Meet Father Chris O’Connor

 Today, I introduce Father Chris O’Connor, who is serving in
the role of transition priest at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in
Grand Island. A transition priest serves a parish that is in the process of
selecting a new rector. This is a process that could take anywhere from twelve to
eighteen months to complete. Father Chris talks about his life and about his
long journey to become a priest, as well as about his hopes for St. Martin’s.

Tell me about you. How did you become a priest?
I can honestly say that I have wanted to be a priest for a
very long time. I was raised in the Roman church. In fourth grade, when I was
serving as an altar boy, there were thoughts already of being a priest. I
really started to seriously crystalize my thinking in high school. I was
encouraged not necessarily to go to a diocesan seminary, but to just have the
experience of four years of college. So I went to a small Catholic liberal arts
school in Massachusetts, called Assumption College. During my time there, I
actually had the opportunity to come to know very intimately, if you will, the
religious order that runs the college there, the Assumptionists. And I actually
ended up spending three years as an Assumptionist postulant and a novice and
even began my theology studies as an Assumptionist. But, in my first year of
theology school, I met my future wife and decided to leave the order to get
married. And, of course, if I was going to stay in the Roman church, I could
not be ordained and be married at the same time.
Tell me about your wife and about your work after you married.
Her name is Colleen. That is actually her middle name. She’s
known as Mary Colleen, but she prefers to be called Colleen. We met in seminary.
She was getting her master of divinity degree from Episcopal divinity school,
while I was going to the Western Jesuit School of Theology. The schools
happened to share a common classroom and library building. We took a class
together. But, for the first 25 years of my married life, I continued to serve
the Roman church. I taught theology at the high school level. I was also
director of religious education or Christian education for two small Roman
Catholic parishes. At that time, I was living in Wisconsin.
Where in Wisconsin?
We lived in a little town called Delavan, which was an hour
southwest of Milwaukee, where I was working. We came here to Western New York
in 2005. Colleen had already been ordained priest, and she was called to serve
at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in LeRoy. In 2007, my life kind of turned
upside down. I began having conversations with then-bishop Michael Garrison,
and we began to entertain the thought of my one day being ordained an Episcopal
priest. So, from 2008, when I was received, until 2013, I was in preparation
for ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. So, in 2013, I was
ordained deacon. And the following year, I was ordained priest. So I have been
serving as a priest since 2014. So, even though I have been serving God’s
church in many different capacities, in terms of my ordination to the
priesthood and the Episcopal priesthood, that’s only been a short time. I was a
transitional deacon for a year and then became a priest a year after my
ordination. I have actually had the opportunity, first as deacon and then as
priest, really to serve about four or five different parishes before I came
here to Saint Martin’s.
What’s that like for you? 
Well, two of them were part-time. Together, the two parishes
that I was serving… St. Luke’s in Attica and Christ Church in Albion… were closer
to where I live out in Genesee County. Both were very, very part time. I did
that for about a year and a half. Then I was called to be a half-time priest,
like I am here, serving St. Mark’s in North Tonawanda. I was there for about
fourteen or fifteen months and then, unfortunately, had to take an extended
medical leave. That kind of knocked me out of commission for a good seven or
eight months. But, when I finally got some medical clearance, I ended up by
spending about nine or ten months as supply clergy. I spent the whole month of
December serving St. John’s-Grace in Buffalo. Just before I came here, I was long-term
supply at St. Simon’s in south Buffalo. They’ve since called a new priest.
Right about that time, I was interviewing for this position. In September, I
learned that I was selected to be St. Martin’s new transition priest.
Tell me what you really like about being a priest and about
going to all of these different parishes.
Well, first of all, I think that the central portion of my
priesthood really centers around worship. One of the big motivations for me
with my ordination was the ability to worship and to celebrate the sacraments,
particularly the sacrament of Eucharist. So, every Sunday, I look forward to,
particularly if I am leading a congregation, like I’ll be doing here, to be
really a minister of God’s word in terms of preaching to the congregation and
then celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist. Both of those give me a lot of
joy, a lot of fulfillment. So I bring that joy, and I bring that fulfillment to
whatever church I am serving.
That sounds like you’re really centered
in your faith.
I believe that I am. I’d like to consider myself to be a man
of prayer. I tend to use a more monastic form of prayer, called centering
prayer. If there is an interest in centering prayer, we could form a group. I’ve
had the opportunity to teach others how to do centering prayer so that is
certainly a possibility.  So, while I
follow a monastic style of prayer, I still see myself as a contemporary of the
21st century. I seem to be more drawn to monastic practices, such as
centering prayer.
I understand that you’re very much involved and interested
in youth activities and worship?
Yes. For twelve years, I was director of religious education
for two Roman Catholic parishes and I quickly discovered early on that, as
director of religious ed or a DRE, that I particularly enjoyed working with
youth. I liked being in the classroom with them. I particularly liked working
with sophomores and juniors in high school, who were preparing, at least in the
Roman Church, for the sacrament of confirmation, so that involved working with
them in a more structured classroom and also taking youth on retreats. That was
always a fun, fun time for me. So I hope that I have an opportunity, in my
capacity here, to avail myself of anything that may be going on that is
youth-related. I look forward to that.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Every now and then, I do get on the web. I like to surf the
web. I like to check out what’s happening in the news. I like to read. I guess
you could say that I’m an introvert so things that I do by myself come very
easy to me. Certainly, reading is one of them. Where I live out in Genesee
County, we live halfway between Batavia and LeRoy. We live in the country. We have
an old country house that we have owned since 2005. I like to take walks all of
the time. We have a 13-year-old golden retriever, and she still likes to take
walks. So she and I take walks all of the time. My wife and I like to go to
movies. So we try to keep busy.
Do you have a family?
Yes, Colleen and I this summer celebrated 33 years of wedded
bliss. We have five kids, from 32 down to 22.
Are you a grandpop?
Not yet. Our middle daughter just got married this past
June. In fact, she invited Colleen and me to co-celebrate their wedding, which
was really a neat experience for Colleen and me. I’m not sure if we’ll see
grandchildren real quickly. Erin’s really involved with being a school counselor
at the high school level, and her husband is a doctoral student. He plays the
bassoon.
Wow! How awesome is that? One of my most favorite
instruments!
Really? The bassoon!
I love all wind instruments! They have a mellow sound.
Stephen is a doctoral student in bassoon performance at
Temple University in Philadelphia. So they are living right now in Lancaster
County, which roughly becomes the halfway point for Erin’s work as a counselor
and Stephen’s work as a full-time student. But I imagine that someday, we will
see little ones running around. It’s hard to believe that I could be a grandpa
someday. I don’t feel quite old enough to be a grandpa yet. But that’s OK.
So what are your hopes and dreams for St. Martin’s?
I know that St. Martin’s spiritual leader, Father Earle King has
just retired. Earle has served as their leader for 31 years, which is a good
chunk of time. And so, I’m here really to be of service to the community as
they go through whatever stages they need to go through to transition from
seeing Earle King as their priest to calling a new priest. There is a process
that the parish will be undertaking. That could be a process that could last
for a year to a year and a half or so, however long it takes them to, if you
will, make the transition. I guess that my hopes and dreams are that St. Martin’s
finds this transition to be a period of time that can truly be a time of
discovery for them, a time of really learning what is essential to them as a
faith community, to discover what might be the gifts that they have that they
can bring to each other and to whatever ministry they have here in the Grand
Island community. I hope that I can be a good walking guide through this
process.
Is there anything else that you’d like
to add?
First of all, I’d like to say that I’ve only been here for a
couple of weeks but St. Martin’s is a wonderful community. I’ve been welcomed
very, very warmly. I look forward to my time here. I look forward to this
journey of faith that this faith community will be walking on and I’m thrilled
to pieces to be a part of this process.
Thank you so much for taking this time to talk to me.

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