Rev. John A. Rice is the son of Donald R. and Carol A. Rice of Parkersburg, West Virginia. He is a 1980 graduate of St. Joseph Prep Seminary, Vienna, West Virginia. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Wheeling Jesuit University in 1984. He also attended St. Mary’s Seminary and University.
This article is from The Catholic Spirit newspaper of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.
By Thomas R. Papeika
Throughout John Rice’s life, people have noticed something special about him. As a child in the Parkersburg area, he seemed to be on the fast track to the priesthood. As a young man working for the Boy Scouts of America in Wisconsin, he earned the nickname “rabbi.” While working in Chicago, a friend told him, “You only think you left the seminary.”
John’s holiness seems evident to others, even if he, in a display of genuine humility that makes him blush, can’t see that holiness for himself.
“Many of the people of God are far holier,” he said in an interview with The Catholic Spirit just two days before his ordination to the priesthood. “I hope these good people pray for me so that maybe some of their holiness rubs off.”
The graces of presbyteral ordination are sure to help him on the holiness quest to which all Christians are called. John Rice was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston on the feast of Epiphany, Jan. 5.Father Rice credits his grandmother for “planting the seed” that would come to fruition during his 40th year of life with his ordination.
“Every Wednesday, my grandmother would take me to a novena and Mass. It was a great way to spend some time with her,” he said.
John was born to Donald and Carol Rice in Braddock, Pa., and moved to Ravenswood in 1976. He is the oldest of six siblings, Don, Kim, Karen, Bonnie and Russell.
When he was a junior in high school, he transferred from public schools to the former St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary in Vienna. From there he went on to Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University) where he was graduated in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
While at Wheeling College, John stayed in the now-closed House of Studies, an arrangement that lent support to men discerning a call to the priesthood. However, college has a way of changing a student’s perspective, and by 1983 he left the House of Studies and, so he thought at the time, any notion of becoming a priest.
“I was pursuing my degree in psychology with a clinical emphasis, but I left the field even before I graduated. I was hired as an executive with the Boy Scouts before graduation,” he said.
The ideals of Boy Scouting had meshed well since childhood with John’s service orientation and love of the outdoors. John reached the rank of Eagle Scout, and, like many Catholic scouts, earned the “Ad Altare Dei” award. Its purpose, according to the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, “is to foster the total person by encouraging him to actively live out his Catholic Christian faith. This gives the boy the opportunity to develop his spiritual side according to the beliefs of his own religion, to be ‘morally straight.’”
John’s spiritual development seemed to serve him well in his career with the Boy Scouts, where he was promoted through the ranks to a senior district executive. He was known as a man that treated others with fairness, respect and kindness. he was also known for beginning meetings with a prayer, perhaps a remnant of his childhood days in scouting where he was called upon to organize the regular Wednesday prayer service at summer camp.
John’s involvement with the Catholic Church waned for a time while the busyness of an active, successful career along with the closeness of friends he describes as “a second family” was nurtured.
He described himself as “reasonably church-going” for a time, but added, “I didn’t belong to any one particular church.” He only went to a Catholic church about 20 percent of the time, spending the rest of his Sundays with other congregations.
He was promoted yet again and sent to live and work in Chicago, where Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was facing the challenges of defending himself from false allegations of sexual abuse, followed by his public and frank discussions of death and dying as cancer claimed his once healthy body.
“Watching Cardinal Bernardin minister to and through other people was amazing. ‘He really believes this stuff,’ I thought. how deeply he touched the Catholics of the area — it was a reminder to me that this is what the priesthood is all about,” he said.
In the spring of 1997, following Cardinal Bernardin’s November 1996 death, John said that he felt the readings and homily at Mass were speaking directly to him. It unnerved him enough to tell the parish priest, Father Mike Shanahan, “What you said hit me very particularly. How do you know these things about me?”
With the spiritual direction of Father Shanahan, John came to realize, “If God’s going to keep knocking, I’d better answer the door. I’d better see what this is all about because God is not giving up on me.”
When the carefully laid plans of his first summer vacation in 15 years fell through later that summer, John decided to return home to West Virginia — and make an appointment to see Father John Gallagher, diocesan director of Vocations.
“I told Father Shanahan that I was going to do whatever Father Gallagher said. If he said I needed to think about this more, that was fine. If he said pack your bags and go to th eseminary, that was fine too,” he said.
After meeting with Father Gallagher, John returned to Chicago, gave two weeks noticed that he would be quitting his job, and entered Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa.
John credits his ability to return to his vocation to the foundations laid by many people, including Father Joe Peterson, Father Gene Ostrowski, and Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Durkin, all who helped form him while he attended the House of Studies.
“Jack Marino was a role model for me,” he added. “He was active in the Serra Club, scouts, a personal supporter of vocations. He was the kind of leader I wanted to be, very supportive in a grandfatherly kind of way.”
After his return to the diocese, John’s hard work at seminary earned him a master’s degree in theology from Saint Vincent’s in May 2002. And he was quick to note that his summer assignments in Charles Town, Bluefield, Beckley, Wheeling and Morgantown each had a positive impact and was a growth experience for him.
But he seems anxious to start his life as a Catholic priest as well. “I quit my old job to be with the people of God,” he said, “not in an office or somewhere studying.”
He looks forward to parish life, where he said he has the potential to make a great impact to the community. “It’s the most humbling thing to touch people’s lives at a wedding, a funeral, at the most significant time in their lives,” he said.
While preparing for his first Mass, he was doing a “dry run” of the liturgy in an empty church. “The first time I sat in the presider’s chair, even in an empty church, I thought, ‘wow!’ It was the most powerful and humbling experience. I hope five years from now, I’ll keep that humility, awed by the power of the people of God every time I sit in that chair.”
He says that he has a lot to learn, and that he wishes he could “absorb the experience” of people like Father Ed Bell of Parkersburg or Father Dean Borgmeyer of Morgantown, who have influenced deeply his formation.
“Most of all, I need a deeper union with Jesus Christ in order to serve His people in His person,” he said.