Journal reveals pain, acceptance
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
Dennis Dobbels hung up the phone and stared numbly into space, his mind in a blur.
William Josef Dobbels was dying of AIDS. Father William Dobbels. A Roman Catholic priest.
"Bill told Dad and Mom last night," Dennis Dobbels would later write in his journal at his Kansas City home. "I'm sure they were devastated, both by his disease and by the revelation that he has AIDS.
"Dad and Mom did not know, although they may have suspected, he was homosexual. Dad will have to rethink his opinions about homosexuals, I'm sure. He finds it difficult, I'm sure, to believe his son, the priest, and a truly good albeit complex person, has developed this affliction."
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Bill Dobbels was born March 10, 1948, the third child of Felix and Rosemary Divine Dobbels of Olathe.
His parents divorced when he was young, and he moved to Texas with his mother. At 16, he returned to Kansas to live with his father, his stepmother and their two children. He began attending St. Paul's Catholic Church in Olathe and converted to Catholicism, the religion in which his father was raised.
A good student at Olathe High School, Bill loved theater and performed in the school's productions of "Our Town" and "Bye, Bye, Birdie." He also staged plays for the neighborhood.
"He was a real joy," Felix Dobbels said. "We never had any problems with him."
Bill graduated from Olathe High in 1966, then briefly attended Washburn University in Topeka before enrolling at Kansas State University. One morning, he called his parents with some stunning news.
"I'm going to become a priest," he declared.
On Sept. 1, 1967, 19-year-old Bill Dobbels entered St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant, Mo., near St. Louis.
When Bill arrived at St. Stanislaus, he wasn't interested in all the Catholic ritual.
"He hated the saints and churchy stuff," said the Rev. William Hart McNichols, who entered the seminary in 1968.
Someone suggested that Bill read about St. Teresa of Avila, "because she was very earthy, much more like Bill," McNichols said.
Bill went to the library and picked up St. Therese of Liseaux by accident.
Therese was known as "the Little Flower" because she saw herself like the simple wildflowers in forests and fields, unnoticed yet growing and giving glory to God. She looked at the world as God's garden, and each person a different kind of flower.
She died of tuberculosis in 1897 at 24. As she was dying, she promised to "spend my heaven doing good upon earth."
Therese made a lifelong impression on Bill.
"She absolutely transformed him inside," McNichols said. "He really considered himself a disciple of hers."
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For Felix Dobbels, June 3, 1978, couldn't have been more joyous. His son became the first priest in the family.
"It was fantastic," the elder Dobbels said. "We were so proud."
The next day, Bill celebrated his first Mass at St. Paul's in Olathe. After his ordination, he worked for several years as a psychologist. In his spare time, he performed weddings and baptisms for family members.
Yet Bill had a secret -- something he prayed he would never have to tell his family. In 1985, he had tested positive for the AIDS virus.
In May 1986, Bill Dobbels phoned McNichols.
"Are you serious? What's going on?"
"I just don't believe there's a God. I don't feel God's presence. I don't feel anything but anger and despair."
"But what about Therese?"
"Oh, she's always around."
"Well, if there's a Therese, don't you think there's a God? If she's in heaven, there must be somebody running it."
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He began an intense regimen of chemotherapy. And on Nov. 1, 1987, he called his father and stepmother. They were horrified at the revelation.
"This was like a death sentence," said his stepmother, Gerry Dobbels.
The next night, Bill phoned his half-brother. It was well into the morning when an exhausted Dennis Dobbels closed his journal. Never had he written about something so difficult, so devastating.
"I cried with anguish from the knowledge that his prognosis is not very good," Dennis wrote. "He has known for a couple of years that he had the virus, but he did not tell any of us. Now he's alone -- at least separated from his family -- to come to grips with his grim prospects."
Soon, Bill was keeping a journal of his own. Over the next 2 1/2 years, he faithfully wrote about his battle in what later was published as a book, An Epistle of Comfort.
"I want to share with you my fears and hopes, the truly graced moments along with the real dark feelings that I have had while fighting this disease," he wrote.
Among those "dark feelings" was his anger at God. Why, he would ask, was God letting him suffer so much?
"If this is not a punishment then why doesn't God do something to stop my suffering? True, in the past I was not a 'saint,' but neither was I such a hardened psychopathic criminal as to deserve this."
Then, anger subsiding, he would reason:
"If you had a child[e]would you ever in your right mind inflict the suffering of AIDS on this child you love -- just to punish him or her?
"[e]If you and I would never inflict AIDS on a child, how on earth can we fall for the notion that a forgiving and loving God would do this?"
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For a while, Bill Dobbels lived in a small parish house in San Diego with two other priests and remained hopeful that he could beat the disease.
But AZT, an early AIDS drug, didn't help. And as he underwent chemotherapy, long stays in the hospital became routine.
He developed CMV retinitis, an infection of the retina that can cause blindness; cryptosporidiosis, a disease characterized by diarrhea, abdominal cramps, loss of appetite, fever and nausea; Kaposi's sarcoma, a skin cancer; and tuberculosis.
One day, a hospital chaplain stopped by to see Bill.
"I looked up from my bed to see this priest dressed in a surgical gown and wearing latex gloves," Bill wrote. "I felt sick to my stomach. Had I become such a diseased person, so horribly contagious that no one, not even the Church, wanted to touch me?[e]How on earth could I relate my deepest felt fears at that moment to anyone so afraid of me?"
He asked the priest to leave.
"I then broke down crying."
In the fall of 1988, two young priests moved into the parish house where Bill was staying.
"Behind my back these priests held a meeting and voted to move me out of the house," Bill wrote. "This was a very painful event for me, and hearing it shocked me as much as first hearing my diagnosis with AIDS.
"With the tremendous sense of loss and feelings of rejection, I honestly thought I was going to die soon. I was starting to buckle under the added stress this caused me; losing my home and loving friends, I no longer knew why I was fighting to stay alive."
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In desperation, Bill Dobbels moved back to Kansas City, where his fellow Jesuits at Rockhurst College welcomed him.
"They took wonderful care of him," his stepmother said.
Nevertheless, he became sicker and sicker.
"Before becoming sick, I felt that there was a lot of light on my path and I knew just where I wanted to go and how to get there," he wrote. "Now there are days, sometimes weeks and months, where I see nothing but darkness. I can recall many nights in my hospital bed long after friends had left. I would look up and see the IV lines slowly dripping into my veins and I felt such darkness come over my soul. During these times I felt helpless and hopeless. I felt too sick to read or to pray, too anxious to sleep. The moments turned into hours slowly ticking away, giving me no comfort. I did not know for sure if there was a God or only a void.
"It's like I've crossed a line and I am on the other side of this nightmare.[e]All I can worry about is whether I can have enough of an appetite today to eat and not waste away. There are times when I feel so separated and isolated."
Still, he prayed.
Some days, he was so weak that breathing itself became his prayer.
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In late 1990, Bill Dobbels suffered another setback.
For four years, he had worked on his doctorate in clinical psychology. But now he was too weak to finish.
"I felt a real death in letting go of my degree," he wrote. "I felt that if I died of AIDS the physical death would be the easiest part of the whole process."
The end was dreadful.
Besides lymphoma, he contracted pneumonia and went into respiratory failure. On Dec. 21, 1990, Dennis had his final conversation with his half-brother.
"I was sitting there holding his hand, and he said, 'I'm scared, but I'm ready to go. There's something better,' " Dennis said. "I took that to mean that he was ready to see God.[e]He was on morphine for the pain and having trouble breathing. There were tears, but he was at peace."
At 4:45 p.m. on a bitter Dec. 22, 1990, with the temperature outside barely above zero, Bill died at St. Luke's Hospital.
He was 42.
"This shouldn't have happened," Felix Dobbels said, sobbing. "A son shouldn't have died before his father."
McNichols designed Bill's funeral card. On it was a picture of Bill cradling Dennis' son, Derek, at the infant's baptism.
"To me, it was so beautiful because he died at Christmastime," McNichols said.
"I thought, 'Why not have him with the baby Jesus, rather than ignoring the fact that it's Christmas?' Instead of making it depressing every year that it's Christmas, think of him as holding the child."
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Dennis Dobbels smiles as he recalls a recent encounter at a Kansas City Royals game. A man walked over to say hello, and it turned out that the Rev. Bill Dobbels had counseled him before his marriage.
A few weeks later, Dennis ran into a woman who said that Bill Dobbels had once promised to be her guardian angel.
Everywhere Dennis goes today, he sees signs of his half-brother, much like St. Therese -- sending flowers from heaven.
As Dennis talks, he flips the pages of a photo album. Bill at his ordination. Bill baptizing a baby. Bill with no hair because of the chemotherapy.
So many memories.
Christmas was the Dobbels' 10th without Bill. Yet they know he'll always be with them. And though family members may never fully understand why he died, they're certain of one thing.
He was a good priest.
"Yes, I know how Bill got AIDS," Dennis said. "But to me, the fact that somebody died of AIDS is irrelevant.
"The question is, what kind of person were they? Who have they touched? Who have they helped? And in a priest's sense, who have they brought to God?"