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Motorcycle-riding priest played variety of roles

| Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Over the years, his life has taken him through two-tours of duty in Vietnam to counseling prison inmates and breathtaking motorcycle trips throughout the country.

With his zest for life and witty sense of humor, the Rev. George Chortos doesn't fit the stereotypical mold of a Roman Catholic priest.

While he remains true to his religion and calling as a priest, Chortos is living life to its fullest.

"Many people think that we just sit around and pray, but we live our lives, too," Chortos said with a chuckle.

Chortos, 67, a native of Clairton, is the newly assigned priest at Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church in Monongahela. He incorporates his humor in his sermons and has found a new home with the parish.

"The people are just fantastic," Chortos said. "They've really embraced me."

Chortos said, during his first few days at the church after he arrived on Jan. 3, he became ill with a virus, the furnace broke and the pipes froze.

"I told them if the power goes out, I'm outta here," he said, laughing.

Chortos often uses the phrase "if you don't laugh, you'll cry," words he says to live by.

His positive outlook has enabled him to help many people over the years.

Chortos was born in Large and raised in Clairton. In ninth grade, he entered the St. Fidelis Seminary in Herman, Pa., and then went on to St. Vincent College & Seminary in Latrobe for six years.

"I just always knew this is what I wanted to do," Chortos said about his decision to become a priest.

He was ordained in 1964 and was assigned to St. Ithanasius Church in Westview for two years. He then spent three years at St. Coleman in Turtle Creek.

Chortos had always wanted to become a military chaplain, and got the opportunity after serving in local churches.

In 1970, he began his first tour of duty as a chaplain in Vietnam.

He spent two years there toward the end of the war.

The experience is something he will never forget.

"There are no atheists in foxholes," he said.

"All denominations came and prayed they would make it home."

While with the Army, he completed airborne training and jumped out of airplanes in Vietnam.

He also has a private pilot's license.

Chortos had planned on being a career military chaplain, but the changes in the Army prompted him to return to parish life.

He went back to school a few different times and eventually became pastor at St. Peter's Church in Slippery Rock. After working at another church, he decided he wanted another assignment and asked to be placed at a prison.

He was assigned as the chaplain at the Allegheny County Jail, a position he held until transferring to Monongahela.

"I do feel that we changed some lives there," Chortos said.

While at the jail, Chortos and two deacons, Thomas O'Neill and James Kenny, formed a Catholic halfway house, an intense nine-bed facility. With an 82 percent success rate of rehabilitating the inmates who come there, Chortos is proud of the accomplishment and its staff.

After spending over five years as the jail chaplain, Chortos felt he was in need of another change.

"I spent five and a half years locked up six days a week," he said. "I went to the bishop and told him that at age 67, I need to get back to a parish."

That's how he ended up in Monongahela.

While Chortos is no longer jumping out of airplanes, he is still passionate about his other love - riding his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle.

He got his first Gold Wing in 1983 while at Slippery Rock and has been hooked ever since. He is part of a motorcycle "gang" that includes KDKA personality Jon Burnett and Pittsburgh radio personality John Cigna.

"The bishop won't let me have a wife, so I got a motorcycle," joked Chortos with a hearty laugh.

They ride to the "Honda Hoot" every June in Knoxville, Tenn., and usually plan three to four weekend trips each year. Some of their favorite weekend getaway spots are Niagara Falls, Grand Canyon, Pa., and Clarksburg, W.Va., during their festivals.

"My dream would be to get about a month off, jump on my bike and ride around the country," he said. "There are so many beautiful places to see."

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