By Kathy Daley
CALLICOON The joyful, nature-loving spirit of one of the world’s most famous saints is well captured on the grounds of the rectory at Holy Cross Church in Callicoon.
Statues abound on the green expanse of lawn, including that of the celebrated St. Francis himself and his female disciple, St. Clare. Flowers bloom everywhere and adorn the porch in a profusion of hanging baskets. A tall tomato plant sprawls happily in its pot.
Out cutting the grass is the brawn behind all this beauty, the newly semi-retired Father Ignatius Smith, who, in civilian clothes, is hard at work on a riding mower.
Father Ignatius’s successor Father Charles J. O’Connor, also a Franciscan from the Holy Name Province in New York City surveys the bucolic landscape with delight.
“We have a black bear who does the circuit around here,” said O’Connor, “There are deer, chipmunks, crows, raccoons, and of course Molly, our house cat. We try to be generous to all the animals that St. Francis has given us.”
All this natural beauty is a bit of a shift for the tall, silver-haired 64-year-old, who has spent most of his life in urban areas.
A Buffalo native, Father O’Connor arrived in Sullivan County on May 31 to preside over Holy Cross and its mission church, St. Patrick’s, in Long Eddy. His formal installation by Monsignor Edward Straub of Liberty will take place on Saturday, Aug. 4 at the 4:30 p.m. Mass at Holy Cross.
But for the past decade, Father O’Connor served at a busy city church, St. Mary’s in Providence, RI, where he was associate pastor. Before that, he taught theology for 20 years to men preparing for the priesthood at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, NY.
Father O’Connor completed his college undergraduate work at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. His area of expertise is the Hebrew scriptures.
Still, the word “Callicoon” was not unknown to him. Ordained a Franciscan in 1973, O’Connor was educated at the old St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary, now the U.S. Department of Labor’s Job Corps. “Little did I know then that I would be here as pastor,” he said.
The route back to Callicoon began last February, when the Franciscan order announced that, due to financial concerns and the diminishing number of friars, they were no longer able to staff the Providence church. Instead, the local Archdiocese would take over management.
“How would you like to go to Sullivan County?” the head of the order asked Father O’Connor, who had voiced his interest in the pastorship of a small parish.
With Father Ignatius, age 81, set to retire after 17 years as pastor, the pieces fell into place.
The two priests will live together at Holy Cross and share the liturgical functions at their two churches as well as teaching a Bible study class on Mondays and a course on the catechism of the Catholic Church on Thursdays.
Father Ignatius will fill in for Sullivan County priests who go away for vacation.
Father O’Connor hopes to reach out to ministers of other Christian denominations to possibly organize an interfaith service in January, when the week of Christian Unity is marked across the nation.
Often, the new pastor said, his weeks already have been full. “With no hired staff, you serve as receptionist and you work on finances, visit the sick and shut-ins and patients at the hospital,” he said.
The two priests cook meals each night. “Father Ignatius is a meat and potato man, and I like stews, salads and soups,” said Father O’Connor with a grin. “We have a battle over chicken I like it and Father Ignatius has had enough chicken in his life.”
After 17 years as solo pastor, Father Ignatius is settling right in to sharing life with another. “Community is our life,” said Ignatius. “We meet each week with the other Franciscans in Sullivan County. We have our own little community.”
Those others are Fathers Joseph Juracek in Obernburg, Thomas Jones in Yulan and William Scully in Narrowsburg.
In the meantime, the new pastor is enjoying the perks of a rural area. Father O’Connor takes long walks along the River Road in Callicoon, or along Cross Road and Tower Road closer to Holy Cross. He’s enjoyed meals at local eateries like Peppino’s and he’s visited Livingston Manor and Honesdale, and attended the regional confirmation ceremony held earlier in June in Narrowsburg.
Like Father Ignatius, O’Connor is already valuing the open hearts of local families.
“They are very good-willed people, generous and welcoming,” O’Connor said. “It will be a privilege for me to get to know them. And to have the opportunity for becoming a pastor, to lead a parish, that’s something exciting for me.”