Unexpected saintly encouragement helped fulfill vocation
After two unsuccessful attempts to complete seminary studies to be a priest, Father Joseph Zamary found unexpected encouragement from a future canonized saint—Padre Pio.
During the mid-to-late 1960s, friends of his mother, Frances, went to visit Padre Pio, the Italian Capuchin Franciscan friar known for mystical gifts. They asked him to pray for Mrs. Zamary’s children, but they came back with a message for his mother.
“Joseph must persevere to the priesthood,” they said, conveying the message from Padre Pio. Father Zamary would be ordained a priest in 2001.
“Perseverance” is certainly the word for the recently-retired priest, whose vocational path ran through three seminaries and the permanent diaconate.
Father Zamary traces his desire to be a priest to his growing up in Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish on the east side of Youngstown. One of eight boys and three girls in his family, he said, “My mother was a homemaker and my father, Frank, was superintendent for the Wilkoff Company,” an iron and steel firm, near their home.
“I used to serve Mass, starting in second grade,” Father Zamary continued. “We were there at the church all the time for novenas and you name it. There were a lot of good priests at my parish, and I developed a devotion to the Eucharist.”
He went to Ursuline High School, graduating in 1955. “Once, we went away to Cleveland for a retreat and that is when I first started thinking about the priesthood,” Father Zamary said.
He attended seminary studies at St. Mary’s College, Kentucky, in 1956, but left the college in 1959. This was the pre-Second Vatican Council era—when classes were in Latin. “Latin and I never got along,” he said.
Monsignor Walter Martin, his pastor, suggested that he try St. John Vianney Seminary in Steubenville.
He studied there from 1959 to 1963 but faced the same difficulty with Latin.
With his priestly aspirations seemingly out of reach, Father Zamary undertook several business ventures with his brothers, including two years as manager of an Isaly’s Dairy store and more than seven years as the manager of a car wash. After that, he worked for 12 years as a manager at Austintown Burger Chef restaurant.
He stayed involved in the Church, and in 1975, he entered the diocese’s first program for preparation for the permanent diaconate. “It was in English, so I did fine,” he said. He was ordained a permanent deacon in 1977 and served at Sacred Heart Parish, while continuing to manage a Hardee’s restaurant.
Around 1996, his pastor, Father Thomas Eisweirth, took a sabbatical and asked him to supervise the parish during his absence. “I had to quit my job at Hardee’s,” Father Zamary explained. He carried out the non-sacramental duties of the pastor, while visiting priests celebrated Mass and heard confessions.
When Father Eisweirth returned, Father Eisweirth told him to visit Bishop Thomas Tobin and “ask him to ordain you as a priest.” Bishop Tobin agreed.
At that point, Padre Pio’s words of encouragement came forcefully back to him, Father Zamary said.
In 1997, he enrolled in the Sacred Heart School of Theology, Wisconsin, to again pursue seminary studies. He graduated in 2001 and was ordained a priest.
His first assignment was associate pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Canton. “Father Brad Helman was the pastor and he was helpful in guiding me. It was a very busy parish. The people were great. It was a good place to start.”
In 2005, he was transferred to St. James Parish, Waynesburg —first as administrator and then as pastor. “It was awesome to be a leader of God’s people, serving them,” Father Zamary said.
One aspect of the priesthood that surprised him was “how the Spirit enlightens us. At times I wondered: ‘How could I handle it?’ Then I could sense the Spirit saying to me: ‘Joe, you can do this.’ The Spirit really gave me what I needed and pulled me through,” he said.
What he has liked best about the priesthood is “celebrating the Mass and the sacraments and being able to help people. It was joyful.”
He retired as pastor on July 1. For now, he’s staying with his brother, Tom, and recovering from some health issues, but he has assisted at parishes. Once he has recovered sufficiently, Father Zamary expects to do more.
One of his goals, Father Zamary said, “is involvement in efforts to encourage young people to return to active participation in their faith,” Father Zamary said. “You can’t force anyone to go to church, but you can encourage them.”
Regardless, he looks forward to serving in any way he can. “As long as I can keep on going, I will keep on going.”