ROCK HILL—Oratorian Father William F. Pentis credits the nun who taught him in eighth grade with sparking his idea of pursuing a vocation.
“Her name was Sister Mary Alma and she was a Sister of St. Joseph,” Father Pentis said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “There were other boys in the class who had gone to the preparatory seminary at that time, and she encouraged me to ‘Give it a try.’ I did and was pleased to see there were people willing to give me a chance.”
Sister Mary Alma’s suggestion on that long-ago school day eventually led Father Pentis to St. Mary Lady of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., and then to the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Rock Hill, where he became a novice in 1959.
This year, he is celebrating his 50th anniversary at the Oratory, and looks back on a life of work in the Diocese of Charleston. He has served as a teacher, pastor, advocate for senior citizens and ecumenism, secretary of the Midlands Deanery and chaplain for the S.C. Council of Catholic Women.
Father Pentis, 78, a native of Brookfield, Ill., grew up in a tight-knit, strong Catholic family. He and his two older brothers, Charles and Edward, were altar boys in their home parish.
At that time, young men entered the seminary in high school. Father Pentis said he spent six years in seminary initially before taking a break to work for the Catholic Home Office in Chicago.
He saw an ad about the Oratory in “America” magazine, a Jesuit publication, and paid a visit to the community of priests and brothers, which was founded in 1934.
“I liked what I saw in the magazine and then liked what I saw when I visited,” Father Pentis said. “I was attracted to the devotion to the Blessed Mother they show here, and also to the community life. We don’t take vows. We’re bound by charity, and stay together as a community because we want to.”
Father Pentis taught third and fourth grades at the St. Anne Parochial School and spent two years completing his studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., before being ordained by the late Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler in 1966.
He served parishes in York, Lancaster and Great Falls before returning to Rock Hill as pastor of St. Anne Church for 21 years, from 1983 to 2004. He supervised the building of a new church, school and parish life center there.
He retired in 2004, but still serves regularly as a supply priest in the Rock Hill area, and has worked with the SCCCW since 1985.
“When I get into something I tend to stay with it a long time,” Father Pentis said. “I like to be able to provide spiritual support for the ladies of the conference. They’re very committed in what they do, and if I can help them, I like that they can call on me.”
He helps to lead the Oratory’s annual religion camp, which he started in 1970. It regularly attracts more than 100 children for two weeklong sessions at Kings Mountain State Park.
Father Pentis said a quality of committed steadiness has helped him in his priesthood.
“I was blessed with an ability to do a lot of listening,” he said. “When I retired, one parishioner at St. Anne told me ‘Father, you were there for us.’ The idea of being able to be present for people who were so generous to me, who gave such tremendous support, is very important. A priest needs to be present and available for people, for whatever they need.”
Work as a supply priest often demands driving long distances, but Father Pentis said he always has plenty of support and company when he returns to the Oratory.
He prays the Liturgy of the Hours, and prays, meditates and studies Scripture daily with his fellow Oratorians. He likes to spend time in devotion to Mary, especially praying the rosary, and also feels a special devotion to St. Philip Neri, patron of the Oratory.
Celebrating daily Mass is one of the greatest parts of the life he has chosen, he said.
“The liturgy is one of the joys of the priesthood,” Father Pentis said. “That’s the center of my life. That’s the powerhouse of everything I do.”
During his free time, Father Pentis likes to watch the news, sports and game shows, including “Wheel of Fortune,” and listen to classical music. He scours area grocery stores and discount stores for good deals on food and other items for the Oratory or local St. Vincent de Paul groups.
He said he would encourage young people considering a vocation to follow the advice of Sister Mary Alma: “Give it a try.”
“You become a priest primarily to give worship to God, but you also become a priest to lift up those who have fallen,” he said. “A vocation is a labor of love.”