The Rev. Jim Szobonya didn’t know what to expect when he was sent to Lima eight years ago to become the new pastor of St. Gerard Catholic Church.
St. Gerard is served by the Redemptorist congregation of missionary priests in Baltimore, and to be sent to Lima, well, it’s the equivalent of being sent to Siberia.
“Maybe it sounds better to say St. Gerard is one of the parishes that is the furthest away from the East Coast,” Szobonya laughed.
It only took a couple of days, however, for the New Jersey-born priest to fall in love with a city surrounded by corn and soybeans.
“I went to the pharmacy the day after saying my first Mass, and I hear a lady say, ‘Hello Father Jim.’ Then I went to the Chief store, and a young girl says, ‘I’ll carry out your groceries, Father Jim.’ I asked her why, and she says because ‘that’s what we do.’ Later, the church secretary tells me I better wait a little bit before going on my hospital rounds because it’s rush-hour traffic. I look out the window, and there are four cars on the street. I’m telling you, these things don’t happen in Jersey or New York.”
That’s why the man affectionately known as Father Jim says it will be “with sadness” when he leaves Lima this month. The Catholic Church believes it is not possible for a priest, no matter how good and dedicated he may be, to fulfill all of the pastoral needs of a specific parish forever. Thus, a rotation of priests ensures their talents will be shared.
Father Jim petitioned his bishop for another four years, but the 57-year-old priest was told his next assignment will be at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, close to Lancaster County’s Amish country. On the good side, he’ll be only an hour away from his 78-year-old mother in his hometown of Manville, New Jersey. He’ll say his final Mass at St. Gerard at 11 a.m. July 28.
Suffice to say, Father Jim will be remembered as a one-of-a-kind priest who was always in motion. His homilies were delivered with a thick “Joisy” accent, accompanied with the constant flapping of arms and always — always! — a prop to help make his point.
His journey to the priesthood and Lima followed a road with many curves. He learned from each.
“When I was a senior in high school, I decided I was going to show my Mother who was boss and pulled an all-nighter … I was 18 after all, you know, a real man,” he said. “Her response was to cancel my graduation party. I tried to make it up to her by doing extra chores. She thanked me, but told me there are consequences in life, and the party was still off. It took courage for her to do that, but it taught me right from wrong.”
He was the star quarterback on his high school football team, and his late father was one to never miss a game.
“The weather could be miserable with only three people in the stands, but everyone knew my Dad would be one of those three,” he said.
Szobonya briefly played football at Upsala College in New Jersey before deciding to fully concentrate on an accounting degree. At age 35, he was fully entrenched in the business world for 10 years and engaged to be married.
Then it happened.
“November 1986,” he said. “I received my calling to become a priest.”
It’s a vocation that’s seen him working close with youth, something that has been fulfilling, but in Lima has also brought sadness.
“I’m shocked by the number of teenage suicides, by the lack of hope and depression,” Father Jim said. “Yes, this is a tough age, but everyone’s life has a purpose.
“I also worry about the division in government and what message it is sending. We need to be able to disagree without looking at someone as the enemy.”
Father Jim will tell you he is the one who has benefited the most from his eight years at St. Gerard.
“They sent me here as a pastor — a guy who can only do one thing at a time, a guy who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “I told God I can’t do this. It didn’t feel right. Then God sent me people from the parish who have special gifts and are willing to share their talents. It’s as if God had a puzzle, and I needed to trust him that all the pieces would fit.”
That trust has accounted for a $2.4 million capital campaign that includes the expansion of the school. Eight new classrooms are currently being built. Just four years earlier, Father Jim struggled with the possibility of closing the school as attendance dropped to 114 students. That number will be above 200 when school starts in August.
“The mission of the school was important to people, and they weren’t going to let it close. That is what is so impressive throughout Lima— the strong bonds and family values,” he said. “We had 35 baptisms last year, and six of those were non-Catholics who attended the school. That tells you the parishioners were right when they wouldn’t let that school close.”
A farewell party will be held for Father Jim and the Rev. Mike Houston, who also is being reassigned, on Sunday, July 14, following the 11 a.m. Mass. The Rev. Mike Sergi will remain and become the new pastor.
ROSES AND THORNS: A retired Lima News sports writer who has seen many “saves” in baseball and soccer during his lifetime, reports on a “true save” he witnessed in downtown Lima.
Rose: Tom Usher, now a freelance sports writer for The Lima News, notes that with the Women’s World Cup going on, goalkeepers are constantly getting credit for huge saves. But Sunday afternoon, June 23, Usher reports he saw a bigger-than-life save in Lima. As he tells it, an older gentleman in a wheelchair started to push himself across Metcalf Street (near High). When the man reached the halfway point, traffic started rolling toward him in both directions. “At that point, I’m hoping all the traffic stops and doesn’t hit the poor guy, who is rolling at a snail’s pace,” Usher said. Before Tom could act, a young man at the gas station across the street bolted out in the street through the traffic and pushed the guy in the wheelchair across Metcalf to the safety of the sidewalk. The younger man patted the guy in the wheelchair on the back and returned to filling up his car at the gas station. “That was a true save,” Usher said.
Rose: To Jac Nickles, an eighth-grader at Allen East. During Indiana’s speed week, he became the youngest driver at age 14 to win a Midwest Mini feature when he did so at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnanville, Indiana. He’s been racing since he was 4 years old and jumped in a go-cart.
Rose: To Janice and James Meredith, of Lima, and Patricia and Tom Bodell of Waynesfield. The Merediths celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on June 20, while the Bodells will mark 65 years of marriage on July 11.
Rose: Around 40 law enforcement officers and 20 athletes carried the Special Olympics Flame of Hope through Allen County last Monday.
Thorn: To the vandals that spray-painted hateful remarks on the walls of New Life Assembly Church on Kibby Street in Lima.
Thorn: The Lima Police Department is urging people to start locking up at 9 p.m. following a rash of thefts from cars, garages, sheds and front porches in the areas o f Grand, Lakewood and Delphos avenues.
Thorn: Part of Allen County has been unable to watch local television stations for over a week on Spectrum Cable and has had interrupted internet service.
PARTING SHOT: You can’t have a million dollar dream with a minimum wage work ethic.
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.