Father Donald Worch, who died Aug. 27 at the age of 75, served in 10 different parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington during his nearly 50 years as a priest. His parishioners remember him for his gentle presence that extended beyond the altar and into their homes, where “he was a part of our families,” according to Joan Treacy, the coordinator of liturgy for St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, where Father Worch was pastor for 17 years.
“He really got his energy from other people and especially families, and he just loved being a part of your family, and he was,” said Treacy. “We all welcomed him with open arms.”
The retired priest was living and serving at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac in recent years.
Father Worch was born on June 15, 1941 in Washington, D.C. He went to Nativity School and Mackin High School in Washington, before attending Saint Mary’s College, Kentucky and Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg. He was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington on May 6, 1967 at the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle.
In 1985, Father Worch was assigned as pastor to St. Francis of Assisi Parish. Deacon Jim Datovech, who was a parishioner the entire time Father Worch served there, said the parish had only 300-400 families when Father Worch began. By the time he left, Deacon Datovech said there were close to 1,800 families.
“He really, really became the parish, if you will,” said Deacon Datovech. “Some priests come through and are a resident for a while…but when Father Don came it was an all-in situation.”
In 2004, Father Worch was assigned to Our Lady of Mercy, where he continued to serve after his 2011 retirement. He will continue to be a central part of the parish, as the soon-to-be-renovated youth room is going to be renamed the “Father Don Worch Youth Activity Center,” in honor of his love of and dedication to the youth of the parish.
Father Worch played many different roles during his lifetime. To his family, he was known as “Uncle Donny.” In their eulogies at the Vigil Mass on Aug. 31 and the Mass of Christian Burial on Sept. 1, which were both held at Our Lady of Mercy, his nephews Michael and Christopher Worch remembered him as the man who hosted them for sleepovers where they could play in the rectory late at night, who said Mass on the beach in Ocean City and invited everyone around them to join, who would show up at their door to ask what is for dinner, and who always bought a sweatshirt from the college of his nieces and nephews on move-in day their freshman year. He was the first person they called for any religious occasion in the family, and the first person they heard in the morning on vacations, when he would wake them up by singing, “Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory.”
To the many people whom he touched in the parishes he served as a priest, he was known as “Father Don,” the man who in a 1992 interview with the Catholic Standard, said, “I feel a priest should be present in their lives and in their homes.”
Father Don lived this out by not only attending events in the parish, such as youth group meetings, altar server training, and nearly every CYO sports game, but by traveling to wherever parishioners needed to be. He served as the Boy Scout Chaplain at Our Lady of Mercy, and would drive hours to say Mass on a picnic table during camping trips. He even accompanied young parishioners on their travel baseball team so he could celebrate Sunday Mass on the field in between their busy schedule of games.
“There are very few priests like him,” said Deacon Datovech. “He was a very gentle soul and a very pastoral soul.”
In his homily during the Vigil Mass, which was celebrated by Father William Byrne, the current pastor of Our Lady of Mercy, Msgr. William English – Mercy’s former pastor who lived with Father Worch for eight years – said, “I believe that we can find God in the people around us if we simply look at the gifts God has given [them].” While Father Worch played a different role to everyone who knew him, he brought a few key gifts to each that Msgr. English said revealed God.
First of all, Father Worch had a capacity to make room in his life for everyone, said Msgr. English. Whenever he would go with Father Worch to a social event, he would be sure to drive, so that when Father Worch was busy talking to people afterward, he could walk up to him and say, “Do you want a ride home?” Then Father Worch would only have time to talk to four or five more people.
“This describes exactly who God is and what he does,” said Msgr. English. “God is always there for us.”
Father Worch also made everyone feel like he had a special relationship with him. “And he did,” said Msgr. English. “He cherished all of us.” In the same way, Msgr. English said God has a unique relationship with each individual.
“The thing is, he took interest in you no matter who you were,” said Treacy. “He met you once and he never forgot your name, 20 years later he remembered who you were.”
Last, Father Worch was unable to say no, which Msgr. English said “flowed from his generous heart, his love for people, and his desire to help them.” Similarly, Msgr. English said, “Whenever we ask God for something, God gives us something,” even though it may not be exactly what we ask for. “God can never say no to us,” he said. “He loves us too much.”
“People would seek him out to baptize their children, to marry their children, to bury their loved ones,” said Deacon Datovech, who added, “He was probably the worst retiree I have ever seen,” because he continued to serve others long after retiring five years ago. When Treacy would tell Father Worch that he needed to slow down, he would always tell her, “They need help, I can’t let them down.”
Father Worch had struggled with his health on and off ever since he suffered from two heart attacks during his time as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, but that never prevented him from helping others. After his heart attack in March of 1992, Father Don was in serious condition at Shady Grove Hospital, where he stayed for two weeks to recover. During his first week there, he was told that a parishioner’s mother was dying in the hospital. Someone pushed his wheelchair down the hall, and he gave her a blessing before she died early the next morning.
Father Worch communicated through his actions what his pre-recorded voicemail message spoke in words: “Sorry I missed you, you are important to me and to the Lord.”
“That’s Father Don in a nutshell,” said Treacy. “’You are important to me just as you are important to God.’ And he made you feel important.”
During his homily at the Mass of Christian Burial, which was celebrated by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout, Father Raymond Kemp pointed out that Father Worch knew every family in Our Lady of Mercy Parish, and not only knew everyone, but knew everything about them; their strengths, their weaknesses, and who needed help or comfort.
“His gentle soul stitched us together,” he said. “He literally stitched us together, knitted us together, priest after priest, pastor after pastor…”
At the end of his homily, Father Kemp suggested that the congregation, which was overflowing into a crowded hallway outside of the sanctuary, give Father Worch the standing ovation that he deserved at his 50th anniversary as a priest, which was just eight months away. Everyone rose and clapped for the beloved priest, which Bishop Knestout later said reminded him of how the angels and saints would be cheering on Father Worch as he made “that final run into God’s Kingdom.”