Fr. John Joseph Gonchar, OFM, greets friends in Uniontown, Pa., in 2013
As a young priest assigned to a high school, “I learned quite quickly that I am not a teacher,” says Fr. John Joseph Gonchar.
Maybe he wasn’t cut out for the classroom. But he’s taught a lot of friars about faith and fidelity.
John Joseph – J.J. to most – has spent 70 years teaching by example, showing others how to be steady, selfless, humble, prayerful and fraternal. “He’s a good man who never in his entire life got off the path of his Franciscan vocation,” says Fr. David Kohut, who as a 13-year-old found his own religious calling at a retreat preached by John Joseph.
In his ministry as a pastor, retreat director, novice master, Provincial Vicar and missionary, J.J. always had the same goal: “I want to see Christ in everyone.” He uplifts those around him with the right word, the right note, the right gesture.
It has always been so, according to David. “He’s supportive of what you’re doing. If you’re failing, he gives you the accolades of greatness. He’s a wonderful priest and a great friar.”
According to Fr. Mike Lenz, “He is the most charitable friar I’ve lived with, so eager to help you that he literally drops whatever he’s doing.”
To Br. Juniper Crouch, “He always seemed to be a very holy man. He’s very kind, very concerned about you as a person and would be willing to do almost anything to give you a hand.”
As formation director, “He was always encouraging me in one way or another with, ‘Hang in there,’” says Br. Mike Dubec. “If he hadn’t been there, wow, I wonder where I would be now?”
As a missionary in Jamaica, “He was welcoming, gentlemanly, non-judgmental,” says Br. Vince Delorenzo, who served with J.J. in Negril and is now his Guardian at St. Anthony Friary & Shrine in Cincinnati. “He was a good advertisement for the friars.”
Former Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler seconds the above, adding, “He’s a really good guy.”
His immigrant parents had something to do with that.
“John Joseph had very solid folks from the old country with a strong prayer life,” Mike Dubec says. Leaving Eastern Slovakia in the 1920s, Albert and Anna Gonchar settled in Pittsburgh, Pa. the largest Slovak enclave in America, and raised seven children. Anna was so devoted to her faith, “She had a rosary in every pocket of her coat,” according to son J.J., who was born on a Tuesday and christened Anthony in honor of the same-day novena for his namesake.
The center of their world, one of 28 Slovak churches in the region, was St. Gabriel the Archangel, where young Tony was an altar boy for five years. “On Sunday, Mom would attend two Masses, sometimes three,” he says. From his deeply spiritual parents he learned love and respect for the Church and its traditions. He also learned, “You try to do that which is right, that which is good.”
When he chose religious life, it was no revelation. The Gonchars were Secular Franciscans, so connecting with the friars in Pittsburgh seemed natural. The Commissariat of the Most Holy Savior had been established by Slovak friars invited by the Federation of Slovak Priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh to minister to immigrants. “They were good men,” says J.J. “I got to know them and I liked them all. I felt at home with them. It was like a family atmosphere.”
Formation led him to high school at St. Bonaventure Minor Seminary in Sturtevant, Wis., and St. Mary’s Seminary in Lemont, Ill., alongside students from the Polish Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province. In theology studies at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., “I looked forward especially to being a foreign missionary, being more adventurous, going out and working with different cultures; I especially had in mind Africa.” When he returned to Pittsburgh as an ordained priest in 1956, the dream was deferred. For the next 50 years, J.J. was needed elsewhere. And he always answered the call.
“The work of the Slovak friars was home missions, ‘40 Hours’,” a weekend of continuous prayer before the Blessed Sacrament with a devotional focus on the Holy Eucharist. “We had to preach and hear confessions afterwards.” Those weekends were never easy for J.J. “Preaching and homilies have always been a struggle for me.”
Teaching came next, seven years at Notre Dame High School near Easton, Pa., where property had been purchased for the building of St. Francis Retreat House, dedicated in 1961. For John Joseph, one of four priests who worked at the school and assisted parishes, “Teaching was a toughie. Homework, getting ready for class, correcting papers – that was hard work. I followed the textbooks, but I never considered myself a teacher. I hope they [his students] learned something from me.”
One of his most vivid memories from Easton was outside the classroom, along a stretch of Route 22 leading to Allentown. “I was going to preach an evening talk, heading west in the wintertime. The road looked clean and dry, but somehow, coming around a bend, I had a strange feeling that something was wrong.” Then he saw it, a car straddling the highway, surrounded by onlookers. Braking to avoid a collision, “I hit an ice spot and skidded off the road.” The car hit the rail and flipped, landing right side up. J.J. climbed from the wreckage with nary a scratch.
He firmly believes, “It was God’s providence taking care of me.”
And it was God’s providence that led 13-year-old David Kohut to Easton. “I always wanted to be a priest, so I just kept praying to Jesus,” David says. “Lo and behold, a man from the Holy Name Society came to our house and asked Mom and Dad if I could go on a weekend retreat” to St. Francis Retreat House.
Up to then, he found preaching “boring”. Not that weekend. At the all-night adoration, “I knelt and prayed and something happened.” John Joseph was the preacher, “a young man, only 36 or so. He was prayerful but down to earth, able to bring the Scriptures to life and at the same time show his utmost respect for the Lord and his vocation,” David says. “That’s where I found my vocation.” He would go on to join the friars, eventually becoming a Provincial Minister.
By 1966, Holy Savior was a Vice Province with 32 men in the Eastern and North Central U.S. One of its most versatile members, J.J. was Vocation Director in Columbiana, Ohio, Retreat Master and Director of Brothers’ Formation in Easton, a Pastor in Clifton, N.J., Director of Novices in Valparaiso, Ind., and in the late ‘90s, Vicar Provincial of Holy Savior. Wherever they sent him, he served Secular Franciscans as a spiritual assistant in honor of his parents’ involvement and because “Part of our Franciscan work is to be concerned about that part of the family.”
Br. Ed Skutka met J.J. while making his month-long retreat before final profession in 1974. “The first word that comes to my mind for him is ‘prayerful’,” Ed says. “He was a good example to each friar. He would help us along whenever he could as we were going through different stages” of formation.
“He’s a very encouraging man,” says Br. Tom Gerchak, who served with J.J. in Pittsburgh and in Jamaica. “He’s thoughtful, generous, hard working. I never heard him say anything against anybody.”
To then-candidate Mike Dubec, “John was an ideal guy. When we played volleyball, he was in there with the best of them. We called him ‘the world’s oldest teen-ager.’ He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty; he worked around the friary doing dishes, picking up groceries, raking leaves. Some guys are just not like that. But we also saw him as very holy person, very disciplined in his prayer life.”
He would need that discipline in the years that lay ahead.
The 1990s saw a sea change in the life of the Vice Province. Diminishing numbers brought departures from Sts. Cyril and Methodius Parish in Joliet, Ill., and from Seven Dolors Shrine in Valparaiso, Ind. When Minister General Hermann Schaluck asked the friars to consider joining another province, they chose St. John the Baptist.
On July 19, 2000, at the Promulgation of Union in Pittsburgh, 23 friars lost more than their collective name. They lost the closeness of community that had distinguished Holy Savior. Needing someone to put things in perspective, Fr. Fred Link, SJB’s Provincial Minister, asked John Joseph to serve as a liaison with the Provincial Council.
As J.J. recalls, “I was there to offer my knowledge to the Council and the Vice Province, in case they had questions.” He downplays his role. “I look back on that and would have to say, I did not do a very good job. I should have checked with every friar of the Vice Province to see what they were feeling and going through” at the time.
Jeff Scheeler, then Vicar Provincial, saw things differently. “He fit in immediately. He helped us SJB guys understand the history and the friars of Holy Savior. It’s a tough, tough adjustment to lose your province and join another, and he did that quite well.”
J.J. sees more adjustments ahead as six U.S. provinces work to create a new entity in the next few years. “It’s going to be difficult,” he says of the current Revitalization and Restructuring process. “You may have a touch of ‘homesickness’” for what used to be. “My advice is, try to be as open as possible. Try to meet other people.”
He learned that 20 years ago, when his world of ministry changed forever.
After the unification in 2000, “He substituted for a while,” Jeff says, “always generous, always gracious, covering for other guys for a few months” while learning the culture and geography of SJB Province.
“It was a good experience for me,” J.J. says of his time assisting in Lafayette, La. With his traditional background, he was unprepared for the spontaneous expression of African-American worship. “The people were very welcoming. Liturgy was a production; it would go on and on; that was something new for me. The shocking thing was that I would give a homily and they would clap. Maybe they were saying, ‘We’re glad you’re finished.’”
Early on, “He was one of the guys who volunteered for the Jamaica missions,” says Jeff. “I’ve said a number of times, our Jamaica presence would not have happened” if older friars like J.J. had not stepped forward. At the age of 71, he was ready for an adventure.
Stationed in Jamaica for six years, he was the only friar besides Tom Gerchak to serve in all three locations in the Diocese of Montego Bay: Lucea, Savanna-la-mar, and Negril. In the beginning, “It was awful,” he says of the mosquitoes, heat and humidity. “Eventually I acclimatized,” although he never quite adjusted to the left-side, white-knuckle driving.
“He was always at the service of other people; he always gave them his full attention,” says Br. Louie Zant, who spent 17 years in Savanna-la-mar. “But the culture was kind of tough for him. People responded to him very well; they just didn’t have the same understanding of sacraments and faith.”
As a pastor in Lucea and Negril, “He was loved in Jamaica,” says Vince, who spent five years there, two of them working with J.J. “Very gentlemanly, very approachable,” he was “kind of a grandpa figure” for children whose lives lacked strong role models. “He was a good male image for the Catholic Church.”
Although “the people were very good,” J.J. says, “what I did learn from Jamaica was, that’s not my calling.”
In 2009, he returned to his Holy Savior roots in Pennsylvania. Last year when Holy Family Friary in Pittsburgh was closed, J.J. moved again.
“I asked if he would come here” to St. Anthony Friary & Shrine in Cincinnati, says Vince, who had become Guardian. “I thought it was the perfect fit for him” because of the novena, steeped in tradition, and its faithful followers. Baptized Anthony 88 years ago, J.J. has come full circle.
“I’m very much accepted here,” he says. He is officially retired – but not idle – in a place that seems ideal for his walks, rosary in hand, around the grounds. On Tuesdays, “I’m responsible for St. Anthony devotions,” says J.J., who did two of the recorded talks for this year’s Novena to St. Anthony. “That’s something I never expected.”
Fraternal as always, “He’s very pleasant to live with,” Vince says. “His only difficulty is his hearing aids, which don’t do as well as he would like. He likes to go to friaries and visit older guys, especially at St. Margaret Hall, but he can’t do that now” because of the pandemic.
Besides concelebrating at the Shrine, J.J. helps with Mass at St. Clement Church on alternate Saturdays. There is ample time for the devotions that, inspired by his mother, are an essential part of his day. “I don’t have many strictly obligatory things to do. I think I could do more if I managed my time better,” he says, almost apologetically.
As he prepares to mark his 70th anniversary of profession on Aug. 15, he looks forward to “the life hereafter,” but strives to be better in this one. “The friars lead by example,” says the man who thinks he is not a teacher.
“I try to be helpful, gracious and thoughtful. I want to be honest and truthful. I don’t always succeed. But I think I’m a pretty good guy.”
Just ask anyone who’s met him.
Fr. J.J. celebrates the St. Anthony Novena on Tuesdays at 2:30 EDT. Watch in live from the St. Anthony Shrine in Cincinnati, Ohio.