The Rev. Walter John Paulits, a long-time Baltimore-area priest and theology scholar, died June 4 from natural causes at an assisted living residence in the Pasadena area. He was 88.
In a career that spanned decades as an educator, religious scholar and priest, he founded and served as pastor of Our Lady of the Chesapeake Roman Catholic Church in Pasadena in 1980 and, although he retired in 1991, was still heavily involved with the church until about a year ago.
Both his academic pursuits and a practical sense informed his priesthood, according to those who worked with him. He invited experts in seminary, liturgy and ecumenical outreach to visit and share knowledge, while at the same time empowering his flock with a you-can-do-it attitude.
"He gave ownership to the people," said the Rev. Brian M. Rafferty, the current pastor of Our Lady of the Chesapeake and a close friend. "If you need it, do it, get it started. You carry the ball. It's your parish, not mine. His mindset was, 'We're all in this together, don't wait for the priest to get a bright idea.'"
And, Rafferty added, "He took the scholarship out of the ivory tower and put it down in the streets."
Rev. Paulits was born in Westmont, N.J., in 1923 to Martin Paulits, a baker, and the former Anna Meinzinger. The family moved to Philadelphia after he was born with their three older children — a sister and two brothers — and operated a bakery from a storefront across the street from their house.
The Catholic faith was a constant in his life. He attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia from elementary to high school, and after graduating, went to work as a stenographer for two years. In 1942, he enrolled in a Christian novitiate program, a training period for those considering priesthood or other religious careers.
A university education would come first, however. Father Paulits graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the Catholic University of America in Washington in 1947 with a bachelor's degree in English and American literature. He moved to Pittsburgh and taught at various Catholic high schools until 1955, during which time he earned a master's and a doctorate in American literature from the University of Pittsburgh.
The following year, he studied theology and the Bible in Rome for a year but returned to Pennsylvania to teach literature and theology at LaSalle College. He later returned to Rome as a religious scholar and, in 1969, began to pursue ordination to the priesthood, attending Mount St. Mary's Seminary, the country's second-oldest Catholic seminary. He was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1972.
Throughout the decade, he served as associate pastor at different churches, including St. Francis of Assisi in Baltimore, before he founded Our Lady of the Chesapeake, the parish he would lead for the next 11 years, in 1980.
His sermons drew from his deep religious knowledge and his enduring love of learning, said his nephew, Dennis Reid, of Lansdale, Pa. Ever the academic, Father Paulits spent much of his spare time reading and studying theology. He especially enjoyed the works of Karl Rahner, a German theologian and Jesuit priest whose progressive thinking influenced him.
But he was also a news junkie of sorts, staying tuned into what was happening in the world, said Reid, adding, "He called people at 7 a.m. and said, 'Did you see what they said on CNN?'"
"He wasn't abstract," said Reid. "It wasn't like you were being preached to. He tied it all into what the people were going through. Being a teacher as long as he was, he had that touch."
He also enjoyed cooking — his homemade soups would draw large crowds — and went by the nickname "Tweety Bird," after his favorite cartoon.
He stayed close with his family, driving the two hours to Philadelphia to visit frequently, as recently as nine months ago. They visited too, attending services at his church. An avid sports fan who often watched football games at the homes of his congregants, Rev. Paulits grew to love the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens.
"It used to pain me to take him into a restaurant here [in Philadelphia] because he always wore his Orioles hat," said Reid.
Despite his retirement in 1991, he remained a strong presence in the church. That set-up had the potential to be "a recipe for disaster," said Rafferty, who took over the church's pastorship upon Rev. Paulits' retirement. Sometimes, egos can get in the way, he said. Luckily, they got along "supremely well," he said.
"He really didn't retire. Thank God," said Rafferty.
Rev. Paultis is survived by his older sister, Marie Reid, of Lansdale, Pa. His two brothers preceded him in death. Father Paultis was buried in Philadelphia Friday.