Fr. Adelard “Del” Labonté, SDB (1925-2011)
Fr. Adelard Joseph “Del” Labonté, SDB, died early on July 24, 2011, at St. Joseph Senior Residence in Woodbridge, N.J., at age 86. He had been ill for a short time and was accompanied in his last hours by the prayers and the presence of his sister Antoinette Vacca and members of his Salesian community from Orange, N.J.
The 14th of 15 children, Del Labonté was born to Emile and Alexina Dionne Labonté in L’Avenir, Quebec, on July 19, 1925, and baptized two days later in the village church of St. Pierre. When he was a boy the family moved to Providence, R.I., and became members of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, a "French parish." Del was confirmed there when he was 12.
At 14 he started high school at LaSalle Academy, but he dropped out in September 1941 to join the Navy. He saw action aboard the battleship Arkansas in support of the invasions of Normandy and southern France in June and August 1944, and the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa in February and April 1945—memories that remained vividly with him for the rest of his life.
After the war Del returned to LaSalle and graduated in June 1948. A year later he started a liberal arts course of studies at Providence College but left after a year to enter the Salesians at Don Bosco College in Newton, N.J., in July 1950. He wished to study for the priesthood but found the study of Latin, especially, too daunting. He did, however, fall in love with St. John Bosco and with Mary Help of Christians. He decided to stay with Don Bosco as a coadjutor brother.
Del completed his novitiate year in Newton in 1953-1954 and made his first profession of vows as a brother on Sept. 8, 1954. After a further year of formation he was sent to Holy Rosary Church in Birmingham, Ala., along with Fr. Aloysius Trifari and Bro. Frank Tilton, to inaugurate the Salesian work there. The SDB presence later expanded to take in St. John Bosco parish (originally named St. Clement). While the parish’s clergy changed, for 36 years Bro. Del stayed on, serving the young and the poor of the parishes and of the city’s Gate City and Woodlawn neighborhoods, well known for his charity and his piety.
Bro. Del would leave the rectory early in the morning and return late at night. On a regular basis he visited the sick in hospitals and the homebound, bringing Holy Communion to the Catholics and spiritual comfort to non-Catholics. He drove Fr. Patrick Corcoran, pastor from 1968 to 1991, to the hospitals or wherever else he had to go to celebrate Mass.
A fervent devotee of the Blessed Mother, Bro. Del established “Mary’s Hour,” at which groups of parishioners gathered to pray the Rosary and sing hymns—a practice still in vogue at Holy Rosary. He had a passion for roses, which he grew near the rectory and brought to Mary’s shrine in the church.
Long before Mother Angelica became famous, Bro. Del advocated her apostolate and distributed her printed material.
To this day, local Protestants sometimes refer to Holy Rosary Church as “Bro. Del’s.” He was noted for handing out food to the needy at the rectory or bringing it to their homes, day or night, and for paying the bills of the poor.
Sally Crockett, a member of the Saint John Bosco Parish when the Salesians staffed it, writes: “I am so sorry to hear of Father Del’s death. I worked with Father (Brother) Del for many years with the youth of Saint John Bosco and Holy Rosary parishes. My family and I have many, many fond memories of him. Such a saintly man and an inspiration.
Another Birmingham parishioner, Michael Crockett, remembers Father Del this way: “I wish I could remember all the things and places he took me every Saturday and Sunday and nearly every day in summer for close to five years when I was about 12-17 years old. He opened up a spiritual world and love of the poor and elderly that have remained with me to this day. I can’t say I’ve ever met anyone else like him whom I admire so much and hope to imitate in loving others. He is still remembered and loved by everyone in this whole diocese.”
But Bro. Del hadn’t given up on the desire to become a priest. When the liturgical and seminary changes brought by Vatican II meant that a seminarian no longer had to be proficient in Latin, he received another opportunity. In 1991 he was assigned to the pastoral team of Mary Help of Christians Church on E. 12th St. in Manhattan to give him a very different parochial experience and start his transition to a possible seminary experience.
After two years at 12th St., he was enrolled in Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., where he spent four years studying theology, noted for both his piety and his dedication to studies. He was ordained to the priesthood at Mary Help of Christians on November 1, 1997, and assigned there for the remainder of the pastoral year as an assistant pastor.
In 1998 Fr. Del went to Don Bosco Tech in Paterson, where he served as a confessor for the students and a lively presence in the SDB community for four years. Following the school’s closure in 2002, he moved across town to St. Anthony’s Church to help with parish ministry and also to help with chaplaincy work for the Salesian Sisters.
Father Del’s superior at the Tech, Father Stephen Schenck, recalls: “I remember Del being a gentleman in all things, quick to serve anyone of whose need he became aware—from getting food, to helping carry a bag, to going to the store—whatever it was, Del was eager to serve.
“I remember him as a wonderful storyteller, or ‘raconteur.’ He could recall precise details of past events, and had an enormous vocabulary which he used exceedingly well. Phrases like, ‘Her voice had a delicate, charming timbre to it...’ fell easily from his lips. From anyone else they might have sounded rehearsed, but Del excelled in the adroit use of language, particularly when describing past events.”
In May 2004 Fr. Del suffered a serious stroke, which by the following year required him to move into Saint Mary’s Life Center, a nursing home in Orange, N.J., chosen in part because of its proximity to the community of candidates and young Salesians in formation (at Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Orange). As often as he could, he took part in community events and well as in events of the province community such as funerals, ordinations, and jubilee celebrations. The young SDBs and candidates enjoyed visiting him and helping him get out to events.
Bishop Luc Van Looy, SDB, stopped to chat with wheelchair-bound Fr. Del following the ordination Mass of Fr. Abe Feliciano in June 2006 at St. Anthony's Church in Paterson.
Gradually Fr. Del’s condition worsened, however, so that last February he moved to St. Joseph Senior Residence in order to have more appropriate care, including that of a Salesian chaplain at the residence.
His local superior, Fr. Stephen Leake, SDB, said, “Fr. Del will be missed for his great kindness, infectious joy, and deep devotion.”
Fr. Del was waked at Our Lady of the Valley Church in Orange on Tuesday, July 26, and the Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated that evening. He was buried in the Salesian Cemetery in Goshen, N.Y., the following morning.