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Former Navy chaplain now serves both Byzantine and Roman rites

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While he spent most of his life serving outside the Archdiocese of Chicago, Msgr. George E. Dobes’ career was inspired by his hometown. In his boyhood, every corner of the city was home to a Catholic church founded by one immigrant community or another: Irish, Italians, Poles, Czechs and Lithuanians. 

One day while driving with his father, he saw a building with symbols he didn’t recognize. “There was this little church a block or two down with golden domes and three-bar crosses, and I said to my dad, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘It’s a church, and they’re Catholic just like us.’ ”

The interest in Eastern Rite churches that was sparked as a child became a more than 20-year ministry at Epiphany of Our Lord Church, a Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite parish in Annandale. “Everything came together here,” he said. 

Msgr. Dobes was born Dec. 11, 1942, to George and Marie Dobes. He attended Catholic grade school and graduated high school from Quigley Preparatory Seminary. The minor seminary is now closed, but the building is used as the chancery for the archdiocese. 

During his formation, he played the organ in a nearby hospital where many wounded Vietnam War soldiers were recuperating. As a child he always liked ships, and meeting the veterans inspired him to join the Naval Reserves. He was commissioned in 1967 as an Ensign Probationary Theological Student, now known as the chaplain candidate program. “I was the first Catholic ensign,” he said. 

Msgr. Dobes was ordained to the priesthood by Chicago Cardinal John P. Cody May 2, 1968. He served three years in a parish before entering active duty. Over the years, he spent time in Japan, Rhode Island, the Florida Keys, and on the USS Independence. 

While in Great Lakes, Ill., at the Recruit Training Command, he oversaw construction of a $4.5 million chapel complex, with a 1,000-seat worship space and offices for several chaplains. “The recruits never had a chapel,” he said. “They met in a huge drill hall as big as a football field.”

Msgr. Dobes was working for the Office of the Chief of Chaplains in the now-closed Navy Annex in Arlington when he met the pastor of Epiphany Church, Father John D. Lazarek. “I was working a desk job and I didn’t have any pastoral responsibilities, so I was sort of looking for work,” he said. 

Father Lazarek was thrilled to have someone lend a hand. But as a Roman Catholic priest, Msgr. Dobes needed permission from his superiors and the Vatican to celebrate the Byzantine Rite. Both the Chicago archbishop and the Ruthenian bishop consented, and he was granted bi-ritual faculties in 1981. 

“I’ve had to renew that — Rome only trusted me for three years the first go round, but I’ve renewed it all along,” he said. “Now they trust me for five years.” In the Diocese of Arlington, only Father Lee W. Gross, dean of students at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., has bi-ritual faculties, according to the Office of Clergy.

In 1983, Msgr. Dobes was reassigned outside of Arlington, but he returned in 1990 to work as the first chaplain for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. At the invitation of former Soviet Union countries such as Estonia, Romania, and Latvia, he and others helped re-establish their military chaplaincies. They also helped establish policies for human dignity. “For example, in one country that we were dealing with, they had a barracks for 100 men with one sink, one toilet and one shower,” he said.    

After retiring from the Navy in 1995, he pursued a degree in canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington. “The only time the Navy sent me to school was to teach,” he said. “I wanted to do something for my brain.” After graduating, he worked for the tribunal of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, then for the Archdiocese of Washington. Now retired, he lives in Arlington and ministers at Epiphany and All Saints Church in Manassas. 

After 50 years as a priest, Msgr. Dobes is grateful to have been able to live out his vocation, and the calling within a calling of the military chaplaincy. He loved working with the service men and women. He loved traveling all over the world. “It was all an adventure,” he said with a smile.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018