St. Francis de Sales pastor serving 7,000-member parish

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Named pastor of St. Francis earlier this year, the Rev. Chris LaBarge has been a priest 29 years, a calling he first considered when he was in high school.

Every morning, the Rev. Chris LaBarge writes a love letter to God.

The habit started about 20 years ago and stems from his experience counseling troubled couples in Marriage Encounter sessions, that writing letters of affection will recapture feelings of tenderness and cohesion.

“God is my spouse, so I write love letters to him,” he explained with a smile, sitting in an upholstered chair in his neatly kept office off Camden Avenue.

He focuses on spiritual matters, events, feelings, describing them, exploring, sometimes struggling. Recently he wrote to God about his deep grief, following the sudden death, on Aug. 20, of his 58-year-old brother, Ralph.

For the Rev. LaBarge, a typical day begins at 4 a.m., when he awakens and heads to Planet Fitness to work out. Afterward, he enters into an hour of prayer before the 7 a.m. Mass.

Every three weeks he teaches eighth grade at the Catholic school, alternating with the other pastors. One recent lesson was about the beatitudes, found in the Biblical Books of Matthew and Luke.

There are staff meetings to attend, phone calls and e-mails to answer and obligations like his recent appointment to the Advisory Council on Migrant Health. For the past 10 years, he’s been involved in community health and is on the board of directors of TLC in Salisbury. “I am a firm believer in that model of medical care,” he said.

He’s also involved in Retrouvaille. A French word for “rebirth,” it’s a weekend retreat for couples whose marriages are failing. After the weekend, there are six weeks of follow-up counseling.

In the evenings, he likes to watch sports on TV and is an Eagles football fan.

An avid golfer, he’s a member of the Senior Golf Association and plays when he can, especially on Tuesday, his day off.

Named pastor of St. Francis earlier this year, he’s been a priest 29 years, a calling he first considered when he was in high school.

He earned a business degree at the University of Delaware, worked as a bill collector and, in 1974, installed computers for companies around the country, working for a business his father started.

It was at a Mass in Missouri, in 1975, that he felt strongly drawn into the priesthood.

“I went to church and I saw a priest who was barely able to stand, but he was saying Mass anyhow. He could hardly stand up. I began to think about it at that point and one year later I entered seminary,” he said.

In 1985 he was ordained and pastored for one year in the Sierra Leone in West Africa. After suffering through dysentery, malaria, pneumonia and a broken collar bone, he decided that wasn’t his destiny, and returned to the Wilmington, Del., diocese.

“It’s such an incredible honor and a blessing to be a priest, how the Holy Spirit works through me in those moments of joy and sadness in people’s lives,” he said, recalling a challenging time when a church member from Marydel killed his wife and mother-in-law, then himself.

The subject turned to forgiveness.

“If you can’t forgive, how can you expect God to forgive?” he said gently. “We expect God to forgive everything. No matter how much you hold onto anything, is it going to change what happened?” he said.

The pastor is a busy man, involved not only in ministering to 7,000 church members, with the Rev. Ray Weisman and the Rev. John Solomon,  but also in counseling and working with the Hispanic community. He’s fluent in Spanish, and says bilingual Masses on Sunday evenings. He learned the language after three months of immersion in  Guatemala.

A native of Pittfield, Mass., LaBarge is the son of a National Cash Register employee who was assigned to various cities as his children were growing. When the Rev. LaBarge was 3, the family moved to Dayton, Ohio, then New York, western Pennsylvania and Wilmington, Del.

“It made me independent, able to take care of myself. Even today, I have a few close friends but I don’t have a lot of friends,” he said.

A priest’s life can be lonely, but LaBarge said it’s only “as lonely as you want it to be.”

Among the benefits of not marrying, he  said, is giving himself completely to God and church responsibilities without family demands.

“I am an instrument in God’s hands,” he said.

He used to want to be a Stradivarius, high-quality instrument and not what he called “a blue light special.” Now, he realizes it doesn’t matter.

“It really doesn’t, because I’m only the instrument,” he said. “God is the musician.”

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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