Original publish date: 11-1-2013, NC Catholics magazine
On a Sunday morning Deacon John Hubisz, 75, greets parishioners who file out of Mass at St. Mary Magdalene School in Apex. Children try and catch his attention. He waves, and hands out an occasional high-five.
It’s his second Mass of the morning, His wife, Jola, stands nearby, holding a prayer book and walking cane for him.
An adult notices his white beard and asks if he plays Santa at church functions. “Yes,” he practically whispers. “But don’t say that too loudly around here.”
It was a thoughtful comment from a man who grew up as the oldest of nine children and, later, raised 19 kids.
Becoming a deacon, raising a family
A college physics professor by trade, he was a volunteer theology teacher in a parish program in Texas when a priest suggested the permanent diaconate program, which was relatively new in the 1970s. He made the minimum age requirement by just two days.
For three years he studied at St. Mary Seminary of the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He was ordained for the Galveston-Houston archdiocese in 1975.
That same year he was attending a physics meeting in Wisconsin and spoke to his wife on the phone. She mentioned that their church was seeking homes for Vietnamese teenage orphans and others in need. (Texas City, where the Hubiszes were living at the time, was an attractive spot for those who had escaped from Vietnam.)
She wanted to help, and he agreed.
Deacon John assumed he’d come home and meet one child.
“I got home and there were six people,” he laughed, still amused by it 40 years later.
The group – five teenagers and their widowed mother – lived in the Hubisz home for a year. Jola, who taught English as a second language at a local college, labeled household items – floor, lamp, wall, table – with sticky notes in an effort to help them learn English.
The couple worked hard to convince school leaders that the children should be in classes with students their own age instead of taking ESL classes with adults. Many of the children excelled in mathematics and science. And few of them were black belts in Tae Kwon Do.
Ten more Vietnamese children would come and go from the Hubisz home, although not all of them lived there for extended periods of time. With help from local churches, Deacon John assisted them with living arrangements, jobs and education at colleges and universities.
Today Deacon John talks about the young people and, with a father’s pride, notes the careers they went on to have. One became a retail store manager and another works with software. Five became electrical engineers, one a medical doctor, one a robotics engineer and one a physics major who designed two packets that were launched on space shuttles.
The couple’s care and compassion didn’t end with their church responsibilities or efforts to assist refugees. Jola and Deacon John went on to adopt four American children in the late 1970s.
While the number of children they raised may have been somewhat unconventional, the way they raised them wasn’t uncommon. They taught the children to swim and read. The kids learned to drive using their Volkswagen. The family took long road trips together, often in recreational vehicles, heading to or from one of his physics meetings.
The oldest daughter, Shelly, joined the family along with her younger brother and sister, when she was eight years old.
“I came from a background where no one had helped me with my homework,” Shelly said about the time before her adoption. “But my dad used to sit down with me and he would play number games with me. It wasn’t until I was in 6th grade that I realized he was teaching me algebra and geometry. When I was 17 I got into an advanced math class … those games were teaching me angles and the way things are in proportion to each other.”
Her dad wouldn’t yell, she said, but instead spoke calmly and asked the children to remember the reason for a certain request. Shelly said he led by example when it came to faith.
“It didn’t matter if we were on a summer trip and camping out in the Redwood Forest, my dad always made sure he found where a Catholic church was on a Sunday and would go to Mass. There was no reason why he would not go to church,” she said.
She remembers going to Mass, CCD classes and Bible studies as a child. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s, however, that she decided to seek confirmation in the Catholic Church.
“When I was 15, I just wasn’t sure [about becoming Catholic] and he wanted me to be sure,” she explained.
For Shelly, her parents are “an example of God’s love.” She moved to the Raleigh area to join her parents, who moved here in the early 1990s from Texas when Deacon John got a job teaching at N.C. State University.
Shelley is inspired by her father’s work as a deacon, and the service he gives to others, such as linking people who needed a ride to Mass with those who were available to provide transportation.
“There were several times when we were going to Mass that we’d pick up this person or that person and take them with us,” she said. “He’s always doing things for other people.”
His early days
Deacon John has a New England accent that’s unmistakable, even though it has been decades since he left the northeast. The son of a Ukrainian machinist father and an Irish mother who was a homemaker, he was taught early on how to care for his younger siblings and how to work.
His father taught him how to change baby diapers. He got his first job delivering newspapers twice a day when he was in elementary school. At age 10, they trusted him with an all-important Sunday paper route as well. He kept the job until he was 17. And he still remembers using his earnings to purchase a television for the family.
He went to Mass every day with his mother, and served as an altar server. Their church – St. Thomas – was across the street from their home in Salem, Massachusetts at the Peabody town line.
At one point, his mother petitioned the bishop of their diocese to keep the church open amid some church closings. Looking back, Deacon John said that his parents’ example taught him how to speak up when something was important to him.
“Oftentimes people would refer to us as being … outspoken, I guess, is the best way to describe it,” he laughed.
He attended college in Nova Scotia, Canada at St. Francis Xavier University, where he studied engineering and honors physics. He later taught at that university, but moved to Texas to work at the college of Midland, where he met his wife-to-be.
Both faculty members at the new college, they realized they were opposites in many ways. He was from the north and liked to stay indoors and hailed from a large family. She was an only child from Texas who preferred the outdoors. But they shared a passion for teaching and reading.
“We’re just opposite on most things,” Jola, who still carries a Texas accent, said. “But on the main things, I think we’re together.”
While he is no longer in a college classroom every day, he still speaks on topics such as renewable energy. He volunteers for a Catholic homeschool group, teaching students about science and religion. “Tomorrow morning I am talking about comets,” he said.
He also writes a monthly column for The Physics Teacher, a publication dedicated to the teaching of physics. He does occasional work for the Tribunal of the Diocese of Raleigh and tends to the normal tasks one would expect of a deacon, such as blessing animals on the feast day of St. Francis, taking Communion to the sick and teaching RCIA.
A man with a home library of 22,000 books, Deacon John shares an appreciation of the written word with his pastor, Father Donald Staib, whom he has known for 16 years.
“He’s a generous person … [and] knowledgeable about all things in the Church. He knows it,” Father Staib said. “He has an extremely attentive memory. People can always talk to him … he’ll remember what was said.”
When asked how he has done so much over the course of his 75 years, Deacon John smiled.
“I think I have done a good job of juggling time. I even wrote a paper on the physics of juggling. No, I’m just … ” he said, holding up his hand but stopping short of saying that he’s kidding.
“No, it’s true. I did write a paper on juggling,” he conceded with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders.
- Kate Turgeon Watson, NC Catholics magazine