A Time for Reflection

By Linda Gracey
Altoona Mirror
September 12, 2010

From his humble beginning in a home with no electricity or indoor plumbing in Bannister, Mich., to overseeing 94,284 Catholics in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Bishop Joseph V. Adamec never expected his life to turn out the way it did.

Proficient in Spanish, Russian and Slovakian, Adamec was studying linguistics at Michigan State University when his godmother's husband told him about another vocation. The Catholic church was looking for young men to commit to the priesthood in Slovakia with the expectation that they would serve there when Communist rule ended.

Slovakia was the homeland of his father, Michal, and mother, Alzbeta, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. He said it is was the land of his roots, and he felt the call and accepted it.

It didn't turn out exactly how he envisioned, however.

"It is awesome to look back and see how your life was planned and you didn't plan it," Adamec said.

He attended seminary at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and was ordained July 3, 1960, for the Diocese of Nitra in Slovakia, his parents' former diocese. Because Slovakia was still under Communist rule, he had two choices: stay in Rome or return to the United States until Slovakia was free.

He returned to the United States and served the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., in various capacities including assistant chancellor (oversees various chancery operations), secretary to the bishop, master of ceremonies (handles bishop's event details) chancellor, a high school principal and pastor of two parishes.

His journey to the Allegheny Mountains began in 1987, when he was serving as priest for SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Saginaw, a church of 1,100 families.

"When the Holy Father wants you to be bishop, you say yes," Adamec said. "You don't say no to the Holy Father."

As head of the eight-county diocese, Adamec has dealt with difficult matters, including closing churches and settling a sexual abuse case involving a priest who served under his predecessor.

Adamec said sexual abuse is not just a church problem but a problem of society and its values.

He said the need to close churches in the 90-parish diocese occurred because people have left the area. He said he agonized over the decisions and the effects they would have.

"I know I hurt people in the process unintentionally," he said. "I don't want to hurt people. That's not what I am about."

He said the decisions "could have affected me adversely, but I came to the realization that God wanted me to do it. I do what God wants me to do. He's there, walking with me."

He said the trying times have helped him to grow.

"I think they make you a better person," he said.

Today, Adamec will celebrate a Thanksgiving Mass at 4 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona to commemorate his 23 years as bishop, his 50 years in the priesthood and his 75th birthday.

The birthday, which was Aug. 13, marks the beginning of the end of his days as the diocesan bishop. At age 75, bishops must submit their resignation for retirement to the Vatican, but they continue to serve until a new bishop is ordained/installed. He is among 12 bishops across America who are turning 75 this year.

Celebrating with him will be parishioners, priests, deacons, sisters and members of the diocesan staff.

Among those is Teresa Stayer, chancellor for six years and a member of the bishop's office for 21 of the 23 years she has worked for the diocese. She said Adamec has "served the diocese extremely well."

"The bishop has to be a professional and makes hard choices," she said. "He does what is best for the diocese and maintains a holiness about him. He doesn't make a decision without praying about it. His faith comes into play with every decision he makes."

On a personal level, she said Adamec was understanding about her needs as a working mother.

Stayer said when her two daughters were in high school, she never missed their softball games, cheerleading competitions, plays or other activities because Adamec would let her leave work early.

"He would say, 'You are a mom first.'"

Tony DeGol, secretary of communications for almost two years, also benefited from Adamec's compassion and concern.

When DeGol's mother was diagnosed with cancer and given less than a year to live, the bishop made a point of letting DeGol know he was thinking about him and praying for his mother. He would also inquire about how DeGol's dad was doing.

"He was a source of strength and comfort," DeGol said. "He does it not just for me. When anyone is going through a rough patch, he's there."

Because of the bishop's support and caring attitude, DeGol said he feels comfortable working with him.

"I can speak openly and honestly. He's encouraging. He seeks out my opinion on things. When a boss treats you like that, you can only blossom," he said.

DeGol said Adamec is also down-to-earth. When he visits parishes, he holds town hall meetings after the Masses and never leaves until every question is answered.

"If you sit down with him and have a real conversation, you couldn't help but like and respect him," DeGol said.

A priest who works closely with Adamec is Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky, vicar general, a position that shares executive powers with the bishop.

"He's a good man," Servinsky said. "He has served the church of Altoona-Johnstown very well."

Servinsky said when it comes to making decisions, Adamec likes to hear different viewpoints.

"He knows what he wants, but he is not one to force an issue. If you have a point of view, he wants you to state it. He thinks about what you have to say and changes his mind sometimes," he said.

Servinsky admitted that he gets a bit frustrated when the bishop doesn't see things his way, but time usually proves Adamec correct.

"It's always very humbling," Servinsky said.

Although Adamec never got to serve as a priest in Slovakia, he has not forgotten the church there.

He is moderator and president of the Slovak Clergy Federation that supports seminarians and priests who attend the Slovak college in Rome. He also is the episcopal moderator of the Conference of Slovak Clergy in the United States. It meets annually in the diocese with as many as 75 priests attending from across America.

Although no organization is without conflicts, Adamec said his greatest desire is to see unity throughout the diocese and he has worked toward that goal since 1987.

One of his first observations as a diocesan bishop was a lack of continuity in the churches. For instance, at one parish the faithful were receiving Holy Communion by kneeling at the railing instead of standing.

Adamec blamed some of the lack of continuity on the mountainous terrain that tends to separate people and said it is one of the reasons he moves priests from one area to another. He said it not only allows priests to experience another side of the diocese, but it allows the parishes to gain something new that the priests bring with them to their new surroundings.

Adamec said that of all his accomplishments, he wants to be remembered as "[the bishop who] tried to make us one diocesan church composed of smaller parishes."

For him, the Chrism Mass for the blessing of the holy anointing oil is one of best examples of that and one of the highlights of the year. Priest and parishioners from throughout the diocese come together to worship at the Cathedral on that day.

"It's magnificent. It is the only Mass like that," Adamec said.

Despite its problems, he believes the Catholic church in America operates more in unity today than when he was ordained as a priest 50 years ago.

"It is more unified as a diocesan church. When we implement the directives of the Holy See, the church becomes more real. We are more about our faith, not just going through the motions," he said.

Reflecting on his more memorable moments with the diocese, Adamec spoke of the 150th anniversary of the diocese in 2001 and the pilgrimage to Rome with 280 Catholics that same year.

He also recalled the five-year obligatory trips to the Vatican to visit the grave of St. Peter, the meetings with papal staff and one-on-one conversations with the pontiff.

"John Paul knew me by sight. It is awesome that a pope should know who I am," he said.

Adamec knew Pope Benedict XVI as a cardinal, and it will be Benedict who names his successor.

"I am not anxiously waiting to get out. I am perfectly at peace," he said. "If the Holy Father wants me to stay for a number of years, I am happy [to serve the diocese]. While the search is going on, I am still the diocesan bishop, and when the new candidate is named, I am still the diocesan bishop until he sits in that chair [the bishop's throne at the Cathedral]," he said.

Once a new bishop takes over the diocese, Adamec said, "I will move into my house that I built with my own money in Hollidaysburg."

He plans to pursue his hobbies that include photography, model trains and writing. Adamec enjoys mystery dinner theaters and even wrote a mystery play for a dinner party he hosted in his home.

Adamec also plans to help out at St. Mary's Parish in Hollidaysburg when he is in town.

"I hope to relax and do a lot of reading," he said. "Above all, I will have time to get to know my Lord better," noting that administrative duties take away from time for prayer and study.

"It has been a marvelous 23 years," he said. "Not because I did it. It's of God."

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