While Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has served longer in the Diocese of Providence than in any other location during his episcopal career, his formation began in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, a place that raised him as a young man and newly-appointed auxiliary bishop and where his close friends and family members will always consider him one of their own.
Bishop Tobin was born on April 1, 1948, the youngest child of the late Mary and Raymond Tobin. He grew up in the North Hills section of Pittsburgh and attended St. Teresa of Avila Parish and School, serving as an altar server and participating in Little League and the Boy Scouts. His sister, Marjorie Kreutzer, recalled the strong faith of their parents, and how a solid Catholic upbringing fostered her brother’s vocation when he began to show inclinations toward the priesthood at a young age.
“He was very young to the point where my mother turned the sewing machine into an altar in her bedroom and made him vestments,” remembered Kreutzer. “That was before girls could be altar servers, but I had to be his altar server when he was saying Mass.”
The support of his family continued as he entered formation at St. Mark Seminary High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, followed by St. Francis College Seminary in Loretto. According to Father Joseph Mele, who attended St. Francis Seminary along with Bishop Tobin, the seminarian was among the top students academically and excelled at tennis and racquetball, despite being the youngest in his class. He also belonged to several music groups and, like many teenagers of his time, was a fan of folk music, even attending a Peter, Paul and Mary concert with seminarian friends.
“He was a very prayerful seminarian, but always tempered with humanity and everything that goes along with that,” said Father Mele.
Father Mele also recalled the warmth and support of the Tobin family, who often welcomed seminarians to their home. Mr. Tobin, in particular, he said, carried himself in a way that calls to mind his son’s episcopal motto, “Strong, Loving, Wise.”
“As he’s gotten older, he reminds me so much of his dad. I feel he looks just like his dad,” said Father Mele.
Following his graduation from the Pontifical North American College in Rome and ordination in 1973, Bishop Tobin was assigned to St. Vitus Parish, New Castle, Pennsylvania, where he served as parochial vicar. He was joined five years later by Father Benedetto Vaghetto, a newly-ordained priest who told Rhode Island Catholic he found in the slightly older priest an example of how to live the priesthood and remain passionate about the ministry.
“You could be a servant of God’s people and still have [the] joy and love in your heart that he had,” said Father Vaghetto. “I could see that heart of Christ when I was there that continued in his ministry. His love for his faith.”
The young Bishop Tobin also served as a parochial vicar at St. Sebastian Parish, Pittsburgh, before moving into diocesan administration. He served as administrative secretary to then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua as well as vicar general and general secretary. In November of 1992, he was named auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh by Pope John Paul II. He was ordained to the episcopacy on December 27, 1992, an occasion for celebration by the entire family, according to nephew Dan Tobin.
“It was a great day. It was wonderful for all of us. It was especially wonderful for Grandma, his mom, to see her son become a bishop. That was really cool,” recalled Dan.
In diocesan administration, Bishop Tobin exhibited the calm demeanor, organized manner and steadfast loyalty to Church teaching that would become hallmarks throughout his episcopal career. Father Lawrence DiNardo, general secretary of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, recalled the bishop’s measured decision-making from his time serving with him both in diocesan administration and as priests at St. Vitus Parish.
“What I always admired about Tom was generally his calmness in dealing with very complex questions,” he said. “And [he was] just very passionate about being able to make sure that he listened to all the sides of every issue. Never coming in with a prejudgment.”
In addition to his seriousness and organization when dealing with diocesan matters, former colleagues also recalled the bishop’s sense of humor and an office environment that fostered lifelong friendships among many of those who worked there. Debra Kubiak, who served as Bishop Tobin’s secretary during his time as general secretary and auxiliary bishop, recalled cookouts at the bishop’s residence and an office bowling tournament that grew out of a debate over bowling skills. The women who worked in the office took on a team of clergy and seminarians who went by the name “Clergy All-Stars.”
“I do believe that we beat them if I can recall correctly,” she said.
Though he would later become known for his devotion to the Blessed Mother, friends from Pittsburgh remember a young bishop equally devoted to his earthly mother. While serving in diocesan administration, he also served as chaplain to the Sisters of the Holy Spirit located across the street from the priests’ residence where he lived. His mother, whose health began to fail during his time as auxiliary bishop, often accompanied him on visits to the motherhouse.
“On Sundays, she would come over and we would have breakfast together. When it got to the point that she was telling the same stories, he would listen as if for the first time,” recalled Sister Marita Juras, who served as provincial of the community at the time.
Sister Juras also noted Bishop Tobin’s regular visits to the community’s elderly sisters and his dedicated prayer life. His spirituality, though not conspicuous or showy, was obvious to the sisters with whom he often celebrated daily Mass.
“He would come and pray with us many times in the morning before Mass,” she said. “A deeply religious person, he didn’t talk about it, but his actions showed it.”
Though Bishop Tobin only served three years as auxiliary bishop of Pittsburgh before being installed as bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, where he served for nine years before moving to the Diocese of Providence, the connections he maintained in his home diocese paint a clear picture of a formative time for a bishop who would go on to have a long and noted career.
Annamarie Stauffer, a friend who worked with Bishop Tobin in diocesan administration and has remained close with him through the years, noted the bishop’s balanced personality and the sense of humor and clarity of mind that have been with him, she said, from the beginning.
“You know, over the years he’s gotten to meet my family, and my family have grown to care for him very much,” she said. “People that know him best just know what a down to earth, funny and engaging personality that he is. Someone that you can trust with any sort of concern that you have.”
Whether it was staying up to watch the Steelers in the rectory of his first assignment, playing weekly rounds of golf with his father, baptizing the children of colleagues or catching up with his nieces and nephews, the experiences he had in the Diocese of Pittsburgh shaped him as a bishop and person for many years to come.
As his nephew, Dan, put it, to family and friends back home, Bishop Tobin remains “just an all-around great guy,” an approachable personality with a good heart and a good soul.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years,” he added.