Local News and Stories

Missionary Oblate serves as new pastor in Sitka

By: Dominique Johnson

Growing up in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, Fr. Dwight Hoeberechts, OMI never envisioned that one day he would become a priest. His first aspiration was to become a commercial airline pilot.

When he was 16 years old Fr. Dwight received his first flying lesson as a Christmas gift from his parents and a passion for flying grew from there. While in high school he shared that he was known for two things, “Youngest member of my class and the only one who could fly an airplane by himself.”

After graduation Fr. Dwight worked to gain more flying experience, while taking college courses for a degree in Business Administration. His dream of becoming a pilot came to a halt at the age of 18 when his “eyes changed” and he had to start wearing glasses. A friend, who was an airline pilot with American Airlines told him that wearing glasses would disqualify him from becoming a commercial pilot.

“I gave up (on flying) at that point,” Fr. Dwight said and changed career paths all together and went into nursing. He received an associate degree in nursing and became a registered nurse in the state of New York. For two years he worked as a spinal cord injury rehab nurse at a Veteran’s Hospital.

However, there became a need for commercial airline pilots and Fr. Dwight saw it as a chance to achieve his dream. So, he left his job as a nurse at the VA and moved to Florida to begin flight school. He received his commercial license instrument rating and began working on an instructors rating. He moved back to New York to continue his instruction, but at his six-month medical exam his eye prescription had changed again. “I talked with my flight doctor and he said I could pass for a while, but one day it wouldn’t work,” he said.

Again Fr. Dwight decided to end his pursuit of becoming a commercial pilot and went back into nursing as the charge nurse of the emergency room in his hometown. It was during slow nights working in the ER that he began to discern his vocation, “I had time to pray and that’s when I started asking God what do you want me to do.” He considered lay missionary work as a pilot or nurse and he considered becoming an Oblate brother.

Fr. Dwight doesn’t recall anyone asking him about becoming a priest while he was growing up or as a young adult, but after spending time in prayer he decided to talk with the vocations director for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and decided to enter formation. When he told the head nurse, a parishioner at his local parish, that he has resigning from his position she responded, “I knew you weren’t going to be with us forever, and I was going to ask you if you had ever thought about becoming a priest.”

Though he hadn’t considered the priesthood earlier in life, the Oblate community held a special place in Fr. Dwight’s heart. While on a family camping trip in Ottawa, Canada, in the late 70s, Fr. Dwight’s mother collapsed in their camping trailer from a cerebral aneurism and was given a slim chance to live. He said this moment brought up a lot of questions for him, his younger sister and his dad, who had fallen away from the church.

Others who were camping at the same campground as the Hoeberechts family were in Canada for a charismatic conference and began praying for the family. Father Dwight’s mother’s surgery ended up not being as complicated as the doctors expected and she was able to communicate with her family shortly after.

When the family returned home Fr. Dwight’s dad told a family friend, who was an evangelical Christian, that he wanted to meet with a Catholic priest and his friend suggested that he speak with an Oblate priest at the community in Newburgh, New York.

Fr. Dwight said, “That was the first time I met an Oblate priest… and I always remember how he took the time to speak to my dad.” His dad returned to the church and 10 years later Fr. Dwight entered formation as an Oblate.

In 1996 he was ordained a transitional deacon by then Bishop of Duluth, Minnesota, Roger Schwietz, OMI (current Archbishop Emeritus of Anchorage) and on April 5th, 1997 he was ordained a priest along with Fr. Andy Sensenig, OMI.

Since his ordination Fr. Dwight has served the Oblates in several assignments in different parts of the country. He has served at different parishes in Massachusetts, he served as an Oblate vocation director for 5 years, he served in California, Buffalo, New York, the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, and now St. Gregory Nazianzen in Sitka, Alaska.

Fr. Dwight said the assignment in Alaska came out of the blue on Fat Tuesday. He spent time praying and reflecting on if this was an assignment he wanted to take and concluded, “There is nothing keeping me back, I am a missionary, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

There was one thing that Fr. Dwight considered before accepting the new assignment and that was living across the country from his family. He shared the conversation he had with his dad before he was ordained a priest. His dad had told him that as the only son the Hoeberechts line ends with him but, “The only family line that is important is the family line of Jesus Christ” and that his family understands that he is a missionary and may have to serve far from home.

Life in Sitka has been good for Fr. Dwight so far. He has had time to learn about the parish from Fr. Andy, as well as Deacon Ron Mathews. He also said he has felt support from Bishop Bellisario and the other priests of the Diocese.

Fr. Dwight says he plans on taking his new ministry “day-by-day,” and he has enjoyed meeting the people of Sitka and as a former nurse he has enjoyed hospital ministry and meeting with people at the Pioneer Home. Coming from a parish back east with 3,700 parishioners, Fr. Dwight says he looks forward to knowing the people of St. Gregory’s.

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