan Musings” is more about using the life of Francis as a modern-day guide to faith living and spiritual food for thought, than about the saint himself.
With Bill, sometimes the food for thought has been literal. After returning from 30 years of ministries abroad, he landed at St. Francis Inn – the Franciscan soup kitchen in the City of Brotherly Love – where he became quite the bread-maker, figuratively and literally, specializing in loaves of honey whole wheat, rustic Italian and, his personal favorite, cinnamon.
With a little ingenuity and a lot of yeast, Bill decided to use his talents to raise dough for the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry – rolling out of bed every morning at 3 a.m. to bake 300 loaves of bread and deliver the freshly-made goods to nearby, mostly Franciscan, parishes. Shortly into the endeavor, a handful of St. Francis Inn volunteers assisted Bill in the kitchen and accompanied him on delivery runs.
“We had a great deal of fun, although it was a lot of work and long hours, but very rewarding. I had one rule – you couldn’t eat the cinnamon bread without a cup of coffee. It was the perfect combination!” Bill said during an interview at the Butler friary.
Over the course of a few years, Bill’s bread-making enterprise remarkably raised $12,000 for the FVM, the 30-year-old program based in Philadelphia for young adults who serve with friars in inner-city ministries.
Dumb Luck, God and the Holy Spirit
Bill says that most of the good things in his life have happened by accident.
“Dumb luck has always been a guiding light in my life. Of course, I say that jokingly – well, maybe half-jokingly,” he quips, “because we know it’s always by God’s loving hand and the presence of the Holy Spirit that things happen. But the best things have happened to me when I don’t think too much and just act intuitively.”
Such was the case in his decision to become a Franciscan friar. In 1954, after returning from three years of military service in the Korean War as a member of the U.S. Army’s infantry division, Bill was attending pre-law night classes at Fordham University’s Manhattan campus, then located downtown at Broadway and Chambers Street.
He and his friends were outside the building during a break from class when Bill proclaimed that he had come to a career decision – he wanted to be a priest.
“None of my friends were overly surprised. In fact, one friend sensed that something had been going on inside,” he recalled.
His decision to enlist in the Army came in a similar manner – prompted by the fact that the Korean War started on the same day he graduated from Holy Trinity High School in Brooklyn, where he was born in 1932.
“The sound of trolley cars and talk among friends were replaced by the sound of artillery shells and carrying the wounded to an aid station. It was a leap from hanging with friends on the street corner to sharing a fox hole dug into a hillside with guys you were afraid to make friends with because they might not be alive at the end of the day,” Bill said in a recently authored autobiographical manuscript in which he shares personal thoughts and reflections about his life.
The day after announcing to his friends his intention to pursue a religious vocation, Bill contacted the vocation director of Holy Name Province, which turned out to be another intuitive decision.
“My proclivity to the Franciscans was based on a biography I had read about St. Francis. I later learned it was one of the least inspiring books ever written about him,” Bill said. “But lucky for me that I came across that book and thought Francis was a good guy.”
Whether it was dumb luck, an accident, or the Holy Spirit at work, Bill says it was “a great blessing” to land with Holy Name Province.
“I didn’t discern about the Franciscans, I just joined. I can’t imagine life not being a friar,” Bill said. “I have always found a sense of welcoming, and a sense of growth and being challenged. It has been a rich life of ministry that continues even in retirement – because you never really retire from ministry and vocation when you’re a friar.”
He added, “Holy Name Province is a growth-enhancing environment. The Provincial leadership lets you take chances – and that helps you grow in your ministries and it makes you a better friar. Hopefully, they haven’t lost too much hair, or sleep, over the chances I have taken!”
Bill made his first profession in 1960 at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., and was ordained in March 1966 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Washington, D.C. Six months after ordination, he was on a plane bound for Japan, where he would spend the next 28 years as a missionary friar.
“I wanted to be a missionary because spreading the Word to non-believers in a foreign country was very appealing and challenging,” said Bill, who served in small parishes in the countryside during his first decade in Japan before spending 18 years (from 1976 to 1994) at the Franciscan Chapel Center, the large active international parish in the heart of Tokyo that counted local residents, Americans, foreigners and a long list of ambassadors among its congregation.
Bill says his missionary work was more about the Kingdom of God than it was about conversion – with the Kingdom of God defined as going out to people, wherever they were, and helping them through difficulties and sharing God’s love and grace.
“All of those years in Japan, I dealt more with counseling non-Christians than converting them to Catholicism,” Bill said.
From Coffee Shop to Leprosarium to Holy Land
Since the large international parish was in the middle of Tokyo’s entertainment district, Bill launched what he called a “coffee shop” ministry. To connect with those whose workday ended late into the night, Bill would rise at 2 a.m. and bike to the local coffee shop, where he would spend an hour or two conversing over coffee and doughnuts with people who reached out when they realized he was a friar.
“This was just another way to let people feel God’s presence in their lives,” said Bill, who these days does that in a more sedentary way through his blog.
Before returning to the States, his 30 years of ministry abroad were rounded out by working with St. Teresa of Calcutta at a leprosarium in India and serving in the Holy Land.
His desire to care for lepers came from reading about the deep love St. Francis had for lepers. His long hoped-for experience of working among lepers was cut short when he became ill, but not before experiencing a lasting memory.
“You are talking about people who were considered outcasts and who had nothing. They were waiting to die. But I will always remember how they could still laugh and be happy,” he said.
Dumb luck struck again when the Holy Land was seeking a friar who could speak Japanese to communicate with the influx of Japanese tourists. He spent two years as a guide and serving as pastor of a small Filipino parish in Jerusalem before returning to the U.S. in 1996, when he was assigned to the friar team at the St. Francis Chapel mall ministry in Colonie, N.Y.
He also worked with a Filipino community in the Albany region and with students at Siena College in Loudonville until 2002, when he was asked to join another friar on a project in Philadelphia. That led to him spending more than 14 years at St. Francis Inn.
During that time, Bill also worked with Franciscan Ministry of the Word, traveling from Florida to Maryland, and North Dakota to Texas, to give weekend parish missions. He also gave parish missions on behalf of Food for the Poor, an organization that supplies food to families in the Caribbean.
“Bill is a lover of people. His walls are covered with photos of people and faces he has met over his many years of service as a friar – and he can tell you a story about each one of them,” said Michael Duffy, OFM, the guardian at St. Francis Inn. “When he was working at the soup kitchen, Bill would greet each volunteer by name, and with a hug or a handshake.”
Michael continued: “Growing old never slowed him down. Working at the Inn wasn’t enough. Bill volunteered as a hospital chaplain, he traveled the country to raise money for the poor, and he provided spiritual guidance to Secular Franciscan groups. He is always interested in new things and sees life with infinite possibilities. He has been an example of how to grow old gracefully and with hope and optimism,” added Michael, who also shared a little known fact about his brother – a dramatic photo of Bill carrying a wounded soldier is rendered in bronze at Philadelphia’s Korean War Memorial.
As for Bill’s newfound ministries, Michael exclaimed: “Lord help us, when Bill discovered the power of the Internet! He never misses a chance to spread the Gospel, and he enlists technology to make up for his physical limitations and to reach even more people.”
The ministerial whirlwind has calmed, but in addition to keeping active with his writing, Bill has been satisfying his enjoyment of reading by taking advantage of the well-stocked library at St. Anthony Friary. He says that any genre will do, but theology is at the top of the list.
Bill contemplates the future philosophically. “I am curious about how God is going to use me for the next few years, because he never really gets done with us. It may just be quiet and prayerful, or maybe something new and unexpected will come into my life. Whatever it is, I’ll be ready.”
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “Veteran-Friar’s Service Honored in Philadelphia’s Korean War Memorial” – July 27, 2015, HNP Today
- “Japanese Rice Ministry Marks 25 Years of Feeding the Hungry” by William DeBiase, OFM – Dec. 21, 2011, HNP Today
- “Missionary Chaplain Marks 50 Years Professed” – June 9, 2010, HNP Today
- “St Francis Inn Receives Peace Award” – May 17, 2018, HNP Today