Father Patrick Connor said he never dreamed that his first pastorate would be so full of major changes — the closing of two churches, renaming of the parish, and opening of a new parish center.
Amid these transitions, Father Connor has lent a consistent pastoral and spiritual presence to parishioners in eastern Elmira. The 53-year-old priest will bid farewell to his flock in late December, as his 12 1/2-year stay ends.
According to diocesan policy, pastors are allowed a maximum of two six-year terms at any pastorate. Father Connor was given an extra half-year to oversee final construction of Ss. Peter and Paul’s parish center, which will be dedicated Sunday, Dec. 26, following the 11 a.m. Mass. A reception for Father Connor is scheduled to take place in the new facility Wednesday, Dec. 29, at 5 p.m. (Call Ss. Peter and Paul at 607/732-1994 to make reservations.)
Father Connor will begin a six-month sabbatical in January. Father Walter Wainwright, pastor of Elmira’s St. Anthony/St. Patrick Cluster, will also serve as temporary administrator of Ss. Peter and Paul until Bishop Matthew H. Clark makes a permanent assignment in June 2005.
When Father Connor arrived in Elmira in 1992, he became pastor of what was then known as Eastside Catholic Parish — a cluster comprising Ss. Peter and Paul, St. Cecilia and St. John the Baptist. The latter two parishes closed in 1998 due to declining membership, and four years later the name “Eastside” was dropped in favor of Ss. Peter and Paul.
“Considering how traumatic the closing of a church can be, it could have been a whole lot worse, as in other parishes. I credit the people there,” Father Connor said, adding that his predecessor, the late Father David Gramkee, laid much of the groundwork.
Father Connor’s last big project was the parish center, which replaces the former Ss. Peter and Paul school building on High Street. “It kind of brings of sense of completeness,” he said.
Father Connor — a current member of the Catholic Courier board of directors — has often applied the common touch to his administrative life. This is perhaps best exemplified by his “Day by Day” column in the parish bulletin, in which he chronicles his daily activities and reflections — from family gatherings; to background information on people who recently died; to struggles with his diet; to encounters with animals on parish property.
“People have told me (the column) makes me very down-to-earth and human, and they feel closer to me — that they can identify with some of the situations I get myself in,” Father Connor said with a chuckle.
He has also enjoyed his regular patrol-car duty with the Elmira Police Department. “That’s been one of my great rewards. I’ve made some good friends,” he said.
His sabbatical will include a tour of Italy in January; then a few months of courses at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union; and finally a month’s stay at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, where he will adopt the lifestyle of the resident Cistercian monks.
Father Connor said he hopes to enter a new pastorate upon his return to the Diocese of Rochester. Wherever he goes, he will carry fond memories from his time in Elmira.
“It was a warm, welcoming community. Also, the staff proved to be a real asset for me. I think that’s the reason I’ve had any success here. I relied a lot on their experience,” he said.
Parishioners from Ss. Peter and Paul apparently have equal admiration for their pastor.
“I cannot count how many times I heard, ‘Father Pat is the only reason I stay at this parish’ or ‘He is why I come to church here,'” said Michael Gehl, who also serves as director of Catholic Charities of Schuyler County. “He will be missed, but leaves us a stronger parish than when he came, especially with all the hard decisions that he helped us live through.”
Gilda Campanelli fondly recalls Father Connor’s warm relationship with her husband, Deacon Michael Campanelli, who was the longtime parish deacon before his death in July 2003.
“He is a man of strong faith and will be sorely missed,” she said. “Just last week I said to Father Pat, ‘What are we going to do without you?’ Father Pat’s typical reply was, ‘Don’t worry, God will provide.'”
Father Connor said he, indeed, plans to leave Elmira on an upbeat note.
“God has taken good care of our parish in these last 12 years,” he said. “And I think he’ll continue to do so.”