OLEAN — The Very Rev. Gregory Dobson’s sermon this weekend was about shepherds, who he said can either lead from the front or lead from behind.
“I have led you and at times prodded you,” Dobson told the congregation gathered before him Sunday at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. “But there comes a time when a shepherd has to hand over his flock and his staff to another shepherd, and that time has come for me.”
Dobson, who has been pastor of St. Mary’s for the last 21 years, announced during all four Masses this weekend that he will be retiring from his Olean assignment this summer. He will depart July 31 for a temporary reassignment at St. Joseph’s Church in Gowanda before receiving a more permanent assignment, which St. Mary’s officials said coincides with the 70-year-old priest’s long-standing plans to serve the remainder of his ministry in the Buffalo region near his family.
The Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, who confirmed Dobson’s temporary reassignment last week, has not yet announced who will take over for Dobson at St. Mary’s.
A special dinner celebration will be held in honor of Dobson on June 8 at the basilica. A private celebration among members of the parish community will take place later this summer.
“I know in my heart that this is the right thing to do so that the parish can move on and new leadership can take over,” Dobson told the Olean Times Herald after Sunday’s Mass.
Dobson said his decision to leave has nothing to do with recent revelations that at least three former St. Mary’s priests were accused of sexually abusing children at some point in their careers. All three served at St. Mary’s before Dobson’s arrival in 1997, diocesan directory records show.
While St. Mary’s has dealt with fallout from the diocese-wide scandal for the last two months, Dobson noted his leave has been in the works for several years; in January of last year he told the Times Herald he planned to soon retire as pastor and return to the Buffalo area to be closer to family.
Local Catholic officials have credited Dobson with clearing St. Mary’s debt, strengthening local Catholic schools and ties between local Catholic churches, and leading a capital campaign to refurbish the 103-year-old St. Mary’s church building.
Of course, Dobson’s biggest achievement may be spearheading the Vatican application process to get St. Mary’s designated a minor basilica, a title Pope Francis granted last year.
Dobson has taken on a number of other roles in the community, including as chaplain to the Olean Police Department. He’s served on numerous boards, including those of Archbishop Walsh Academy and Catholic Charities of Buffalo.
The Olean community has recognized him for his work, too, as he’s received numerous awards, including the Olean YMCA's Salute to Olean for humanitarian leadership and St. Bonaventure University’s Gaudete Award for leadership exemplifying the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.
This weekend’s news was hard to hear for St. Mary’s parishioners who’ve come to admire Dobson as their “simple country priest,” Dobson’s self-titled, tongue-in-cheek nickname. Some of them commented on St. Mary’s Facebook page to express sadness Dobson will be leaving, but also to wish him a happy retirement.
St. Mary’s Communications Director Jennifer Kane noted Dobson has been at many parish families’ weddings and funerals, and younger parishioners can’t even remember a time when Dobson wasn’t their pastor.
“I have warned them for a couple of years that this would happen eventually,” Dobson said. “It came sooner than they thought. In some ways it came sooner than I thought it might.”
Although retiring as their pastor, Dobson told parishioners he doesn’t intend to “wrap up in an afghan and sit in a rocking chair.”
“That’s not my style,” he said.
While in Gowanda, Dobson will be covering for the Rev. Joseph Porpiglia, St. Joseph’s pastor who will be on sabbatical until Christmas. It’s expected Malone will announce a more permanent assignment for Dobson later this year.
Dobson’s unsure where he’ll be in 2019 — something he said he can live with. He knows he has to be adaptable and vulnerable — the same qualities he told a group of about 10 newly ordained priests who were in attendance Sunday to have as they began their careers.
Dobson also had some advice for the next St. Mary’s pastor, who he admitted will be challenged by the added responsibilities that come with a basilica.
“With God’s grace and the bishop’s guidance and the love and support of these people here,” he said, “that person might be able to do it and do it admirably.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)