PORTSMOUTH — Although such ceremonies are normally held on a military base, it seemed most appropriate that the promotion of Chaplain Father David G. Thurber Jr. from the rank of major to lieutenant colonel in the Rhode Island Air National Guard take place in the sanctuary at St. Barnabas Church, where he has served as pastor for the last two years.
With the early evening sunlight streaming through the stained-glass image of the Risen Jesus above the front doors of the church — a window itself salvaged from a former Navy chapel in Newport — Father Thurber sat to the side of the altar as fellow members of the Air National Guard extolled his worthiness of such a promotion.
Air National Guard Colonel Scott Hoyle, who has been a friend and colleague of Father Thurber for the past eight years of the chaplain’s 12 years of service, served as the presiding officer of the tradition-filled ceremony.
With R.I. Air National Guard Brigadier General Kimberly A. Baumann and Col. Thomas Hannon in attendance, Father Robert Marciano, pastor of St. Kevin Church, Warwick, himself a retired colonel and chaplain in the R.I. Air National Guard, delivered the opening invocation. He also extended congratulatory wishes to Father Thurber from Bishop Richard G. Henning, who was out of town and could not make the ceremony but would speak with him upon his return.
Col. Hoyle then spoke about how he prepared himself through scripture to lead the ceremony that evening.
“I thought about Father David’s namesake, King David, when he was fighting Goliath,” he said.
“Warriors froze in fear when Goliath showed up. No one responded to Goliath’s challenge but David. When he did, he was willing to even give his life in order to fight that giant. And right before he went to fight, he was asked, ‘David, why are you willing to do this — you could die?’”
Just like there was a cost for King David in his battle, Father Thurber’s ministry also had a cost.
Col. Hoyle said that Chaplain Thurber told him that he had met many years ago in his church a navy chaplain who told him of the great need there was in the military to be able to serve all the service members who were going overseas to fight battles to keep the nation free.
“There’s a cost,” he told the colonel of his reasoning for leaning at the beginning toward becoming a Navy chaplain also. “It may cost me my life but I’m willing to do that,” Father Thurber thought to himself.
It was Father Marciano who led him, deliberately, as was said in jest several times during the ceremony, toward the Air National Guard instead of the Navy.
“Chaplain Thurber has done some amazing things,” Col. Hoyle told the Rhode Island Catholic, noting how the chaplain was on COVID orders for two years, working on-scene at many testing sites set up around the state.
“That was kind of a scary thing. Right out of the gate, he was with everyone who was infected, and he did it. We’re very thankful that he is with us.”
Over the long term, Chaplain Thurber, as a trusted counselor to the men and women of both the R.I. Air and Army National Guard, has had to deal with even more difficult situations.
“He’s had people come to him and say, ‘Listen, I can’t take this anymore; I’m going to end it.’ He’s dealt with that and helped them through it,” Col. Hoyle said of the tough situations military chaplains face in their crucial ministry to those in uniform.
He described Chaplain Thurber as a “workhorse,” noting how he celebrates four Masses on each Sunday of his monthly drill weekend.
Chaplain Thurber’s mother, Suzanne Thurber Gregoire and retired Col. Paul St. Laurent each pinned the new rank of colonel upon his shoulders, before Col. Laurent led Chaplain Thurber in reciting the oath of office.
“Father David, as we know him, has ministered to thousands of parishioners in his 15 years as a priest in the Diocese of Providence. But also, as Chaplain Thurber, for the past 12 years in the Air National Guard, he has touched the lives of many more men and women in the Air and Army National Guard,” said Col. St. Laurent, a St. Barnabas parishioner.
“We are proud of his accomplishments in the diocese, but equally we’re proud of his service as a military chaplain in the Air National Guard.”
Father Thurber said he was incredibly honored and grateful for this opportunity to serve his country and fellow service members in this new role.
“It was Father Marciano who saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue this path. Without your guidance, and a little bit of trickery at the beginning, I would not be standing here today as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard,” he said, with his joke about the origins of his ministry garnering much laughter from the many gathered.
Father Thurber then expressed his deep gratitude toward his mother and family, saying that they have been a ‘rock’ throughout his career and their unwavering love, support and encouragement have been a constant source of inspiration for him, and that he could not have achieved this milestone without them.
“Mom, you have always been my guiding light and I’m grateful for the sacrifices that you made to raise me,” he said. “You provided me with the opportunities I needed to succeed, and you taught me the value of hard work, perseverance and most importantly, faith.”
After the ceremony, Gregoire said she felt much joy for her son, who, at 43 is the oldest of her four boys.
“I’m so proud of him! He worked so hard for this, too,” she said.