OLEAN — The Very Rev. Gregory Dobson sat on the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels’ rectory porch Wednesday morning, attempting to pack up — and throw out — some of the many papers, books, artwork and clothing he’s collected over the last 22 years as St. Mary’s pastor.
“Priests warned me: When you start cleaning out, you will be shocked at what you’ve accumulated,” Dobson said.
Cleaning out the rectory and his offices inside the basilica have been what Dobson called his “full-time” job the last week or so, as he officially retired July 31 but is still living at the rectory while waiting to begin the next phase of his life.
He hopes for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo to soon place him in a priest retirement home, preferably in Erie County so he can be closer to his large extended family.
The uncertainty is different for Dobson, who has grown attached to St. Mary’s and Olean over the last two decades, but he said “different is OK.”
“People are saying, ‘You don’t have a place to live?’ I said, ‘No, but they’ve promised me one.’ ‘You don’t know where it’s going to be?’ ‘No.’ ‘You don’t know when it’s going to be?’ ‘No,’” Dobson said. “I’m just taking a risk and I feel OK with that.”
“My decision to retire at this point, I know is the best thing for me and the best thing for this community,” he added.
Dobson, commonly known as “Father Greg,” was supposed to serve a temporary reassignment covering for the Rev. Joseph Porpiglia at St. Joseph’s Church in Gowanda until Christmas, but he recently backed out due to what he described as a health scare.
As the 70-year-old has already told parishioners during Mass, doctors ruled out “the worst diagnosis” during a recent test in Buffalo, but are still trying to determine the cause of his issues.
“There was a very real possibility that if it had been a bad result, I would be in surgery,” Dobson said. “That is not the case right now, but the problem is not solved.”
While Dobson was always supposed to continue living at the St. Mary’s rectory during his Gowanda assignment, he now has more time to collect his things and be around the parish’s day-to-day activities.
However, he said he’s trying his best to be “as quiet as a church mouse” and not be a distraction for St. Mary’s new leaders, like his successor, the Rev. Patrick Melfi.
“There’s all sorts of meetings going on, all sorts of planning. I’m not a part of any of that, and that’s fine,” he said. “I know … there’s going to be decisions that wouldn’t be the decisions that I would make, but that’s quite all right. It’s not my place anymore.”
Just like its former pastor, St. Mary’s is going through something of a transition. St. Mary’s and the smaller St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in Olean and St. Philomena Church in Franklinville are now all linked under a single pastor in Melfi.
Each parish will remain independent financially with its own separate trustees, but will be pastored by the same clergy and share programs. The linking is part of the diocese’s reconfiguration plan that started a decade ago to address its clergy shortage.
A new Mass schedule for all three parishes will be announced in the coming weeks and will begin the weekend after Labor Day.
Dobson said he thinks there will be more linking in the diocese, but he’s not sure how much more. With all the different responsibilities a pastor must take on, he noted it’s difficult to link multiple large parishes together.
“I don’t know what the results will be. I can’t see into the future, but I believe it’s ultimately the best thing,” Dobson said.
As for Dobson’s future, he plans to continue serving on the Catholic Charities Board of Trustees, and a few people have already asked him to be their spiritual adviser. He added retired priests often act as “free agents,” accepting invitations to lead Mass for different churches.
Overall, Dobson said he plans to focus on “the spiritual” during retirement.
“When you’re a pastor, you worry about the budget and the building and public relations,” he said. “Now my responsibility is to learn more about spirituality and spiritual life and find a way of making that a part my ministry.”
He also plans to find some hobbies — as the diocese pre-retirement course found, Dobson hasn’t acquired quite enough outside of the church.
Maybe yoga, he said.
“I like to go to concerts and plays, but my life for a long time has been work. I’m always working on my next homily. I’m always working on my next meeting,” he said.
While he’s excited to possibly be closer to his siblings and many nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, Dobson will also miss Olean — from the people who have welcomed him with open arms since his arrival, to the hills he said have simply become part of his peripheral vision.
“There’s something that I find very appealing here, so this place will always be an important part of my story,” he said.
Despite his strong feelings for Olean, Dobson noted he wasn’t emotional during his last Sunday Mass as St. Mary’s pastor July 29.
“I kept saying to the people, ‘I know this is the right thing to do,’” he said. “I know this is the right thing for me and it’s the right thing for you.’”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)