By John Andrews
ONTARIO—Father John Vieira gathers with the Portuguese community at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish every Sunday to celebrate Mass in their shared native tongue.
Conceived in the Azore Islands and raised among the Portuguese farming community in Ontario, Fr. Vieira takes great comfort in this cultural touchstone. It is also helping him adjust to a daunting new chapter in his life: living with Alzheimer’s Disease.
He had led St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as pastor from 2008 until June, when it was announced in a letter from Bishop Gerald Barnes that Fr. Vieira would be retiring from active ministry to address health concerns related to his early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He is 57 years old.
“I count Father John as a close brother and friend and will keep him close in my prayers,” Bishop Barnes wrote in the letter, read at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Masses June 9-10. “Let us offer compassionate prayers for all those who suffer from Alzheimer’s condition and continue to support their families and caregivers.”
Fr. Vieira’s diagnosis sheds light on emerging efforts in the Church to address Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases that affect elderly persons and their families. Bishop Richard Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey passed away on July 11 from complications related to Alzheimer’s.
On October 3, the Diocese will offer “The What and How of Alzheimer’s Disease,” a five-hour workshop to provide basic information on memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s, and guidance on how to minister to those affected by it.
While St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioners and Fr. Vieira’s brother priests throughout the Diocese were surprised and saddened by the announcement of his diagnosis, Vieira, himself, has adopted a remarkably simple and even upbeat response to his health challenge.
“Things happen. You have to live with it,” he says. “You have to keep on truckin’, doing the things you can do.”
A key to Fr. Vieira’s sense of well-being is his retirement plan. Father Cristobal Subosa is the new Pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton but Fr. Vieira has been given the title of Pastor Emeritus. He celebrates the Portuguese Mass each week and participates in other parish liturgies and activities as he is able, and he continues to live in the parish rectory.
“This is my home. I’ve lived around here most of my life,” Fr. Vieira says of Ontario. “I’m grateful to be able to stay in this parish for however long.”
It was only last summer that Fr. Vieira first began to experience cognitive symptoms that ultimately led to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He cut short a vacation in Portugal, recalling that “I started to think, ‘something’s not right with me.’ ”
When he returned to regular ministry in Fall he said parishioners began to point out that he was having difficulty locating the correct pages in the Roman Missal during Mass. In early 2018 he consulted with his doctor, and he was eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. He offered his resignation to Bishop Barnes in May.
“I’m sad. He’s still so young,” says Filomena Silvera, a St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parishioner who sings in the choir at Sunday Portuguese Mass. “He’s a wonderful, humble, kind person. We’re grateful for the years he was here as pastor.”
Another parishioner, Irene Dinis, credits Fr. Vieira with bringing her husband back to the Church. When her husband passed away earlier this year, Dinis told Fr. Vieira he was the priest her husband wanted to celebrate his funeral Mass. Though he was reluctant at first because of his condition, Fr. Vieira agreed.
“He did a beautiful service,” Dinis recalls. “He talked about how involved we were in the Portuguese community.”
Dinis and others who regularly attend and minister at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Portuguese Mass say they sometimes have to help Fr. Vieira find his place when reading from the Missal at Mass. His presence remains important to the Portuguese community, they say, and there is concern that when he is no longer able to celebrate their Mass it will be cancelled.
“We told him, ‘it’s OK, continue,’ ” Dinis said. “God is the one who will judge.”
It’s not uncommon for Catholic parishioners to show that kind of care and protection for a priest who is experiencing major health problems, says Father David Andel, JV, a close friend of Fr. Vieira.
“The people love him a lot and they’ll take care of him,” says Fr. Andel, who entered the Diocesan seminarian program on the same day as Fr. Vieira back in 1988. “There’s a great love among parishioners for their priest who is sick.”
For Sister Chilee Okoko, D.M.M.M., the news of Fr. Vieira’s diagnosis spurred her to schedule the Alzheimer’s Workshop at the Diocesan Pastoral Center, an idea that she had been considering for some time. She met with the coordinator of the Alzheimer’s Association California Southland Chapter in March to talk about how to educate parish ministers in the Diocese about the disease. When the workshop was scheduled she also reached out to Loma Linda University Medical Center to partner in the event.
“I know that sharing stories like that of Father John and providing them with more information and resources, people will be more open to seeking help and support,” said Sr. Okoko, who is the Director of the Diocesan Department of Life, Dignity and Justice, and a medical doctor. “Most importantly, they will know they are not alone in their situation but have the support of the church community.”
Fr. Vieira is taking medication to slow the advancement of his Alzheimer’s. At present, he said he feels well enough that he would like to participate in more parish events.
“I skip some words and things like that,” he says, describing his symptoms. “It dwindles down slowly.”
His friend, Fr. Andel, is not at all surprised by Vieira’s determined response to such a serious health crisis.
“He plays the cards he’s been dealt,” Fr. Andel observes. “He plays them joyfully and with great faith.”