February 1, 2023 | Local News, Vocations
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Fr. John C. McVoy proclaims the Gospel during the 75th anniversary Mass of Rosary Chapel in Paducah, Ky., on Oct. 16, 2022. Fr. McVoy grew up at Rosary Chapel and today is a priest of the Diocese of Wilmington, Del. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

‘God will make a crooked road straight’

Son of Rosary Chapel reflects on path to priesthood


Fr. John C. McVoy, Jr., a son of Rosary Chapel in Paducah, received his call to the priesthood “at the worst time in my life.”

His beloved wife, Bethlhem Kebede, had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004. Spending some time alone by her casket before the funeral liturgy, he heard a voice telling him to become a priest.

“There are no coincidences in our lives,” said Fr. McVoy told The Western Kentucky Catholic in a recent interview. “We just have to keep ourselves open.”

Nineteen years later, serving as the first – and so far, only – African American priest ordained in the Diocese of Wilmington, Del., Fr. McVoy said you will never be able to predict “the connections that lead you to this journey – that, only God knows.”

“That’s the ironic thing about a call,” he said.

Growing up at Rosary Chapel was “foundational” for Fr. McVoy.

As a child, Fr. McVoy lived a block away from Rosary Chapel, which was one of two historically Black churches in the Diocese of Owensboro. Being nearby, “I was always there,” he said of the “tight-knit community” at Rosary Chapel, where he attended elementary school as well.

His father, John C. McVoy, Sr., was influential in the local community as the leader who started the process of integrating the local school system. Sadly, Fr. McVoy’s father died when he was a junior in high school, which led the teen to “ask why these things happened.”

At the same time, Fr. McVoy “always continued to practice my faith – even in college,” he said, describing his Catholicism as “an umbilical cord connected to me.”

He had no intention of becoming a priest when growing up. Instead, like many young people, he planned on finding someone to marry and having a family – which is exactly what he did.

Marrying Bethlhem, with whom he had fallen in love “the first day I met her” while studying at Howard University, they together raised three children.

Fr. McVoy earned his chemistry degree from Howard University in 1979 and studied environmental toxicology at Florida A&M University. He also studied personnel and human resources management at University of La Verne, voice at Florida State University and business at University of the District of Columbia.

Settling with the family in Wilmington, Del., he became a senior chemist and senior project manager for DuPont. At the same time, they began supporting the Ministry of Caring, a Capuchin-run ministry to the city’s poor and homeless.

He felt a call to become a permanent deacon and started the process of discernment and formation.

Then Bethlhem suffered the fatal heart attack during a stress test in the doctor’s office.

After the stunning revelation at his wife’s casket, the future Fr. McVoy met with Br. Ronald Giannone, OFM Cap., the leader of Ministry of Caring, to sort out what was happening spiritually. He also met with Bishop Michael Saltarelli of Wilmington.

“When I went to see him, I sat in his office – he started crying, I started crying,” said Fr. McVoy of his meeting with the bishop. “He said, ‘God will make a crooked road straight.’ He knew where this would ultimately lead.”

This path “was tough, but it was good,” said Fr. McVoy, reflecting on the process of discerning the priesthood as an African American and a single dad with three kids.

“It sent shockwaves through the presbyterate,” he said, but said he received great support from many priests, close friends, and the bishop himself.

He studied at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Massachusetts, which he credited as “the best formation for me – they understood my role and how that fit into the Church’s life.”

Fr. McVoy was ordained in 2010.

Today, he visits Rosary Chapel when possible, such as concelebrating the parish’s 75th anniversary Mass this past October with Bishop William F. Medley. He also proudly has four grandsons.

After his ordination Fr. McVoy became a chaplain at a Class A trauma center in the ChristianaCare hospital system – a role he has served for the last 13 years.

Early on he learned that he has a special calling within his priestly calling: “I didn’t realize I had this gift of caring for the sick and dying.”

Having inherited polycystic kidney disease, he had a kidney transplant in December 2022 at the same healthcare system where he serves – which he considers significant, having experienced a similar “depth of pain” as those he serves.

“You can’t go to school and just be a chaplain,” he said. “It is a gift that God places on your heart to empathize with the person and their family.”

Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.

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