SCROLL THE ARROWS FOR ADDITIONAL PHOTOS.
A young man fresh out of art school was distributing Holy Communion to people in a nursing home.
He stopped to spend time with a woman painfully disfigured by cancer.
She knew he wasn’t a priest, but when they finished praying, she said, “Thank you, Father.”
“I walked out of there a little scared,” Father William Debo recently recalled. “It took me back to all the other times when it seemed like God was dropping little hints.”
That woman was one of many people who “boldly, gently and very matter-of-factly” helped Fr. Debo aspire to the Holy Priesthood into which he was ordained 25 years ago.
“It’s all about serving the People of God, and that comes in many, many different forms,” he stated. “I’ve been able to do that in some very serious ways in times of life or death, and I’ve been able to do it by sharing a glass of wine and dancing the polka.”
Neither rain nor sleet
Fr. Debo is the older of two sons born to Helen and the late Harold Debo.
He grew up in Wellsville and received his sacraments in the Church of the Resurrection.
The family almost never missed Mass.
“One Good Friday, we were having the worst ice storm I can remember,” he recalled. “Power lines were across the road, sparking.”
Undaunted, Fr. Debo’s dad set about driving the family to church, arriving just in time for the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion and Death.
“That’s just one story among many,” the priest recalled. “We always went to church when we were supposed to.”
The family lived a backyard away from his paternal grandparents. After their grandfather died, the Debo brothers spent most nights with their grandmother.
“I remember dad building a sidewalk specifically for that reason,” said Fr. Debo. “We would go down there in our pajamas from our back door to their front door.”
Fr. Debo also spent time with his maternal grandparents, who lived in nearby Martinsburg and were members of St. Joseph parish.
He often went to Mass with them on Saturday evening, then with his parents in Wellsville on Sunday morning.
“I learned through church and through family to have a great deal of respect for older people and doing the kind of stuff you do in a small town,” he said.
One Saturday before Mass in Martinsburg, a woman who was always in the pew ahead of him turned around and asked if he’d ever thought about being a priest.
“She was the first to come right out and ask,” Fr. Debo recalled.
Others who sat nearby occasionally followed suit.
As one often restless and rambunctious in his religious-education classes, young Billy would respond, “Me? No. I never thought about it.”
“Worth my time”
What Fr. Debo wanted was to be a graphic artist.
After graduating from Wellsville-Middletown R-I High School, he went to the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver to study advertising design.
He stayed with his aunt and uncle, who were members of St. Joan of Arc parish in Arvada, Colorado.
He became active in the parish youth group and taught CCD.
The mother of one of his friends at school called Fr. Debo’s aunt to say she recognized a difference in her son since he started spending time with him.
He was more interested in church.
“My aunt thought I was thumping the Bible and evangelizing,” Fr. Debo recalled. “I told her I don’t think we ever even talked about church or religion.
“What I think he saw was the conviction I had received from my parents that church is important and worth my time and commitment,” he said.
Fr. Debo returned to Wellsville in 1982 with an associate’s degree and a portfolio.
He did freelance work in graphic design while working up new material to send to Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, where he wanted to build a career.
He re-joined Church of the Resurrection parish, designing banners and antependiums for the various liturgical seasons and becoming active in the “Our Journey in Faith” program for the laypeople of this diocese.
He heard about a parish mission in Martinsburg and decided to attend with his grandparents.
A Benedictine monk from Conception Abbey directed the mission and spoke each evening.
“I was inquisitive about a lot of things he had to say,” Fr. Debo recalled. “He talked about how the monks ran a seminary. That interested me.”
Each night, the visiting priest answered anonymous questions that attendees placed in the “question box.”
Fr. Debo stuffed the box.
The visiting priest suspected that many of the inquiries were from the same person. He announced that if anyone had anything to discuss in greater depth, he would be available at the rectory the next day.
“I knocked on the door and we had a long visit,” said Fr. Debo. “He was very nice and gave me some pointers. He said, ‘Come and visit the seminary, and contact the vocation director if you’re serious about it.’”
What became of the monk?
Fr. Debo did eventually visit Conception Seminary College.
On his last night there, he met an older seminarian who had previously worked in construction.
“We talked until late into the night,” said Fr. Debo. “After hearing what he had to say, I thought, ‘Maybe I can give this a try.’”
His parents agreed.
“If God wants you to be a priest, He’ll get you there,” his dad told him.
Fr. Debo enrolled at Conception, taking all of the classes required for a degree, including math and science.
A young Benedictine, Father Albert Bruecken, had just joined the faculty.
“He’ll get you through,” Fr. Debo’s advisors told him.
“And God bless him, he did!”
That year, the future priest chose Sister Benita Luetkemeyer for his spiritual director. She is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, whose motherhouse is a few miles from Conception.
He was talking to Sr. Benita at a social event during a Benedictine chapter meeting when a group of monks arrived.
“I saw the priest who had given the mission in Martinsburg,” he recalled. “I pointed to him and asked Sister if she knew who he was.”
She said, “I certainly should know. He’s my brother!”
It was Benedictine Father Alexander Luetkemeyer, who had been out on mission as an associate pastor of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City.
Fr. Debo took seminary life one year at a time, often telling God, “If You want me to do this, I need You to help me.”
Whenever he visited home, his family noticed him growing in confidence and sense of fulfillment.
He continued his studies at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, helping with hospitality and working in the library.
He did a summer internship at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia and served as a transitional deacon at Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City.
On May 13, 1995, in St. Joseph Church in Martinsburg, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe of Jefferson City, now deceased, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.
“Everything kind of swoops over you and engulfs you,” said Fr. Debo, “and you think of all the people who didn’t live to see the day, and the smiles on the faces of all the people there who did.”
His grandparents had all died by then, “but my parents and my great-aunts and uncles were there, and people I knew who were carrying-on our family legacy,” he said.
He served as associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia until he was appointed pastor of St. Joseph parish in Salisbury in July 1998.
In 2002, he became the first diocesan priest to serve as pastor of St. George parish in Hermann since its founding by Franciscan priests 150 years previously.
He also became the first non-resident pastor of Church of the Risen Savior parish in Rhineland, which includes the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Starkenburg.
In Hermann, he and about 25 parishioners decorated the massive former Franciscan monastery for Christmas each year and hosted tours through Advent.
He is pleased to have been able to help get the beautiful hospitality venue known as Valentine Hall built near the shrine in Starkenburg.
“We all worked together on that,” he said. “It was a success because we did it slowly and meticulously and relied heavily on the grace of God.”
In 2015, he became pastor of Holy Family parish in Freeburg and Sacred Heart parish in Rich Fountain.
One of his great-grandfathers was active in Sacred Heart and is buried in the cemetery.
“I can see his headstone from my rectory,” said Fr. Debo.
Freeburg was home to Fr. Luetkemeyer, now deceased, and Sr. Benita, both of whom had helped him early in his priestly discernment.
“So in a way, I’m back where I started,” he said.
Fr. Debo believes being Catholic means more than doubling down on doctrine.
“I want to be a witness and bear the Good News of Jesus Christ,” he said. “When I reflect on the lives of the saints, which I like to do often, I try to consider, ‘How can my Priesthood set a better example for people?’”
He called to mind what his spiritual director at Kenrick once told him: “At the end of every day, do something that makes you laugh.”
“That means, capture the moment and live as joyfully in the Lord as you can!” he said.
He believes beauty in all aspects of Catholic worship helps draw people into deeper communion with God.
“Liturgy is supposed to be exceedingly beautiful,” he noted. “I’ve been very fortunate to have people in all of my parishes who understand that and appreciate it and go out of their way to do it well.”
He makes a point of preaching homilies that challenge himself, hoping to grow in faith and knowledge with the people entrusted to his care.
He relishes his role as confessor and agent of God’s abundant mercy.
“I’m never more humbled than when I’m in the confessional and visiting with people in their most vulnerable state,” he said.
He’s committed to helping people recognize Jesus “even in the most stressful disguises.”
“Because of the challenges and rough spots we’ve been through collectively and as individuals, we need to pray for the strength every day to serve the Lord in even the simplest and most miniscule ways,” he said.
Fr. Debo has held tightly to the charism of hospitality modeled by the Benedictine monks and sisters he met in the seminary.
“‘Receiving each guest as you would receive Christ’ — that has been a central theme of my Priesthood and my life,” he said.
He relishes preparing meals and gathering people around the table who might not otherwise share each other’s company.
“It’s always about connecting people and helping them get to know each other,” he said.
His rejoicing was tinged with grief while he celebrated Mass nearly alone during Holy Week and Easter because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s more than me standing in persona Christi,” he said. “It’s about all the people standing there with me — seen and unseen.”
He looks gratefully back at the steadfast, faithful consistency his parents and grandparents modeled for him, the kindness and candor fellow Wellsville and Martinsburg parishioners showed him, and the patient wisdom his teachers and the Precious Blood Sisters of O’Fallon helped reinforce for him in his youth.
“They are all part of my vocation story,” he said.
He’s confident that God is still calling men to be priests in this diocese.
He suggested listening attentively to subtle messages and reminders.
He likened the calling to Psalm 42:2 — “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for You, O God” — and to St. Augustine’s prayer, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
“If it’s something God is putting on your heart and mind, then keep reaching for it,” said Fr. Debo. “It’s well worth it.”