Friday, April 05, 2019 - Updated: 1:04 pm
The late Jesuit Father John Francis Laboon Jr. is a larger-than-life figure to the men and women who serve on the ship that bears his name, but to Mercy Sister Joan Laboon, he was the big brother who let her ride in the rumble seat of his car.
“He was a wonderful big brother,” she said.
Sister Joan joined other members of her family in greeting crew members of the guided missile destroyer USS Laboon (DDG 58) March 20 at the Mercy sisters’ convent in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood as part of the Navy delegation’s visit to Pittsburgh.
Father John, known to many as Father Jake, rose to the rank of fleet chaplain, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, before retiring from the Navy in 1980. He served as a pastor in Woodstock, Maryland, before his death Aug. 1, 1988.
“He was the kind of man that, if I named a ship, he would be the first guy that I would think of,” said his nephew, John Laboon, himself a Navy veteran. He recalled that at his uncle’s funeral, which included dignitaries such as former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, admirals wept openly as the coffin processed into the church.
The visiting naval delegation included Cmdr. Robert Lightfoot, commanding officer of the USS Laboon; Capt. Brian Stamm, a Beaver County native, who serves as commander, Naval Surface Force Atlantic chaplain; Lt. Ethan Everts, chaplain for the USS Laboon; and enlisted crew members of the USS Laboon.
“Father Jake is an inspiration to us,” said Lightfoot, in noting that the visit was a “tremendous” opportunity to reconnect with the Laboon family and allow his crew to share stories about their ship’s namesake. It makes them realize, he noted, that Father John was more than just a name on a ship. They had the opportunity to get to know him and understand his background.
“It’s an honor and a privilege,” the commander said. The crew and family shared a good laugh when they spoke of how Father John had to carefully guide his 6-foot-6-inch frame through the narrow passages of a submarine.
Lightfoot pointed out that, in homage to Father John, he ends public address announcements to the crew with Father John’s motto of “Without Fear.” “I really try to emulate the example he set for us,” Lightfoot said.
The ship’s coat of arms also reflects many of Father John’s actions and accomplishments during his service.
Stamm oversees some 52 chaplains. He spoke of how much the USS Laboon means to Navy chaplains in the chaplain corps, noting that it is just one of four ships to have been named for a chaplain.
Sister Margaret Hannan, New York Pennsylvania West leader of the Sisters of Mercy, also welcomed the delegation.
“We are so honored to have you,” she said. “We can’t begin to tell you how grateful we are for your service. Truly, we pray for you every day.”
Sister Margaret told them that they will always be welcome in Pittsburgh.
The USS Laboon was christened Feb. 20, 1993, at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. At the time, Sister Joan was joined by her late sisters, Mercy Sisters De Lellis and Rosemary. The USS Laboon was formally commissioned March 18, 1995, at Norfolk Naval Base in Norfolk, Va. Father John’s late brothers, Thomas and Father Joseph Laboon — a Pittsburgh diocesan priest — were also present at the commissioning.
Nephew John Laboon noted that when protesters showed up for the christening of the USS Laboon, Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, who was a friend of Father John’s and a former Navy chaplain, responded by saying that the ship was not built to kill, but to preserve peace.
“Everywhere he went and everything he touched, he had an impact on,” he said of his uncle.
Father John attended St. Bernard School and was a 1938 graduate of Central Catholic High School. He attended Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University) for a year before he entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1940. An athletic standout, he was named to the All-East football team before switching to lacrosse, where he became a member of the All-American lacrosse squad.
Following his graduation, he was commissioned an ensign and assigned to the submarine USS Peto. He earned a Silver Star for bravery when he dove off the sub to rescue a downed pilot under heavy enemy fire.
After World War II, he left the Navy to enter the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1946, and was ordained July 17, 1956. He applied for a commission in the U.S. Naval Reserve Chaplain Corps in 1957 and was recalled to active duty in December 1958. He served at various duty stations around the world and was awarded the Legion of Merit with Combat “V” for his actions as a battlefield chaplain with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam in 1969.
Other honors included nomination for promotion to the rank of admiral and services as chief of chaplains. He was the first chaplain of the Polaris Submarine Program, and was senior Catholic chaplain at the Naval Academy.
Following his retirement from the Navy, he oversaw the construction of Manresa-on-Savern, a Jesuit retreat center within view of the Naval Academy. His final ministry assignment was as pastor of St. Alphonsus Rodriquez Church in Woodstock. He died on the 28th anniversary of the Peto being struck from the Navy list of commissioned ships.
The USS Laboon delegation visited a number of facilities and organizations during its four-day visit to the city. They included Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland; a meeting with the Veteran’s Breakfast Club; a visit to a Veterans Affairs hospital; a meeting and pizza party with NROTC midshipmen at Carnegie Mellon University; and a meeting with NJROTC students at Penn Hills High School.