WILMINGTON — James Gebhart started thinking of joining the priesthood as a child at St. Catherine of Siena School in Prices Corner, although that faded as he got a bit older.
“I was one of those kids who would pretend to celebrate Mass,” Gebhart said recently. “But I didn’t really think of it all that much as I was going through elementary school, middle school. The thought came back to me when I was about to enter my senior year of high school.”
After several steps and years, Gebhart, 25, will take the final step before becoming a priest on May 13 when he is ordained to the transitional diaconate at his home church, St. Mary of the Assumption in Hockessin. He is scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in a year.
As he went through high school at Delaware Military Academy after spending seventh and eighth grade at St. Elizabeth School, Gebhart became more involved with the Catholic faith. He talked to Father John Hynes, the pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, and started praying more and going to adoration, and began attending daily Mass during the summer. He almost entered the seminary out of high school but decided against it, instead heading to Goldey Beacom College.
“Nerves might have gotten the better of me. I was going to go to Goldey Beacom and do marketing,” he said.
He still attended adoration and was part of a discernment group that included Fathers Charles Dillingham and Chris Coffiey. Father Dillingham was and remains pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption, and Father Coffiey was his associate at the time. On Christmas Day 2015, Gebhart told the priests he wanted to apply to become a seminarian.
He enrolled at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., where he earned a degree in theology and was valedictorian of his 2019 graduating class. He said the valedictorian of each school at Seton Hall had to compete to become the overall valedictorian, and he was selected to deliver the address at commencement at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
“I got to do it at the actual commencement ceremony in front of thousands of people,” Gebhart said. “It was a surreal experience.”
Since then, he has been studying at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, and he spent his pastoral year at St. Ann Parish in Wilmington.
Father Hynes said Gebhart helped at St. Catherine of Siena as an 18- and 19-year-old in the Bible school and with other tasks at the parish. He said Gebhart will make a good priest.
“I was impressed by his ability and willingness with the children, and his enthusiasm, and secondly by his good relationships with adults,” Father Hynes said. “I think he’s a good listener, too. He doesn’t dominate the conversation, but he listens very well.”
Gebhart said his family — parents Mary and Stephen, and brother Andrew — “kind of saw” his decision to become a priest coming.
“They saw that I was more involved in the faith. I don’t think it was a huge shock to them. But there might have been a bit of skepticism. But I remember after about four or five years my dad saying, ‘Yeah, I think he’s going to make it.’
“It’s beautiful to see how much a priestly vocation impacts the rest of the family.”
The Catholic faith has become a bigger part of his parents’ life, he noted. They are excited that the priesthood seems to be a good fit for him.
“They can see that in my joy, and they’ve seen me interact in a parish setting, so they know that this is certainly my vocation,” he said.
Gebhart likes to hang out with his family and friends and keeps in touch with his classmates from Delaware Military. He is a history buff, particularly history with which he’s involved, like his family and the diocese. He liked spending time with the late Father Thomas Peterman, an author and historian who lived at St. Catherine of Siena for several years.
Another activity he enjoys is flying drones. He said Father Michael Darcy introduced him to drones, and he has worked on a few video history projects.
Gebhart is looking forward to the sacramental life: celebrating Mass, baptizing people, hearing confessions and anointing the sick. He said he heard once early in the discernment process that “priests enter into people’s lives at very critical moments, times of great joy and happiness but also suffering and pain. I think in the experiences I’ve had in the seminary being able to enter into those times, that’s something I look forward to. They have a need for their priests.”
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