Retired priest prioritizes interaction with students
By Andrew Mentock
Father Camillo Tirabassi is regularly found in the lunchroom of Saint Joseph High School. He sits on the side of the room, walker next to him, as he greets the students who pass by. There’s always a giant smile on his face as he says hello, asks them about upcoming athletic events and encourages them to grow in their faith.
Since Father Cam, 85, retired eight years ago, he has chosen to continue spending much of his time at Saint Joseph High School in South Bend, where he has been a chaplain for 28 years. He also helps out at the parish where he resides by celebrating Masses and hearing confessions when the pastor cannot. Currently, his two homes are at St. Hedwig Parish in South Bend and his own residence in Florida.
“When you retire, there’s no book, there’s no class, there’s nothing that’s going to tell you what’s going to happen. It just happens,” said Father Cam. “One day you’re working, doing all kinds of things, and the next day you’re doing nothing. So you have to find ways to keep busy.”
Father Cam continues to do many of the things he had been doing since he became a priest, only now there is no obligation to do them on any certain schedule. He only does them because they are what he loves to do.
To him, it is especially important to encourage students to go to confession. Together, he and Father Terry Coonan, pastor at St. Therese, Little Flower Catholic Church, offer confession at Saint Joseph four days a week.
“Our sins are often sins that we commit all the time,” said Father Cam. “They’re habitual. We are creatures of habit. If you want to get rid of that habit, one of the best ways is obviously to go to confession. We think of confession as something that takes away sin and it does. But it also gives us the opportunity to be stronger, to help take away those sinful habits we have.”
In addition to current students, Father Cam also counsels men and women who graduated years ago.
“I can call him and I know he will be there. Recently I did, and we went to dinner,” said Ted Pajakowski, 26, who has known Father Cam since he started preschool at Corpus Christi Grade School. “I know he will always be a voice of support who will listen to me, but, at the same time, give it to me straight and set me on the right path.”
In retirement, he has also devoted much of his time to further developing his own spiritual life.
“One of the things that my confessor says that I should try to do more is read. When I was a kid, my dad had no education, but he always knew the importance of reading,” said Father Cam, who has strong Italian roots. “He would always say ‘ottenere il libro.’ Get the book. He knew the value of reading. I never listened. But now I am reading more spiritual books to improve my own faith.”
When Father Cam retired, he had been the pastor at Corpus Christi in South Bend for 21 years. He first went to Holy Family Parish in South Bend before moving to St. Hedwig at the recommendation of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.
In the winter he goes to Florida, where he also helps out at a parish. This allows him to stay busy and not feel guilty for avoiding South Bend during its harsh winters, he said. It was in Florida where he fell deathly ill in March.
Father Cam learned later he had experienced some sort of blockage, and at the time became too disoriented to do anything about it. His niece always visits in April, but for some reason she and her husband came a month early and were able to take him to the hospital. If they hadn’t, he would have died.
“The doctor told my niece that they didn’t think that they couldn’t do anything for me. But after three days I came around,” said Father Cam, “It was a blessing, especially the prayers of the people — so many people. Everywhere I went people said, ‘We were praying for you Father.’ I didn’t even know some of them, but people from all the different parishes were still praying for me. I owe them my life.”
What a life it has been and will continue to be, as Father Cam fulfills his vocation as a priest even in retirement.