Priests of Rochester Diocese reminisce about their ministries - Catholic Courier
Father Justin Miller is seen the day of his priestly ordination, June 4 2016. Father Justin Miller is seen the day of his priestly ordination, June 4 2016. (Courier file photo)

Priests of Rochester Diocese reminisce about their ministries

Priests of the Diocese of Rochester look back on their many decades of ministry as they celebrate their anniversaries of ordination in 2021.

65 Years

Father Walter Cushing

Father Walter Cushing summed up his 65 years in the diocesan priesthood as “wonderful.”

“I enjoyed the people that I’ve met. It was great dealing with the parishioners at all the churches (where I served),” he said. “Everybody was so nice to me.”

Father Cushing is a native of Corning, where he belonged to St. Patrick Parish. He attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries and was ordained on June 9, 1956, by Bishop James E. Kearney at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

From 1956-62, he was assistant pastor at Rochester’s Holy Cross Parish. In 1962, he became chaplain at the former St. Agnes High School in Rochester, remaining at the all-girls’ school for 17 years. His involvement with youths included accompanying groups to a Beatles concert in Toronto and on an excursion to New York City, as well as designing sets and producing records for shows put on by St. Agnes students.

“I still get in touch with some of the (St. Agnes) alumni,” he said.

In addition, Father Cushing has served as chaplain of Monroe County Jail and assistant director of the diocesan Family Life Bureau.

In 1979, he became pastor at Irondequoit’s St. Cecilia Church, which is now part of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. Father Cushing reached senior-priest status in 2000 but has remained involved with St. Cecilia ever since; he now resides at St. Ann’s Community at Chapel Oaks and still concelebrates Masses at St. Cecilia, located only a mile away.

Father Richard Brickler

60 Years

As the COVID-19 crisis shows signs of subsiding, Father Richard Brickler is looking forward to ramping up his normally full slate of ministerial duties.

Since becoming a senior priest in 2011, Father Brickler has provided assistance in a variety of settings, including parishes, health-care facilities, Monroe County Jail and Rochester’s House of Mercy. He also ministers at Legacy at Erie Station in Henrietta, where he resides. And, even during the pandemic, he has continued his longstanding work with the diocesan Tribunal, conducting duties by mail.

Father Brickler said he’s only too happy to be of service wherever possible.

“A great blessing has been good health over the years. I would say that God has blessed me in that way,” he said.

A Greece native who grew up in Our Mother of Sorrows Parish, Father Brickler attended Aquinas Institute, St. Andrew’s Seminary and St. Bernard’s Seminary before being ordained June 3, 1961, by Bishop James E. Kearney at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

He was assisting priest at Corpus Christi, Rochester (1961-65), and Holy Family, Rochester (1965-69 and 1970-74); and theology and Latin teacher at King’s Preparatory (1969-70). He served full time in the Tribunal from 1974-83 before becoming pastor of St. Boniface Parish, Rochester, where he remained for 18 years.

“I was always blessed with good assignments, with a lot of wonderful priests and wonderful people around,” Father Brickler said.

Father Edward Dillon

“I’ve gotten to know so many people who have shared their life with me,” Father Edward Dillon observed of his years in priestly ministry.

A native of Macedon’s St. Patrick Parish, Father Dillon attended St. John Fisher College, St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries, and Rome’s Pontifical North American College before being ordained in Rome Dec. 18, 1960. He studied there until 1965, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in sacred theology.

Following several brief parish and teaching assignments, Father Dillon took an extended leave beginning in 1969, working in Philadelphia with the poor and an anti-war movement. He also has ministered extensively to prisoners and ex-prisoners.

Upon resuming priestly ministry, he was associate pastor of Rochester’s Holy Family (1982-83) and Our Lady of Perpetual Help (1983) parishes; chaplain at Monroe County Jail and Strong Memorial Hospital (1984-87); pastor of Immaculate Conception in Rochester (1987-92); and pastor of St. Felix, Clifton Springs/St. Francis, Phelps from 1993 until becoming a senior priest in 2003.

Father Dillon then served at what is now St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Wayne County (2003-04); Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles (2004-07); and Livingston County’s St. Luke the Evangelist Parish and SUNY Geneseo campus ministry (2007-19). He resided at St. Mary Church in Canandaigua from 2019-20 before relocating to Geneseo, where he lives and occasionally ministers.

Father Ronald Gaesser

Nearly 20 years after becoming a senior priest, Father Ronald Gaesser still thrives in missionary efforts for the poor in the Dominican Republic.

“I’ve been doing something I wanted, on my own terms,” said Father Gaesser, who divides his time between the Caribbean country and Auburn’s Holy Family Church.

Father Gaesser grew up in Rochester’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish. He studied at St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries, earned a master’s degree in education from Syracuse University, and was ordained June 3, 1961, by Bishop James E. Kearney at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

He was assisting priest at Rochester’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish (1961-67); assistant at St. Mary in Auburn and chaplain at Auburn Community College (1967-70); and chaplain at Auburn Community College and Eisenhower College (1970-73). He then was administrator of St. Joseph in Cayuga (1973-81); pastor of St. Columba/St. Patrick in Caledonia and Mumford (1981-87); and pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Ithaca (1987-2003), as well as pastor of All Saints in Lansing (1987-98).

In the Dominican Republic, Father Gaesser has led major growth for churches and schools in Don Juan and Monte Plata, including San Juan Bautista Church, which has been nearly rebuilt after a 2019 fire.

“I’m thankful for the people who helped make it possible,” he said of the many volunteers and donors from the Rochester Diocese who have aided his Dominican missions.

Father Edward Golden

Father Edward Golden has served in parishes, prisons and South America during his 60-year priesthood.

“It’s been a long journey,” he remarked. “I’ve had many opportunities for ministry.”

A native of St. Mary Southside Parish in Elmira, Father Golden attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries. He was ordained May 27, 1961, by Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence B. Casey at St. Mary Church in Corning.

His first priestly assignments were as assistant at St. Stephen, Geneva (1961-64). and Blessed Sacrament, Rochester (1964-68).

“I was grateful that I was a part of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) era, with all that excitement,” he said.

Father Golden then spent six years in La Paz, Bolivia, where the Diocese of Rochester operated a mission at the time. After returning to Rochester, he became codirector of the diocesan Spanish Apostolate in 1974, and in 1976, he assumed the pastorate of St. Francis Xavier Church in Rochester. Father Golden was then chaplain at Elmira Correctional Facility, Southport Correctional Facility and Monterey Shock Camp (1982-91); pastor at Church of the Assumption, Fairport (1991-2001); and parochial vicar at Rochester’s City West parishes before becoming a senior priest in 2005.

Since then, he has served as chaplain at Cherry Ridge in Webster, which is part of St. Ann’s Community; and senior priest for Rochester’s Peace of Christ Parish. Father Golden currently resides in Webster.

Father Phillip E. Billotte

55 Years

Although Father Phillip E. Billotte has returned to his original birthplace of Frenchville, Pa., the greater part of his childhood was spent in Corning, where his family moved when he was 3 or 4 years old.

Father Billotte attended Corning’s St. Vincent de Paul School and Northside High School, later graduating from St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester. He was ordained June 4, 1966, at Sacred Heart Cathedral by Bishop James E. Kearney.

After ordination, Father Billotte served as associate pastor at Sacred Heart Cathedral (1966-70); Sacred Heart Parish, Auburn (1970-74); Holy Family, Rochester (1974-78); St. Patrick, Corning (1978-85); Holy Trinity, Webster (1985-90); and Corning-Painted Post Roman Catholic Community (1990-93).

In 1993, he served as temporary administrator of St. Patrick, Owego. The following year, he became pastor of the St. Januarius, Naples/St. Patrick, Prattsburgh, cluster. In 1999, that pastorate grew to six churches with the addition of St. Michael, Penn Yan; St. Andrew, Dundee; St. Theresa, Stanley; and St. Mary, Rushville.

In 2002, Father Billotte returned to All Saints Parish in Corning, where he served as a sacramental minister St. Mary’s Church in Corning (2002-09). He served in Corning until reaching senior-priest status in 2009.

He remains active in ministry, serving on the staff of Bethany Retreat Center and assisting at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Frenchville.

Father James Boyle

A Rochester native, Father James Boyle grew up in Holy Rosary Parish and attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries. He was ordained June 4, 1966, by Bishop James E. Kearney at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

After ordination, he served as assistant pastor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Rochester from 1966-70. In 1970, he began a three-year stint as assistant pastor at St. John of Rochester Parish. Father Boyle also served as copastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Rochester (1973-81) and later as pastor at St. Mary Parish in Elmira (1981-92).

In 1992, he returned to St. John of Rochester, this time as pastor, serving at the Fairport church until reaching senior-priest status in 2007. He then moved to St. Joseph Parish in Penfield before returning to St. John of Rochester, where he currently helps out with weekend Masses.

Father William Michatek

Father William Michatek said his seminary classmates would probably say he is the most active member of their class, given his ministry work in addition to service with the fire departments of the cities and towns where he served.

“I’ve been blessed with good health, and I can still drive to get around,” he said.

Father Michatek grew up attending St. Helen Parish in Gates and studied at St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester. He was ordained by Bishop James E. Kearney at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral June 4, 1966.

Following ordination, he served as assistant pastor at St. Lawrence Parish in Greece, and the following year, became chaplain of the North Greece Fire Department. In 1969, he left the parish and fire chaplaincy posts to become assistant pastor at Holy Trinity in Webster, where he soon became chaplain of the Webster Fire Department.

Father Michatek served at Holy Trinity until 1975, then as associate pastor at St. John of Rochester, Fairport (1975-81), and Holy Ghost, Gates, before becoming pastor at St. Michael in Penn Yan and St. Andrew in Dundee in 1982. While there, he also ministered to inmates at the Yates County Jail until 1994.

Additionally, Father Michatek served at St. John the Evangelist in Spencerport (1994-2003) before returning to Holy Trinity, this time as pastor, where he remained until reaching senior-priest status in 2011.

Father Michatek currently assists at Holy Trinity and other area parishes that need help, in addition to being an on-call chaplain for parishes in the area. He also is a chaplain at Rochester General Hospital.

Father Michatek remains active in such other organizations as the Webster Knights of Columbus, Webster Volunteer Fire Department and the New York State Association of Fire Chaplains.

Father Thomas Nellis

Father Thomas Nellis said all he ever wanted to be was a parish priest.

Noting that his entire priestly ministry has only been in parishes, he remarked, “I enjoyed being a parish priest.”

Father Nellis is a native of Rochester and grew up in Rochester’s St. Andrew Parish. He attended St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries, and obtained a master’s degree in liturgical theology from the University of Notre Dame. He was ordained June 4, 1966, by Bishop James E. Kearney at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

Father Nellis served as parochial vicar at St. Mary Our Mother, Horseheads (1966-1972); Holy Ghost, Gates (1972-76); St. Alphonsus, Auburn (1976-79); and St. Cecilia, Irondequoit (1979-83). He then held three pastorates: St. John the Evangelist, Clyde/St. Patrick, Savannah (1983-92); Holy Trinity, Webster (1992-2003); and Holy Ghost from 2004 until reaching senior-priest status in 2010.

“It has been a great privilege to be able to represent Christ, especially at the sacraments, the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins. Those celebrations were so meaningful over the years,” he said, looking back on his 55 years as a priest.

Now a full-time resident of Statesboro, Ga., Father Nellis celebrates Mass and preaches regularly at St. Matthew Parish there. He said he still keeps in touch with parishioners and friends from his time in Rochester and regularly makes visits in the summer. But he acknowledged that it has been a few years since he’s been able to visit, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Father Thomas H. Wheeland

“I’m kind of waiting to see how things play out,” he said of his future travel plans.

Despite health conditions that have confined Father Thomas H. Wheeland to a wheelchair, he remains fairly active within the Diocese of Rochester.

An Elmira native, Father Wheeland studied at St. Bernard’s and St. Andrew’s seminaries in Rochester before being ordained June 4, 1966, at Sacred Heart Cathedral, by Bishop James E. Kearney.

“I didn’t go to the seminary saying I would be ordained but that I would ‘try’ and just put it in the hands of God, which is what I think brought me to the vocation,” Father Wheeland said.

Following ordination, he served as assistant pastor at Rochester’s Holy Rosary Parish (1966-68), Christ the King Parish in Irondequoit (1970-72) and Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral (1972-82).

In 1982, he began his longtime pastorate at Holy Cross Church in Charlotte, which he served until 2017, when he took senior-priest status as a result of disability.

After reaching senior status, Father Wheeland moved into The Village at Unity, a senior care facility, where he has been able to continue in ministry by serving as chaplain to the residents.

Currently, Father Wheeland celebrates Mass for the residents of The Village every Sunday in addition to hearing confessions at Our Mother of Sorrows Church in Greece, presiding at funerals at Holy Cross and acting as a chaplain for the Rochester Police Department on a volunteer basis.

“As I celebrate my 55th jubilee, I really want to use it as an opportunity to encourage people to start thinking of vocations, so we can recreate the spirit of generosity on behalf of people in the diocese who have given their lives to ministry,” said Father Wheeland, “I’ve been blessed with having many good religious sisters, many good priests and deacons who have been a guidance and a help to me.”

50 Years

Father Peter Bayer

Father Peter Bayer has had many different ministries over the past 50 years — from parish work, to service in diocesan roles, to ministry with the elderly.

“As I was going through seminary, I was thinking where my assignments will be as a parish priest,” he recalled. “But being a priest has been much more than I ever expected or dreamed of.”

Father Bayer was ordained by Bishop Joseph L. Hogan June 12, 1971, at his home parish, Corpus Christi in Rochester. Following ordination, Father Bayer served for a year as assistant pastor at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Rochester before taking charge of diocesan recovery efforts in the Corning area in the wake of devastating flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes in June 1972.

In the fall of 1973, he became the first director of the newly established diocesan Office of Planning. He later served as director of pastoral planning and research as well as director of pastoral planning and management. In addition, Father Bayer also was a weekend associate pastor at St. Mark in Greece (1976-92) and chaplain of the Sister of St. Joseph Motherhouse Infirmary (1977-92).

In 1984, Father Bayer became chancellor of the Diocese of Rochester. He served an assistant director for the first few years of the annual diocesan Thanks Giving Appeals (now known as the Catholic Ministries Appeal) before being named director of pastoral care at St. Ann’s Community in 1992. He served there for one year before being named pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Irondequoit. After a brief stint at St. Margaret Mary Parish, he returned to St. Ann’s Community where he served the residents, families and staff members for more than two decades before reaching senior-priest status in 2016.

Father Bayer also has served on the board of trustees at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery for 44 years.

“I feel really blessed in the parish assignments that I had, all the wonderful work that I did at the diocese for 17 years and all the blessings that came my way from working at St. Ann’s Community,” he told the Catholic Courier.

He resides at St. Ann’s Community at Cherry Ridge and continues to help out with pastoral care and Masses there. Father Bayer said he plans to delay his 50th jubilee celebration with family and friends until next year.

Father Donald Curtiss

Though born in Rochester, Father Donald Curtiss grew up in Penn Yan, attending St. Michael Parish and School in Penn Yan, then attended Cathedral College in New York City before entering St. Bernard’s Seminary.

He was ordained April 17, 1971, by Bishop Joseph L. Hogan at St. Michael Church in Penn Yan.

After ordination, Father Curtiss served as assistant pastor at St. Patrick, Seneca Falls (1971-73), and St. Patrick, Elmira (1973-76). He was appointed to the diocesan Tribunal office (1976-85), and during that time, also studied at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, from which he received his canon law and licentiate in canon law degrees. In 1985, he was appointed parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception Church, Ithaca, while also serving as chaplain of Tompkins County Jail.

In 1988, Father Curtiss became chaplain at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester and also served at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse Infirmary.

In 1999-2000, he was parochial vicar of the Four City West Parishes, comprising St. Anthony of Padua, Holy Family, Holy Apostles and St. Francis of Assisi churches in Rochester, and then at the Corning/Painted Post Roman Catholic Community (2000-02). In 2002, he became pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County and also served as interim pastor at St. Isaac Jogues Chapel in Fleming until it closed in 2004.

In 2007, Father Curtiss became pastor of St. Felix, Clifton Springs; St. Francis, Phelps; and St. Dominic, Shortsville. In 2013, he became parochial vicar at St. Pius Tenth, Chili, where he served until reaching senior status in 2014.

Father Curtiss now resides at Mount Saviour Monastery in Pine City.

Father P. Frederick Helfrich

Father P. Frederick Helfrich said he was fortunate to have had so many great pastors along the way to inspire and help him.

Father Helfrich attended Spencerport’s St. John the Evangelist parish and school, followed by St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries. He was ordained April 30, 1971, by Bishop Joseph L. Hogan at Holy Name of Jesus in Greece.

Father Helfrich served as associate pastor of St. Thomas More, Brighton (1975-81); St. Mary, Dansville (1981-83); and St. Lawrence, Greece (1983-86).

He served as a confessor at the Sisters of St. Joseph Infirmary and as chaplain at Noyes Memorial Hospital during his time in Dansville. He also served as a chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester for 11 years (1986-97).

“Being able to be there for the people at the hospitals during their times of difficulties; I’ve been amazed at how many people remembered me being there and how important (my presence) was for them that they remembered it so many years later,” Father Helfrich recalled of his chaplain ministries.

In 1997, he became associate pastor at St. Theodore Church in Gates. In 2001, he was appointed pastor of the Holy Spirit Church, Webster, where he remained until reaching senior-priest status in 2014.

“My time at the Church of the Holy Spirit was very rewarding,” he noted of his lone pastorate.

Father Helfrich has been very close to the Eastern Catholic churches and received biritual faculties from the Congregation for Eastern Churches and Pope John Paul II. He celebrated his first divine liturgy Feb. 2, 1986, and has assisted at St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Gates and St. Josaphat in Irondequoit. He also is an avid collector of religious icons, books and pysanky, elaborately decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs.

He now lives at the Legacy at Cranberry Landing in Irondequoit.

Other priests celebrating ordination jubilees in 2021 are the following:

45 years: Fathers Peter Clifford, Peter Helfrich (a Rochester native who is a priest of the Diocese of Ogdensburg), Thomas Mull and Michael Upson

40 years: Fathers Dennis Bonsignore, Daniel Condon, Daniel McMullin, Anthony Mugavero and Paul Tomasso

35 years: Fathers John Gathenya, James Jaeger and Gary Tyman

30 years: Fathers Paul Bonacci and Roman Caly

20 years: Father Joseph Marcoux

10 years: Father Scott Caton

5 years: Fathers Justin Miller and Jorge Ramirez

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