By Dominique Johnson
The North Star Catholic
Almost 50 years ago, Father Dan Hebert arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, as a missionary for the Religious Brothers of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This missionary experience helped lead him to the priesthood and 42 years of service in the archdiocese.
Born and raised in Kankakee, Illinois, Father Dan grew up in a devout Catholic home. He shared that when he was in the fifth grade, he felt called to the priesthood. “Like any kid who says they want to be a fireman, I would tell people I wanted to be a priest,” he said.
After graduating high school, Father Dan began discerning God’s call for him and enrolled in the local community college. However, the call to the priesthood remained, so he entered the religious order and became a professed brother of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Diocese of San Diego. The order was a teaching order, so Father Dan taught high school at the school staffed by the brothers.
In 1971, he made his vows of profession as a Brother of Charity and took the name Brother Joseph. About a year later, he was assigned as a missionary in the Archdiocese of Anchorage, along with two other brothers. The assignment they received was for three years. During that time, Father Dan and the other brothers traveled to all the archdiocesan parishes to train lay leaders to start religious education programs and faith formation for adults.
While ministering in the archdiocese as a brother, he felt the priesthood was still calling him. “I was up for final vows (with the brothers), so I had to make a decision,” Father Dan said. “So, I approached Archbishop Joseph Ryan and asked him if I could study for his diocese.” Archbishop Ryan accepted him with open arms and assigned Father Dan to study at Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas.
Father Dan said he decided to stay in Alaska because “I loved the missionary spirit.” He said serving in the small communities, he enjoyed getting to know and visiting parishioners and their families.
On May 5, 1979, in his hometown of Kankakee, Father Dan was ordained a priest for the archdiocese by Archbishop Francis Hurley. “Archbishop Hurley ordained us in our hometowns, so all our relatives and friends would be able to attend. The archbishop also believed if he did that, once we returned to Anchorage, we would do a better job,” Father Dan shared.
When asked what he remembered about his ordination day, the extroverted priest was at a loss for words. Finally, he described the moment by reflecting on his 40th anniversary celebration and how he described his priesthood. Quoting St. Paul, Father Dan said, “I am who I am, by the grace of God.”
In his ministry in Southcentral Alaska, Father Dan has served the archdiocesan missions and parishes, as well as the director of youth ministry for the archdiocese. He looks back fondly at creating programs such as Campfire Theology for youth at St. Therese’s Camp and working directly with people.
With all of the ups he has experienced during his ministry, there were some downs. In 1988, Father Dan was diagnosed with cancer, which he would eventually defeat after five years. “I was depressed,” he said. “I was 38 years old and thought I was going to die of cancer.”
He recalled that during that time, his favorite place to pray was at Blessed Sacrament Monastery. “It was while praying there that I was able to let go and allow God to take over.” Father Dan added, “I asked God to use this cancer to help others come to know who you are.”
Now at the age of 72, Father Dan is retired from full-time ministry in the archdiocese. His retirement became official on July 1st. He says that though he is retired, he continues ministering and living out his vocation. He will stay at Holy Cross Parish in Anchorage as parochial vicar and is available to those looking for spiritual direction. “I love my priesthood,” Father Dan said. “I want to die in my boots as a priest.”