When Msgr. Joseph F. Rebman informed parishioners at St. Joseph on the Brandywine this week that he is retiring May 10 at age 85 and after 61 years as a priest, it marked an historic conclusion of active ministry in the Diocese of Wilmington for one of its most recognizable churchmen and native sons.
Msgr. Rebman’s impact on the diocese will be known for years to come.
“I want to express my heartfelt thanks for your heroic and dedicated service to our Catholic Church both at the diocesan and parish levels,” Bishop Malooly said in a hand-delivered letter he gave to Msgr. Rebman earlier this month.
“You have earned a position of high esteem in the Diocese of Wilmington through your tireless commitment,” the bishop said. “Whether in the church or in the chancery your service has stood out as a true gift from the Lord that has touched so very many people’s lives. For this I am grateful.”
Pastor at St. Joseph’s more than 21 years, Msgr. Rebman has served in numerous jobs in the diocese including chancellor, vicar general and judicial vicar. He is a longtime member and past president of the national Catholic Cemetery Conference.
His resume lists almost every important role a priest can fulfill.
Eight popes have led the church in his lifetime. Six bishops have been in charge of the diocese, including Bishop Edmund FitzMaurice, who was bishop when Joseph Francis Rebman was born in Wilmington Dec. 6, 1935 as a member of Cathedral of St. Peter parish.
“I’m Wilmington born, Wilmington bred and when I die, I’ll be Wilmington dead,” Msgr. Rebman said in his typically good-natured delivery during an interview with The Dialog.
With two younger sisters, Msgr. Rebman was the eldest of Joseph and Isabelle Rebman’s three children. He attended St. Peter Cathedral School and Salesianum School before he began studies for the priesthood at St. Charles College in Catonsville, Md., and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He completed theological studies at the North American College in Rome, where he was ordained Dec. 18, 1960 by Bishop Martin J. O’Connor.
His first assignment was associate pastor at Immaculate Conception parish in Elkton, Md. Less than three years after his ordination, he got a call most priests would never confront in a lifetime.
Pan Am flight 214 from Baltimore to Philadelphia crashed just outside of town the evening of Dec. 8, 1963 during a flight from Baltimore to Philadelphia. The flight originated in Puerto Rico and was filled with vacationers. All 81 occupants of the plane were killed.
“I got a call from a fellow at the fire department. He said he would pick me up. We rode out to the crash site in the fire truck.”
It was a gruesome scene in a heavy rain. It was later determined the plane was struck by lightning and broke apart. Then-Father Rebman recalled the next day meeting a man in his mid-20s whose brother and sister-in-law were among the victims. They left behind five children.
The tragedy may have helped inspire the young priest.
“It was a moment in time I will never forget,” he said in a 2019 interview with Catholic Cemetery magazine. “It strengthened my desire to serve the dead.”
In addition to his many leadership roles, Msgr. Rebman served as administrator of the diocese for six months after the transfer of Bishop Robert Mulvee in 1995.
He believes he’s celebrated Mass just about every day of his vocation, which would put him at well over 20,000 celebrations of the liturgy in his priesthood, not counting thousands of weddings and funerals. Asked his favorite day to celebrate Mass, he mentioned March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, his namesake, and his Dec. 6 birthday. He said he seldom passes up the chance to preach.
“I try to preach a little bit every day,” he said.
With his leadership experience and training in Rome, he admits it crossed his mind that he could one day be made bishop. “But I got over that a long time ago,” he said.
He has met two popes in his lifetime, both saints, John XXIII during his seminary years in Rome and John Paul II years later.
With such a long track record, Msgr. Rebman had the opportunity to train many of his successors. He saw greatness in store for former Wilmington priest Bishop John O. Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and he considers retired Msgr. Thomas Cini, former diocesan vicar general, one of his best friends in the priesthood.
“His keen intelligence, his good Samaritan charity, his pastoral realism, his empathy and compassion, his ‘peace, love and joy!’ – Msgr. Rebman is the consummate Catholic priest,” Bishop Barres said in an email to the Dialog.
“He always has everyone’s best interests at heart as he applies his priestly heart and encyclopedic intelligence and wisdom to the service of all the people God has sent him through the years.
“He has always been a model and a point of reference for me in finding constructive and faithful pastoral solutions in a complex world,” Bishop Barres said. “He has always been beloved by the exceptional priests of the Diocese of Wilmington and the people he serves.”
Msgr. Rebman admits he wasn’t eager to step down.
“I’m still getting used to it,” he said. “My spirit is willing; my flesh is weak.”
His voice production has been hampered and some swallowing difficulties have restricted his communication skills.
He wrote in a letter to parishioners that he hasn’t determined where he will live – he said he has some good options — and he does not know who will replace him as pastor.
“I am so proud to have been pastor of this historic and faith-filled parish dedicated to St. Joseph for over 21 years,” he said.