Father Dennis Dalessandro
Hometown: Sharon, Pa.
Education: Kennedy Catholic High School in Sharon, Pa., LaSalle University in Philadelphia, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md.
Current assignment: Pastor of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Catawissa
Tell us where you grew up, and about your childhood and family.
I was born in a little town in western Pennsylvania called Sharon on the Ohio and Pennsylvania border, kind of the very southern end of the Diocese of Erie. I went to Catholic schools in grade school and high school – the high school is now called Kennedy Catholic. Of course, that was the 1960s when every parish seemed to have its own school and there were a lot of kids in the schools at that time. They are way down now, unfortunately.
I have a brother and a sister. My brother has a daughter, and he is a teacher about ready to retire. I have a sister who is a finance professional that works at a local hospital near Sharon. She has four kids, and all four graduated from Penn State. I am the oldest of the three, and there was a study done a while ago that shows that a lot of times the oldest in the family is the one that pursues a religious vocation. I know that is not always true by any means, but there is evidence to that being the case.
I went to LaSalle University in Philadelphia and got a degree in English Education, and I taught for two years at Bishop McDevitt. I was actually offered a job at Trinity at the same time as McDevitt, but I had already said yes to McDevitt. It was a very good experience at McDevitt. It was a great place, and I met a lot of great people there.
What years were you there?
I graduated from college the bicentennial year of 1976 in Philadelphia and taught at McDevitt from 1976 to 1978. That is how I ended up in the Diocese of Harrisburg. I then attended Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg where I studied pre-Theology. In those days, pre-Theology was a brand new kid. It was not very structured, and I lived at the college so I could get my philosophy requirements and then stayed on campus for the last four years of seminary.
Who were some of your classmates at the Mount?
I had a couple from this Diocese. One was Father John Kemper, who just recently passed away. Phil Burger, who is now pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Abbottstown. Also Bishop Rhoades was a classmate, along with Father King and Father Frank Karwacki. My class at the Mount had 55 guys in it, with seminarians from as far away as Montana, from Vermont, Allentown, Pittsburgh, Erie and Altoona. Some were from the southern Unites States as well. I was ordained in 1983 by then-Bishop Keeler because Bishop Daley was not well and he died in September after I was ordained. So the future Cardinal Keeler ordained me both a transitional deacon and a priest.
Please tell us about growing up in Sharon and when you began thinking about pursuing a priestly vocation.
When I was a kid, we went to 9 a.m. Mass every Sunday, and you sat in the pew in the grade that you were in. We went every Sunday faithfully, and at the end of Mass the priest would come out and ask us questions while our parents waited in the back of the church or outside. The priest would ask questions, and I would happen to be the one who answered a lot of the questions.
I thought about it a while growing up and I think my pastor knew that I was thinking about it. In the confessional one day, he asked me, “Do you want to go to the seminary?” I said, “No, Father, not really.” My parents were not keen on me going into the seminary after eighth grade, even though the diocese did have a high school seminary that you could attend at the time. So I went to Kennedy and then off to college.
But, after two years of teaching, I thought to myself that I better somehow make a decision about a vocation because time goes on, and it would take me too long. I should mention that when I was at LaSalle, I was an aspirant to the Christian Brothers at the school and I would go on retreats with them. I lived at the Scholastica house and I really thought about becoming a brother because of their teaching. But I decided against that feeling; it was not for me and not something I was called to do.
Growing up in Sharon, you do pretty much what everybody else did. You go to basketball games, plays and dances, and I can’t say I was busy all the time, but I was busy enough. My Class of 1972, we still get together for reunions, and the last time we got together was for our 65th birthdays. My Catholic high school was built in 1963 and it was a little dated when it was built. It was, though, at the height of Catholic schools in this country. It is actually where my brother teaches today. I did not live a very exciting life growing up, at least I did not think so.
It was small-town America, you would say?
Oh, yes, absolutely, and my parents worked hard. My father worked for Westinghouse in their transformer division. At the height of their work force they employed more than 10,000 people. Now it is just a memory and the place is empty. My mom was a maintenance person at the hospital – Sharon Regional – and that basically meant scrubbing and cleaning floors, which really meant she was doing that so my parents could afford to send us to Catholic schools and pay tuition. When we first started out in elementary school, it was $125 to go to school, but as time went on the cost went up and up.
If I can say it this way, I am a mixture of Italian and Slovak on my mother’s side, which was Eastern Rite. I have fond memories of going to Mass with my grandparents on my mother’s side and I did not know what to make of it, but I was still there and it intrigued me. The cool thing about that was that the parish would send a school bus for us to go to church, because the old Slovak people did not drive. The bus was driven by the pastor, and he would pick the people up and then another person would drop them off at home after Mass. On Sunday night, the bus would come back and take everybody back to church for Sunday night bingo. No lie, I would get on the bus and the old ladies would be there with their babushkas. They would be talking in Slovak and they would be using my name, and I knew they were talking about me. I never knew what they were talking about. It was a memorable place to grow up, to say the least.
You decided while you were teaching to begin pursuing a priestly vocation. Tell us how you began the process.
I went to the Vocation Director, and he was very encouraging to me. You must sit in front of the Seminary Board, and I did not know what to expect. Growing up, my pastor was a good guy, but he was not the type to really associate with us and you were not his buddy. I just did not know what to expect when I met with the board. You had Bishop sitting at one end of the table and priests all around a long table. I do not remember who all was sitting there, but I do remember Msgr. Leitch asking me what I would do if I was a priest at a little rural place in the middle of nowhere. How would I handle it? Little did I know that it would come true.
Do you remember how you answered his question?
No, I really don’t. I do remember saying that I would do whatever it takes. You must rely on the people, the parishioners of any parish no matter where you go or are assigned, and they are the ones who make you feel at home. That is really no different any place you go. Any place you are assigned, you must get to know “Where do I go to get a good pizza? “Where are the cleaners?” Things like that.
Some of your first assignments were in what parishes or ministries?
My first assignment was at St. Theresa’s in New Cumberland for four years, where I was also chaplain at Trinity High School. Then I went to St. Joe’s in Lancaster and I was also chaplain at F & M College. Then I went to St. Joe’s in Mechanicsburg and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, also in Mechanicsburg, before serving at Seven Sorrows in Middletown. I served at Danville at Geisinger Hospital for a year as chaplain. I was in McSherrystown just temporally before I was assigned to Holy Name of Jesus in Harrisburg in 1997. I have moved around quite a bit.
Following that, I was named pastor at St. Joe’s in Berwick and that was my first pastor assignment. I was there for a little before being transferred to St. Andrew’s in Waynesboro for a short time and then back to Berwick, and now I am here at Our Lady of Mercy where I have been pastor for three years now.
Being a pastor at a small parish, you get to know you parishioners well?
Well, I do, and certainly the ones that are here all the time. That is obvious. Father Mannion was here for 28 years, and in his last years he was rather incapacitated. In a respectful way, Father lived a very simple life here and the people just loved him. And I respect that as a pastor. Every pastor has his own way of doing things, and that is something to be respected. One of the legacies he left is the parish picnic, which is a big deal all over this valley. People come from all over to attend the picnic. Of course with this year being what it is, there will be a cap or restrictions on certain things, but we are still having food, and food is a big draw. It is absolutely a big deal here. Most of our faithful are 65 and older. We have very few kids; we have them, and they are solid in the CCD program, we just do not have many. This area, though, is very sports minded. They take their high school sports here very seriously. It’s a football area.
What is your favorite aspect of ministry?
Obviously, the sacraments are an important part of ministry, but I actually like to talk to people after Mass. I really enjoy that part of ministry. I have a little trick I play with myself, and it is a little easier here in a small place, but I try and remember where people sit and what Mass they go to. If they are not at Mass, I try and ask them if they are ok or if something is wrong if I have not seen them at Mass. That is a way to connect. I had one guy one time tell me that he thought that it was astounding that I remember where he sits and whether he was at Mass or not.
Father Mannion told me when I started here that I must remember that half of this parish is related to the other half. The family ties here go back many years. It reminds me an awful lot of how I grew up. I lived in a town with many Italian names – except for the O’Brien’s – and we were all related.
But certainly the sacraments are extremely important, and I try to make every Mass one to be remembered and that it is not hurried or rushed. I try and make sure the people know what the Church wants them to know, especially in the teaching. Preaching is a big thing for me also.
How do you prepare for a homily?
What I try to do is read the Scriptures way ahead of time because I am also working on the bulletin. I have a ton of books that give me many ideas for homilies, but then I also try use some of my own experiences to relate to them. This week, people were talking about how great it was to get out again after the pandemic restrictions eased. I spent 45 minutes standing in line at Marshall’s for something I could easily have come back for another time or that I really did not need at that moment. But the experience, I related to the Holy Trinity and the experience was useful to share something much larger and make a point more profound. That is a way to connect with people. On weekdays, I do the readings myself so I can speak the words from the Lectionary and tie them into making a point to my Mass-goers. Preaching is enjoyable for me. Of course, the Eucharist is vitally important to me.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to travel locally often. I do not go too far. I actually have no particular hobbies. I used to collect things or certain items, but I do not do that so much anymore. Eventually somebody has to get rid of it all, and it seems worthless if you really look at it. So why do it? I do like shirts, so I go shopping for various shirts. I am like my father in that respect. He used to like to do that. My father – this is no lie – if he had one shirt, he had 900.
Do you find the older you get, the more you are like your parents? Do you believe that to be true?
Oh, I absolutely believe that. If I turn sideways, I look like my father. You cannot help it, you have your parent’s genes and that is just the way it is.
I also like to people watch. I am a huge people watcher. I just watch people walk by at a mall or somewhere in public and just think about their circumstances. I find it extremely entertaining because people come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and their interactions sometimes just fascinate me. It is very revealing. I was once at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and they have weddings there on the hour, so you better be ready when your time is on. I saw this couple, and I knew they were Italian and they were arguing and screaming over this and that. I said to the people I was with, “I must watch this.” It was just hilarious the way they were interacting. I get that from my dad. He would do the same thing and then we would have a discussion about it. It is a way to learn about people.
Do you have any favorite books or movies?
I do not go to the movies much. I usually watch them later when they come out. I tend to get restless, so I would rather watch a good episode of an old sitcom like McHales’s Navy or Hogan’s Heroes or Perry Mason or Wings.
Books, I do not read so much for pleasure, but I like books that talk about what happened on this day in history or that sort of thing. I get a number of Catholic newspapers, and I enjoy staying informed. That has changed a lot now, since you can get many online. I used to have a bunch come in the mail. I was just interested in what was going on in different dioceses. Brooklyn still has a weekly newspaper, and I enjoy reading their paper. They are sure going through a tough time also. I have classmates who are bishops or archbishops, so I stay in touch with what is happening in their dioceses. I like to see what new bishops do and how they handle the transition. I enjoy that. But it is an end of an era as far as newspapers go. We are worse off for it, I believe. When I was stationed in Lancaster, I would go in the morning and get the morning paper. Then in the afternoon, I would get the evening newspaper and it had different things and a different slant in it that I enjoyed reading. I really enjoyed reading newspapers in their heyday.
Is there anything I have not asked that you would like to share?
People often ask me why I am named Dennis. My mother had the responsibility of naming me, sort of the way things were, and I was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and she did not want to name me Patrick. She did not want me to be called Little Patsy because my grandfather was called that, since he was named Pasqual, and she just did not want a thing like that. She picked Dennis, which really does not go with our last name.
Also, I really learned to love the liturgy when I went to college in Philadelphia and I would take the subway from LaSalle down to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul to center city and go to Mass. The music was just unbelievable, and I really did not know that Catholic Church was like that. It is why I am into that now. And now, with the pandemic, we are not singing or using books, and I miss it very much. I like loud organs and great music. The liturgy is where people come to learn and feel the faith. Saying Mass to an empty church is fine, but having the people there is important, and it was very different for sure. I like to move, and I have not been able to do that. I would like to go out and see my mom, who still lives in a care facility in Sharon. I have not seen her since Christmas, so I miss seeing her very much. I go across Interstate 80 to get to her, but I like to take different ways home sometimes, just to see different things and places. I take Route 6 across the northern part of the state and that takes you through many of the small towns, that fabric of northern Pennsylvania.
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
The Called: Father Dennis Dalessandro
Father Dennis Dalessandro
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