Jim Wilbur left the priesthood in 1970, but he never stopped ministering to others, including priests who followed a similar path.
For many years before his retirement, Wilbur was the editor-in-chief of the missalette publisher J.S. Paluch in Chicago. He died Feb. 25 after a short illness. He was 85.
Beginning in the 1970s, when large numbers of priests were leaving the active ministry, Wilbur joined his friend Marty Hegarty, also a resigned priest, to form the Worker and Employer Online Resource Community (WEORC).
Together, they created an organization that reached out to thousands of men and women over the past 45 years, offering a resource that helped inquirers with self-assessment, steps helpful in seeking employment, contacts and, most importantly, encouragement.
Wilbur, with his encyclopedic knowledge and minute attention to detail, compiled a list of priests and religious who had left active ministry, and his first directory listed 265 mostly Chicago-area names. That list soon grew to approximately 2,000 national and international names of people who would be willing to act as a source of information about their job for someone who was leaving the active ministry. This was a nonelectronic forerunner of true social networking.
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The occasional newsletter, "Word from WEORC," contained helpful job information and contacts, as well as acknowledgement of donations. Wilbur made sure it got as wide a distribution as possible.
In 2010, the organization, the reins of which had been passed on to another generation of former priests, held a 40th anniversary celebration to honor Wilbur and Hegarty. It drew over 150 people who had benefited over the years.
WEORC board member Bob Andorka said many more wrote testimonials that included phrases such as: "my lifeline to employment," "a guide through the maze," "source of hope and solace," "calmed the troubled waters of transition," "helped when I needed to feel I was not alone," and "being there in our time of need."
"[WEORC] wasn't a sexy ministry," wrote Fr. Thomas Nangle, retired chaplain of the Chicago Police Department*, in the final issue of "Word from WEORC." "There were no babies without milk or lepers with disappearing limbs. Instead, it was a legitimate ministry of helping priests find employment after priesthood came to a close for them. It was simply a way of helping good men move forward in life."
For years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Wilbur to review the annual Liturgical Calendar before they published it, an indication of the respect the bishops had for Wilbur's minute grasp of things liturgical.
In 1970, Wilbur married Joan Johnson, and they enjoyed 45 years of happy marriage.
In 1982, he started a weekly group of ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) that has gathered to share food and opinions every week since then.
[Roger O'Brien is a longtime friend of Jim Wilbur's and a faithful member of the ROMEOs.]
*An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly named where Nangle is chaplain.