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Father Greg celebrates 20 years in Olean

by jpolicastro
Mon, Jan 9th 2017 01:00 pm

Father Greg celebrates 20 years in Olean

St. Mary's pastor reflects on past and future


OLEAN — For part of the Rev. Gregory Dobson's career, his most important task was to wake up and open the doors of a church each morning at 6 a.m

"I thought, 'I went to school, I have a college degree, I have two master's degrees and I'm an ordained priest, and my most important task each day is to open the doors of the church at 6 a.m.,'" he recalled. "I said, 'I don't think I can do this for the rest of my life.'"

The young priest told himself opening the church would not be the essence of his work, and that he would have a greater impact on the lives of his parishioners.

Dobson, or "Father Greg," as he is commonly known, seems to have done that the past 20 years as pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church. He's become something of a staple of the Olean community in that time, known for bringing churches together and supporting local organizations, as well as for his open-mindedness and humor.  

Friday marked exactly 20 years since Dobson arrived in Olean and took control of the region's largest Catholic church, which gave the pastor an opportunity to reflect back on his time and work in the community.

"Unlocking the church is not the essence of what my ministry is," he said. "Unlocking people's hearts to God and letting my own heart be open, too, is what it's all about."

Dobson, then 49, was a parochial vicar in Orchard Park when the bishop asked him to take over St. Mary's in early 1997. Suddenly, he had to learn budgeting and financing and was responsible for maintaining a then-80-year-old church.

His father, Patrick, who accompanied him on his first trip to the church and worried his son would be in over his head trying to take care of it, was approached by a parishioner who told him, "Don't worry. We're good to our priests."

"And the people have been very good and very supportive," Dobson said.

He said he was pleasantly surprised by the goodness, supportiveness and generosity of the people in Olean. He was also surprised by how "culturally sophisticated," and racially and religiously diverse the city was, as he can recall attending a Syracuse symphony performance and a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial during his first few weeks there.  

After his first year in Olean, Dobson wrote to the bishop who assigned him to St. Mary's and said: "Whoever advised you to send me here gave you wise counsel. Keep that person close to you."

Still, there were difficulties in his early years in Olean. Dobson inherited a debt of several hundred thousand dollars from structural and artistic renovations to the church. Because of the burden, the parish council was hesitant to endorse giving any money to local organizations in need.

That's when a quiet donor walked into St. Mary's, spoke with the church's business manager, asked what the debt was and wrote a check to the church for exactly that amount.

Dobson chalks it up to his belief that churches faithful to their mission and helpful to others will receive blessings.

"It was an enormous burden and it was like a green light that we were meant to be bigger and to do more and be a catalyst for more things happening in this community," he said of the donation.

With the debt cleared, St. Mary's could support organizations like Genesis House of Olean, Interfaith Caregivers and one of Dobson's favorites, Friends of Good Music.

Dobson also supported Archbishop Walsh Academy — one of the only private Catholic high schools in the region — through his role as the school's canonical administrator. Beth Powers, former board president of Archbishop Walsh, said Dobson was instrumental in strengthening the school after it nearly closed in 2008.

"He was extremely supportive of all of the efforts to turn it around," Powers said. "Even some things we had to do that were somewhat controversial and difficult decisions, he was right there and very supportive and found ways to make things work. He has, I think, an knack for figuring out who he has to talk to and when."

Dobson also worked to unite local parishes for collaboration, something he admits they were hesitant to do at first. He said parishes have strong individual identities, so some feel working with another church implies weakness. Dobson said it's not that at all, but a chance to use resources more creatively.

He was able to convince churches to collaborate on some projects and expects to see more in the future.

"I think Greg has a particularly warm and outgoing way about him," said the Rev. Dan McDowell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Olean. "He tends to bring people together."

Powers said Dobson's personality helped create a welcoming and inclusive environment at Archbishop Walsh. Powers said Dobson made her feel comfortable as a non-Catholic leading the board of a Catholic school.

"He's very open-minded. He's not judgmental, which I think is a great attribute in a priest and in somebody who practices a Christian faith," she said. "It really helped to build a community feeling of the school and the kind of sense in the community that it was a place where anybody could go."

Powers also noted Dobson's good sense of humor, fun personality and that he's a "happy priest."

Yet Dobson admits there are days he's not happy, and days that being a priest is difficult. He sometimes has to do things he doesn't want to do but must because he's sworn obedience to his superiors. There's perhaps some loneliness, too, as Catholic priests are not permitted to marry or have children.

Dobson can remember the early days of his priesthood and the difficulty of not seeing his family on holidays like Christmas because he had to give Mass. The Sunday afternoons after Mass were difficult as well — without friends and his family close by, he'd often go to the movies.

Dobson said things became easier over time, and once he realized he's doing what he's supposed to be doing.

"When you know you made the right decision, you're going to make this work," he said.

Dobson's loved church since he was an altar boy in South Buffalo, but decided to become a priest while teaching at Canisius High School and watching the school priest.

"When there was something really serious or really critical happening, they didn't call for the seventh grade language arts teacher. They called for the priest," Dobson said. "I began to see what power a priest has in those intimate moments. He becomes a real presence of Christ. That was very attractive. There was something about that that I was really drawn to."

Now, Dobson feels most fulfilled when invited into the intimate moments of people's lives, both happy and sad, whether it's marrying two people at a wedding or giving a sermon at a funeral.

Now in his late 60s, Dobson, of course, has retirement somewhat on his mind. He recently took a pre-retirement course through the Catholic Church that suggested he needs more hobbies.

When the time comes for retirement, Dobson won't do so in Olean. He knows he has to give his successor the same space his predecessors once gave him. He'll move back to Erie County — where he has a large family — and work with Buffalo churches and charities.  

"I think that's good for me and I think that's good for Olean and I think it's good for St. Mary's, and it's clearly good for the person who comes after me," he said.

He'll, of course, miss the parts of Olean he's come to love over the last 20 years, like his friends, whom he intends to send cards to, and his rectory front porch, which he calls a great place to pray and "watch the world go by."

He'll especially miss the hills that surround the city.

"I love seeing the hills. You stand at the corner of State and Union and you can see hills in every direction," Dobson said. "There's a beauty here that one could miss very easily."


(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)


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