Father Richard Thibeau SVD, an anti-poverty advocate in both the United States and Mexico, passed away on Thursday, Nov. 17 at age 93.
Born in East Amherst, N.Y., in 1928, Father Thibeau was the second oldest of Gilbert and Sophia (nee Bourque) Thibeau’s seven children. He began his studies with the Divine Word Missionaries in 1943; professed vows in 1949; and was ordained to the priesthood at Techny in 1957.
For the first three decades of his priesthood, he served as pastor, teacher and overall general contractor in the United States. Father Thibeau taught at Divine Word seminaries in Girard, Penn., and Bordentown, N.J., and was pastor of Our Lady of Divine Shepherd (OLDS), a predominantly African American parish in Trenton.
During his tenure with OLDS, he worked with the Serra Club, an international Catholic organization that promotes and fosters vocations, and the Mayor of Trenton’s office to build the Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd Cultural Center, a youth center and hub for community action projects in Trenton.
A member of the North Trenton Neighborhood Council, a part of one of the city’s anti-poverty agencies, Father Thibeau established a pre-school that cared for more than 100 children daily and a low-cost housing project to alleviate poverty in the area. According to The Courier-Journal newspaper, the project was solely financed by the youth center.
As rector of the Divine Word community in Conesus, N.Y., Father Thibeau oversaw a smooth transition to a new way of using the school building. Not only was the property home to retired and elderly missionaries, it also was used for Christian retreats, such as Marriage Encounter. In addition, Father Thibeau invited two local chiropractors to establish the Hemlock Lake Holistic Health Center, a wellness practice, in the west wing. Within a few years, the business grew to include the Nova Vita Health Spa and Restaurant, which could accommodate 100 diners. With this addition, the Holistic Health Center was billed as a place for health-oriented vacations.
In 1988, Father Thibeau received his first foreign mission assignment, which took him to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he served in an administrative capacity and built several parishes. Father Thibeau also provided pastoral care for the Zapotecas people in the Sierra Juarez Mountains. For this assignment, he needed more than his knowledge of the Spanish language; he learned Zapotecan, the language of the indigenous people.
During his years in San Juan Bautista parish in San Juan Yaee, Oaxaca, he was the only priest for a population of about 7,000, and he recognized the need for a medical facility. To reach the nearest hospital, residents had to travel five hours down the mountainside, sometimes in hazardous weather. Some died enroute. To remedy this problem, Father Thibeau built Our Madonna of the Rosary Medical Center in Oaxaca.
In 2016, Father Thibeau moved to Divine Word Residence at Techny and continued his missionary ministries. From a distance and well into his 90s, he supported missionary projects in Mexico, including Instituto Infantil Teresita School in Morelos.
Father Thibeau was preceded in death by his parents, two sisters (Joan and Rita) and a brother (Frank). He is survived by three sisters: Bernice Lindley, Marcella Voss and Ann Chamot.
His wake will be on Dec. 2 at 9 a.m. in the Divine Word Residence chapel at Techny. His funeral Mass will follow at 10:30 a.m., and he will be buried at St. Mary Cemetery in Techny.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Thibeau can be made for the care of retired missionaries and may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.