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An Afternoon with Father Walter Dirig
By Paul Bartholomew

 Father Stephen asked me if I would like to take a trip to Philadelphia to do an interview with Father Dirig. The thought behind the trip was to follow up on Vocation Awareness Week, which was January 9th through the 13th.  I wanted to find out from Father Dirig if he had any wisdom as to how St. Paulís could inspire vocations to the religious life for the young people in our area and possibly beyond with the wide use of the internet these days. 

Helena Dirig is Fatherís sister, so I asked her to go with us. The weather was my greatest concern.  We had planned to leave on Wednesday, January 18th. That was cancelled because of the rains, floods, and high winds. The next dayís forecast looked better so along with my wife Sandra, Helena and Mary Ann Hunter we started out.  I had my Map Quest directions in hand and Helena had hers from previous trips that she had taken. The primary goal was to get there in time to attend Mass which is at 11:30 AM each day. Nearing our destination I learned that the last four turns of my directions and Helenaís Map Quest directions were different. Thatís not unusual because in a city there is always more than one way to get to any location.  Not wanting to waste any time by making a wrong turn, I asked Helena if anything looked familiar.  With all the road construction and lane changes, she said it did look a little familiar, but maybe it did because on one of her other trips down there this was where they got lost. This was not what I wanted to hear, but we proceeded and did arrive without any wrong turns and in time for a brief reunion before Mass. When Mass was over, we had a buffet luncheon in the dining room of St. Vincentís Seminary.

The solarium just outside Father's room was the perfect setting for the interview. The warmth of sun through the massive windows definitely set mood for getting answers to all of the questions that I was prepared to ask Father.

Father Dirig was born on March 1, 1909 making him 97 years old. Not having seen Father in many years, I was not quite sure what to expect when it came to his health and mobility.  He uses a wheel chair and a cane now, but a lot of the time he uses the wheel chair as a walker to help with his balance. When he gets tired, he uses it to wheel himself from place to place. He also suffers from a life long problem of migraine headaches. His mind is as sharp as ever. The eyes are not as good as he would like,  but he still likes to do writing and wants to finish and publish the book on the French Woods area that he has been writing along with his biography. The French Woods area of Hancock is where he grew up.

There were 8 children in the family, 4 girls and 4 boys.  Two of the girls entered the religious life and became nuns.  Grade school was in the French Woods one room school house, and it was a two mile walk each way every day. In the winter the snows and drifts made walking difficult and in the spring the muddy roads were a problem. High school was in Long Eddy six miles away. His father drove him to school on Monday mornings and he would stay with a family he knew well until classes were over on Friday. Then it was the long walk home. Eventually he got a bicycle and rode to and from school when the weather and road conditions permitted. The last year of high school was in Hancock, but there was a big problem just getting there because the distance was about 10 miles. Eventually the family moved to Hancock so it would be much easier for the children to get an education.

Graduation was from the Hancock High School in 1926. College was not in the immediate future because his father had some health problems, and the family needed his help on the family farm. The family store was located at the foot of Academy Street and he worked there for about a year.  For the next three years he worked at Iversonís Garage, where he held numerous positions. Battery person, maintenance supervisor, parts department, service department and bookkeeping were some of his duties. These jobs were in addition to the farm chores.

Religion was a very big part of everyday living and his parents Charles M. and Victoria Dirig led the way by praying regularly with the whole family four times each day. Father Dirig was very emphatic when he told me, "The Family that Prays Together, Stays Together." You lead by example.

His father was elected as a trustee of St. Francis de Sales Church in French Woods in the late 1800's and served until 1926. He was also was an  usher, and the contact person for the pastor. Father Dirig was always following his father around and therefore had a lot of contact with Father Carey who was the pastor of the church in French Woods at that time. Father Carey always took the time to notice him. I was amazed to find out that at the age of three, Father Dirig knew he wanted to become a priest. In church the family always sat in the front row. One Sunday when the priest turned to the congregation and said "Dominus vobiscum" (The Lord be with you), this young boy of three climbed onto the kneeler and in his own version of Latin greeted the congregation with his hands joined palm to palm.  His mother thought he was misbehaving, but truly he was not. After Mass when everyone was in the wagon for the return trip home, he announced to his family that he was going to be a priest when he grew up! Throughout his elementary and high school years, he never lost the feeling that he wanted to be a priest.

The Vincentians Order of Priests established a camp for boys in French Woods in the 1920ís called Camp St. Johns. Many of the counselors who worked there were Vincentian Seminarians. The contact Father Dirig had through his early years with the Vincentians at the camp was one of the reasons he chose the Vincentian Missionaries for his lifeís vocation. A cousin of his father was Father John Cloonan, C.M. (Congregation of the Missions) who was a Vincentian priest and had spent many of his vacations in the Dirig family home.

Father Dirig received a scholarship to St. Josephís College in Princeton, NJ. This is where the seminarians for Vincentian priests were taught. The studies and duties in the seminary were hard and many. Despite many classes and practice sessions he never learned to get the correct pitch for the chants or the hymns that were required. They were not allowed to return home during the first five years, although they did allow Father Dirig a visit home during that time because his father had passed away.

Father was ordained on June 3, 1939 after nine years of studies.  His first Mass was at the Monastery of the Visitation in Brooklyn, NY on June 4, 1939. His sister was a cloistered nun there and could not leave, so that is why his first Mass was held in this church. His first Mass at St. Paulís in Hancock, NY, was on June 11, 1939, with Father Rausch as the Arch Priest, and Father Cloonan preached the sermon. Father Dirig's Twenty-fifth Anniversary Mass was also celebrated at St. Paul's.  Father Edwin Dirig (a cousin) was deacon and a classmate from Philadelphia was sub-deacon. The Fiftieth Anniversary Mass was celebrated at St. Paul's with Father David Testa, and the Sixtieth Anniversary with Father Stephen Morris.

The first assignment he received was helping out in two or three parishes, for one or two weeks at a time. Father then got his first full time assignment teaching philosophy, theology, and English at Niagara University for a year. He taught seminarians in five different seminaries over the next thirty-three years. Father Dirig also was in administration for a period of time, but preferred teaching. Through the years his assignments took him to Florida, Alabama, Ozone Park, NY, and numerous other places.  He was a seminary professor throughout most of his priestly life.

To celebrate his 25th Anniversary of Ordination, he traveled the United States from coast to coast in a motor home. His brother Edwin Dirig, wife Patricia, and 5 of their 7 children also were along on the trip. Father Dirig has also traveled to the Holy Land, Mexico, Italy, and France to name a few places.

Picture taking is something that he has enjoyed through the years along with his writings. I noticed he was using one of those disposable cameras for his pictures.  He does a great job with it too. I remember him telling me, ďLife is your hobby.Ē

One of the many questions I asked Father Dirig was even though we pray for vocations to the priesthood at St. Paulís, what else should we be doing? Without any hesitation, he said: "Be more prayerful.  Encourage the altar servers as well as the laity to be more involved. Have religious materials around the home as well as around the church. Pray everyday to know what God wants you to be and do. Last but not least, have contact with an enthusiastic priest and religious leaders of the parish."

Finally, we got down to my last question: "Whatís been your greatest joy as a priest?" Again without hesitation, he said, "The ability to say Mass every day and being able to share my knowledge with the seminarians."

The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal Church is next to the infirmary where Father Dirig lives.  So with Father leading the way in his wheel chair, we took a tour of the infirmary and the church.  The Shrine of the Miraculous Medal is a tour all its own-very impressive and humbling. After returning to the solarium and seeing that it was time for us to return home, I knew it had been a long day for Father and I asked if he was ready for a nap. "No!" was the answer, "itís time to pray!" So with that, we said our goodbyes and headed back north.

We crossed the bridge back into Hancock a little more than 12 hours after we had left. Sure we were tired, but we all felt the joys we derived from the experiences of the day far outweighed any feelings we had of being tired.  We were thankful that the weather was perfect, traffic was not bad, and most of all that we picked a day when Father Dirig was having what he calls, "one of his better days."

 

Click on images to enlarge



L-R
MaryAnn Hunter, Helena Dirig, Father Dirig, Sandra Bartholomew



Father Dirig, center, is flanked by his 2 biological sisters and surrounded by his cousins.



Helena Dirig with Father Dirig



Paul Bartholomew with Father Dirig