Priest celebrates 50th year in ministry

Priest celebrates 50th year in ministry

May 18, 2014
The Rev. George Chortos is shown inside Immaculate Conception Church Tuesday. A special Mass celebrating his 50th year in the priesthood was held Sunday. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The Rev. George Chortos is no ordinary man of the cloth.

In the 50 years he has ministered as a priest, he served two tours of Vietnam, counseled prison inmates, earned a pilot’s license and worked as a television news anchor.

Oh, and he drives a Honda Gold Wing motorcycle.

“I’ve lived a special life,” said Chortos, 76, who celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving Sunday at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington in recognition of his jubilee – marking his 50th year in the priesthood.

He was born in Large – for the first six years of his life, he lived in a house with no electricity or running water – and was raised in Clairton after his father took a job as a machinist in a mill.

“I had a wonderful childhood,” said Chortos, whose younger brother, Donald, also became a priest. “I had a great time growing up.”

Chortos entered St. Fidelis Minor Seminary in 1952, at the age of 13, and earned his bachelor’s degree from Saint Vincent College and Seminary.

On May 9, 1964, he was ordained at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland and celebrated his first Mass the next day.

He ministered as parochial vicar at three churches before he got the opportunity to serve as a military chaplain in the U.S. Army, something he always wanted to do.

He served two tours of duty in Vietnam from August 1969 to April 1973, and he completed airborne training and jumped out of airplanes in Vietnam.

Chortos’s experiences as chaplain turned out to be the most memorable of his career.

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” he said.

Chortos said he planned on becoming a career military chaplain, but because of changes in the Army, he returned home.

After the war, Chortos took a leave of absence and moved to Oregon, where he served as a news anchor and sports announcer at a Eugene television station and took classes at the University of Oregon.

He then served at St. Paul Cathedral, St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin and St. Anthony Parish before he was named pastor of St. Peter in Slippery Rock in 1981, where he bought his first motorcycle.

“There were some bad roads up there and I thought I’d get around better on a motorcycle,” chuckled Chortos. “I love riding. I used to fly airplanes, but I can’t fly anymore so I fly on my motorcycle.”

In 1983, he bought a Gold Wing. For years, he took bike trips with a group that included KDKA-TV newsman Jon Burnett and the late John Cigna of KDKA radio.

“Father George is so approachable. He’s a people person; he’s outgoing, warm and friendly and smart and funny,” said Burnett, recalling Chortos blessed their motorcycles every riding season. “He’s one of the kindest, nicest men I’ve ever met. He’s accepting of everyone, a loving, genuine man. I can’t imagine anyone not liking Father George.”

During his last year at Slippery Rock, Chortos also served as administrator at Epiphany Mission in Boyers.

He served at Resurrection in Brookline and SS. Peter and Paul Parish in Beaver, and in July 1999, he became chaplain at the Allegheny County jail, where he stayed until he was assigned to Transfiguration Church in Monongahela.

At the jail, he celebrated six Masses on weekends and, along with two deacons, Thomas O’Neill and James Kennedy, started a Catholic halfway house.

Chortos said he is proud of the work he and the staff accomplished at the nine-bed facility, which had an 86 percent success rate of rehabilitating the inmates who stayed there.

“We did some good things in the five years that I was there, and were able to change the lives of some of the people who came through,” said Chortos.

Chortos thought he was going to be assigned to St. Wendelin Church in Carbon City, next door to a golf course (an avid golfer, he was thrilled), but instead got a letter informing him that he was being sent to Transfiguration Church in Monongahela to work on church consolidations. Transifiguration and St. Anthony churches were to be merged into St. Damien of Molokai parish.

Initially unhappy with the assignment, it turned out to be one of the best of his career.

“Transfiguration became my home. I loved it there, and I still do,” said Chortos.

Dr. Linda Lee Ritzer, a pastoral associate with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, worked with Chortos during the difficult time when the churches were consolidatiing.

She admires his ability to enjoy life while remaining faithful to his vocation.

“He is a happy man. He simply loves life. He is the most fun-loving priest I have ever met,” said Ritzer. “He is a holy man. He prays. He faithfully sits in the pew with his prayer book and rosary beads. Every single day that I worked with him, I saw him in our church spending time with God.

“He practices what he preaches by doing the very thing he calls others to do. Father George was a great blessing to Transfiguration Parish. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious and his love of people, especially children, was infectious.”

In July 2012, Chortos retired from active ministry, but he still celebrates Masses throughout the diocese and lives at Immaculate Conception Church.

Chortos is still working on his bucket list, which includes scuba diving (he once owned a saltwater fish tank, watches “Tanked,” an aquarium reality TV show, and has visited Australia, home to the Great Barrier Reef).

He is most proud of the relationship he has established with children during his years in the ministry.

“My favorite thing has been my relationship with the kids. My dedication has always been to the children. I’ll go back to Transfiguration and I get mobbed by the kids. I love them. They’re the future,” said Chortos.

He is encouraged by parishioners who have remained faithful to the church, but worries about the secularization of society.

“The biggest problem is that we’ve done everything we can in this country to push God out of everything,” he said.

Reflecting on his life, Chortos – who once was marked in an evaluation for “tending to look at things through rose-colored glasses” – is satisfied.

“I’ve had a full life and I have nothing to complain about. I’ve loved my work,” he said. “It’s a challenging job, it’s a big responsibility. I’m responsible for getting people to Heaven. I’m responsible for their souls. That’s a big job.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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