Obituary: Nicholas Dattilo / Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg for 14 years

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Bishop Nicholas Dattilo, 71, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh who went on to head the Diocese of Harrisburg for 14 years, died yesterday.

He had been hospitalized since Feb. 7 for kidney failure, diabetes and heart and respiratory problems, according to the Rev. T. Ronald Haney, diocesan spokesman.

"His outstanding pastoral and administrative skills were exceeded only by his great love of God and the church," said Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who visited Bishop Dattilo last week.

Bishop Dattilo was one of six children born to Frank and Emma Dattilo in New Castle. After his 1958 ordination, he was a parochial vicar at St. Patrick in Canonsburg until 1971, with a brief stint filling in at St. Colman in Turtle Creek.

He was pastor of Madonna del Castello in Swissvale from 1971 to 1981 and of St. Vitus in New Castle from 1981 to 1985.

"He loved preaching -- he was very good at it. And he liked to teach," said his lifelong friend, the Rev. John Cassella, pastor of Madonna del Castello. They grew up together, entered seminary together and were ordained the same day.

Bishop Dattilo enjoyed working with adults who were entering the Catholic church "and any other forum where he could bring people to an understanding of what they were about as Catholic Christians," he said.

Then-Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua plucked Bishop Dattilo from parish ministry in 1985, making him secretary for clergy and pastoral life, then vicar general of the diocese.

Bishop Dattilo had a gift for finding hope in hard times, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, diocesan spokesman and a close friend. "He had an ability to look at the worst of situations and bring some good out of it," Lengwin said.

Lengwin was one of the few who knew of Bishop Dattilo's appointment to Harrisburg before the public announcement. Bishop Dattilo was genuinely surprised and humbled "when those of us who knew him didn't see any surprise in it at all," Lengwin said.

"This sounds like one of those things that you always say, but this truly was a man of deep faith who really loved the church."

Some believe that the geniality for which he was known and loved in Pittsburgh was not as evident in Harrisburg due to health problems and parish closures that sparked protests. The population had shifted from old industrial towns to suburbs, and Dattilo wanted to move his priests to where the people were. The number of parishes was reduced from 120 to 89, resulting in 23 appeals and years of picket lines at the chancery.

"He internalized their pain," Haney said of those who who protested. "It was a cross he bore."

But Dattilo won over the priests, Cassella said.

"He would have them over for a Super Bowl party and kick off his shoes. The priests saw he was one of them, that he was not a stuffy person," he said.

Haney called him " a financial wizard." Dattilo built a new pastoral center and priests' retirement home "without causing the diocese any debt at all," he said.

Dattilo was slow to anger and generous to a fault, Cassella said. "Whenever anyone asked him to do anything, he would always do it, as long as it was legal and aboveboard. He put himself out quite a bit."

"I told him, 'Nick, you're going to get sick and then you won't be any good to anyone.' But he was like the Lord, who allowed himself to be interfered with to do good for others."

Due to renovations at the cathedral, the funeral will be at 11:30 a.m. Friday in Good Shepherd parish, Camp Hill.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416


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