Take 5 with Father: still making house calls at 90

Father George DeVille celebrated his 90th birthday on Sunday, August 22 with a Mass and reception at Holy Rosary Church in Muse, PA, where he has ministered to parishioners since 2000. Father DeVille is the oldest priest still active in an assignment in the diocese. Born and raised in McKeesport, he received a bachelor of arts from Saint Vincent College in Latrobe before entering Saint Vincent Seminary and later Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Father DeVille was ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1957, and spent 36 years as a chaplain serving patients at two state mental hospitals. Pittsburgh Catholic editor Bob De Witt asked him five questions:

1. What led to your calling to the priesthood?

I had been thinking about becoming a priest from when I was a child growing up at Saint Pius V Elementary School in McKeesport, and later at Saint Peter High School. I hung around the church rectory a lot. When I was home from college my sophomore year I watched the priest who came to see my grandmother, who was dying. He visited her almost every day, and I saw how much the visits meant to her. That helped me make my decision. I enrolled in Saint Vincent Seminary my junior year. The timing was providential.

2.  You were trained in psychiatric chaplaincy and assigned to Woodville State Hospital in Carnegie from 1964 to 1992. You then served at Mayview State Hospital in Bridgeville until 2000. How did you meet the patients’ spiritual needs?

On Sundays I rode the hospital bus across the 1,200 acres at Woodville, picking up Catholic patients who had ground privileges and taking them to 9 a.m. Mass. We went around to all the buildings. Then we took them back, did same with Protestant patients, taking them to services, then celebrated 11 a.m. Mass for the nurses.

I also said Mass every morning in different buildings and then took communion to patients on the wards. That had not been done before I got there. At one point there were 2,900 patients at Woodview.  Back in those days we didn’t anoint anyone until they were critical, so I was often up late. In caring for Alzheimer’s patients, I was taught that what you learn first in life, you remember longest. They remembered Holy Communion. I made a special prayer book with different color pages, so I could tell if they were following on the right pages. It was all trial and error. I heard confessions on Saturdays. I would say to the patients, ‘Say three Hail Marys,’ and they would repeat the words, ‘say three Hail Marys.’ I loved working with mental patients. It was not a burden or uncomfortable for me. Toward the end, Mayville was getting smaller, with patients being released into homes in the community, so I asked for a parish assignment.

3. In 2000, you became pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Muse, now part of Saint Oscar Romero Parish. What would you say are the most important ministries in a parish?

When you become pastor, they don’t teach you Electricity 101, Plumbing 101, or about buildings or finances—that’s valuable. But I always go out to visit the sick, I also think that’s very important. The priest comes to you. My list of communion calls is always 15 or 20. When I visit parishioners, we talk about everything.  I know how long it takes to get to different houses, and I go pretty far.  I think it’s important to keep them in touch with the parish so they still feel they belong. I tell them at the end of our visits, “You have to admit you had fun!” I’m laughing with them.

4. What keeps you going at an age when most people have long since retired?

With a shortage of priests, I feel I have an obligation to continue to serve. Besides, why should I retire? I love what I’m doing. I enjoy doing things for people.

 I’ve always wanted people to see more than a priest in me. I can help them with a lot of different things, mentally and physically as well.

People also seem to like my homilies. I try to say them in as few words as possible. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve made my point, but then it hits somebody.

5. Have you give any thought as to what might be your lasting legacy as a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh?

Oh! Probably the future priests I trained at Woodville for 16 years, including Fr. Larry DiNardo, our vicar general. I was training them to understand mental illness, which was not well understood back then. If you had a mental problem, the response used to be, pray your rosary and get right with God. I started with the seminarians, so that they would better understand mental illness when they began serving in parishes. They learned about depression, Alzheimer’s, geriatrics, and how to ask questions.

With his brother Robert DeVille and sister Mary Ellen Adamec.

Submitted photos