Part of his legacy is his superb work in hospitals

By Deacon Tom Picciano | Contributing writer

Binghamton — Hundreds of people filled Holy Trinity Church on March 19 for the funeral of Father Alfred J. Bebel, 86, who died on March 13. Father Bebel touched many in his 60-plus years of priestly ministry as a pastor and chaplain.

He was born in Tioga County and raised for a time on a farm in Candor. Later, Father Bebel’s family moved to Johnson City, where his family then owned a grocery store.

The Johnson City High School graduate went on to study at Harpur College (now Binghamton University) before entering Niagara University and Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Niagara, N.Y.

A vocation of Blessed Sacrament Church in Johnson City, Father Bebel was stationed first as an assistant at St. Ann’s in the First Ward of Binghamton. Other parish assignments included St. John the Evangelist in Bainbridge and St. Agnes in Afton. He later returned to serve as pastor at St. Ann’s from 1973 to 1984, in the building that now is the merged parish of Holy Trinity.

Father Bebel died at Wilson Regional Medical Center in Johnson City.

It’s the same hospital that Father Bebel had served for many years. He had also been a chaplain at Binghamton General Hospital and Upstate Medical in Syracuse. Just up to the days before his final illness, Father Bebel would visit those hospitalized at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton and Wilson Hospital.

In Syracuse, Father Bebel served as chaplain at Upstate for 18 years. A plaque with his photo still hangs at the hospital. Father Bebel was named “Chaplain of Distinction 1986-2004” and “Employee of the Year” for 2004. Also inscribed are these words: “With heartfelt gratitude for your years of service to patients, families and staff.”

As a young priest, he was a chaplain at Broome Tech (now SUNY-Broome Community College). Father Bebel was chaplain in his later years at the Broome Developmental Center until it closed in 2016.

The congregation at his funeral included Holy Trinity parishioners and many from other parishes as well.

As an example, one woman recalled a pilgrimage with Father Bebel to the Holy Land. She was touched by his simple happiness at being able to float in the Dead Sea.

Also attending the Mass were current hospital chaplains. Some of the clergy were from other denominations. The sanctuary was filled with close to three dozen priests from around the diocese, along with six deacons. The Knights of Columbus formed an honor guard.

“Be Not Afraid,” composed by Bob Dufford, S.J., was the opening hymn.

Father Bebel had picked the readings and hymns that were used in his funeral Mass. His sisters, Theresa Valenta and Christine Garst, read the Scripture. The Old Testament reading came from 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 and the New Testament reading was 1 Peter 2:4-10.

The Gospel was from Matthew 25:31-46, which includes this line: “And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Father Stanley Gerlock, a retired priest, was the homilist. He recalled when he met Father Bebel, shortly after he was ordained. He spoke of attributes of his friend.

“Father Al brought Jesus to others. He had kindness, patience, humility. He was a good listener,” Father Gerlock said.

Father Gerlock spoke of birth and death. Birth, he said, is “warm, comfortable, light, and everyone is happy.”

While in death, “everyone cries, but the deceased is happy.”

He asked a question about Father Bebel that many people ask when someone dies: “Why did God take him so soon?”

Father Gerlock added in closing:

“Thank God for the gift of Father Al and all that he accomplished in 60-plus years.”

Later, as the joint choirs of Holy Trinity and St. Cyril and Methodius parishes began singing the Communion reflection, Father Gerlock smiled, turned to a deacon next to him, and whispered, “That’s a Polish hymn.”

“Serdeczna Matko,” which means “Cordial Mother,” is usually sung at times of mourning or in Lent. The choirs sang four verses, all in Polish.

Msgr. Timothy Elmer, the diocesan vicar general, was the celebrant of the Mass. He told those gathered that Bishop Robert J. Cunningham couldn’t be there in person because he was leading a pilgrimage to Italy.

Msgr. Elmer spoke fondly of Father Bebel. He recalled the opportunity to speak with him at the annual Clergy Convocation. Msgr. Elmer smiled when he talked of Father Bebel’s commitment as a priest.

“He was retired,” Msgr. Elmer said, but went on to mention how Father Bebel didn’t really retire, but rather kept being a priest and serving people.

His obituary notes that he continued to be available for Masses, baptisms, weddings, and funerals until the day of the fall that resulted in his death.

When not saying a weekend Mass in his home parish, Father Bebel would often go to a rural parish where a priest was needed on a Sunday. In keeping with his heritage, he said a monthly Mass in Polish at Holy Trinity Church.

He also offered his services as a spiritual director, which he was trained for more than 40 years ago.

Father Bebel did take some time off, with visits with family in Poland for several weeks in recent years. He kept up correspondence with them as well.

He was grounded in his rural roots, sometimes visiting the old family farm to take walks in the field. And each year in his small backyard a few blocks from Holy Trinity, he worked in “his little garden patch” with vegetables and rosebushes.

Father Bebel is survived by his sisters, Theresa Valenta, Florence Tomanek, and Christine Garst; his brother, Bernard Bebel; his uncle, Tony Lipka; his aunt, Eleanor Cornett; several nieces and nephews; great-nieces and nephews; and great-great nieces and nephews; and dozens of cousins.

Burial was in Calvary Cemetery in Johnson City.

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