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Charles O’Connor Marks 50 Years as a Friar

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession. The third featured Daniel Kenna, OFM. The 2018 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored on June 21 at a special Mass celebrated in New York City.

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. – Long before attending Bishop Timon High School in his native city of Buffalo, N.Y., where a strong presence of friars on the school’s faculty was his first introduction to the Franciscans, Charles O’Connor, OFM, had his mind set on religious vocation.

There was no lightning bolt or thunderous voice from above – but rather a discernment whose fires were flamed by a combination of factors: the curiosity of adolescence, a fascination with the celebration of the Eucharist, a deep admiration for the diocesan priests from whom he learned as an altar boy at Holy Family Parish in Buffalo, and parents who put faith and family above all.

“Attending Catholic school and serving as an altar boy provided the foundation. The grace of vocation inside me was being awakened in those situations – I wanted to do what the priests were doing during the Mass. Then it all came together in high school when I met the Franciscans,” Charlie said.

As he celebrates 50 years since his first profession, Charlie reflected on what it has meant to be a friar.

“What struck me about the Franciscans at Timon was that they were very nurturing and caring – and very good listeners. They were invested in the students and genuinely interested in our lives – and that’s how I have tried to model my own ministries,” Charlie said during an interview in a small sitting room at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary on the campus of Siena College.

“Although there were many influential friars in my life, especially those who introduced me to the minor seminary, it wasn’t just about the individuals, but also about the fraternity and communal life of friars, which played a significant role in my own ministerial journey over the past five decades,” said Charlie, who recalled memories of Gerald Carr, OFM, one of his high school religion teachers who also preached at his first Mass, and high school English teacher Paul Sinnema, OFM.

Charlie had been the last friar remaining in Sullivan County N.Y., serving as pastor of the parish in Callicoon and its mission in Long Eddy, and living singly at the friary over the last 18 months of that assignment, when he heard that more friars were needed in Loudonville. This opportunity – coupled with his desire for living in fraternity – connected him to his current ministry, which he has been serving since August 2017.

It’s a ministry that has him going to the mall every day – not to shop, but to serve as an associate friar as part of the team at St. Francis Chapel, the Franciscan mall ministry that’s a short drive away in Shopper’s Park, a strip mall on Wolf Road in Colonie. Charlie administers the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, provides a listening ear and spiritual guidance, and welcomes people to the Church.

Nestled among restaurants, insurance companies, banks and retail outlets, this spiritual oasis caters to shoppers – and employees on their meal breaks – who drop in for confession, quiet prayer, Mass, Benediction or Eucharistic Adoration.

Charles O’Connor the year he professed first vows

Appreciating Pastoral Work
“You know you’re making an impact when people thank you for the chapel and for being a Franciscan,” said Charlie, who celebrates dozens of Masses and hears hundreds of confessions every month.

“Service church ministry is very different than parish ministry,” he said. “But although we are not a parish in the conventional sense, we still have the opportunity on a daily basis to touch people’s lives and fill their spiritual needs through our Franciscan mission of peace and reconciliation.”

His experience in the trenches in both pastoral work and teaching seminarians has helped him go beyond the typical service church interactions – especially with some of the young people who come to him periodically for confession and spiritual counseling.

“I have gotten to know them a little better because they keep coming back. These relationships enable me to offer career encouragement and spiritual advice,” said Charlie, who also has found a niche working with the chapel’s dedicated group of lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.

In a way, his work at the chapel in the Albany area has brought him full circle. Charlie served as vicar at St. Francis Chapel in downtown Providence, R.I., another service church ministry, from 2002 to 2007.

One bookend of Charlie’s ministerial life has been pastoral work, which began as a graduate student when he spent five years, from 1978 to 1983, at St. Antonius and Minderbroeders-de Beriotstraat Franciscan seminaries in Leuven, Belgium, while studying at the University of Leuven. He attended classes during the week, and on weekends he would tend to the pastoral needs of enlisted American military personnel and their families at U.S. bases in Belgium and Germany.

Other assignments included parochial vicar at St. Mary Church in Providence, from 2007 to 2012, and later as parochial vicar and pastor at Holy Cross/St. Patrick’s Parish in the Upstate New York town of Callicoon, from May 2012 to August 2017.

“Parish ministry was very life-giving for me because I was so deeply involved in the spirituality and lives of the people I was ministering,” Charlie explained. “You get to know your parishioners because you see the same people on a daily and weekly basis.

“What a blessing to be able to marry couples, then baptize their children and be part of their faith development through the parish religious education program,” said Charlie, who also was very active in parish adult religious education programs because of his background in scripture and teaching.

“To administer the sacraments of First Holy Communion, Confirmation and Matrimony – and to be with people and comfort them in the bereavement process – was a great joy of parish ministry,” he added.

Charles O’Connor with Provincial Vicar Lawrence Hayes in 2017 with parishioners of Holy Cross Church in Callicoon.  (Photo courtesy of Eileen Crum)

Education – Central to His Ministries
The other bookend and a central part of his ministries has been education. Charlie was a longtime teacher at Christ the King Seminary, a diocesan institution staffed by friars in East Aurora, southeast of Buffalo.

His first teaching assignment at Christ the King was from 1975 to 1977, which came after his first ministerial assignment as a friar – a two-year period at the Franciscan Youth Apostolate at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manhattan, where, among other services, he coordinated retreats for high school students.

A sabbatical at the Center for Religious Development in Cambridge, Mass., briefly interrupted a 19-year assignment at Christ the King (1983 to 2002), where he taught scripture to candidates for the priesthood and classes to the laity under a lay ministry program.

“It was both exciting and humbling to be part of the quilt of people that contributed to the formation and ordination of young men aspiring to religious vocation,” he said.

His own path to religious vocation was typical of the time – entering St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon after graduating from Bishop Timon H.S. in 1965, and then being received into the Franciscan Order on July 14, 1967, at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J. After making his first profession one year later at St. Raphael’s, he made his final profession on June 19, 1971, at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City. Charlie was ordained on Sept. 22, 1973, at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md.

He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy (1970) from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., a master’s degree in theology (1973) from Washington Theological Union (then called Washington Theological Coalition), also in the nation’s capital, and a doctorate degree in theology in 1983 from Belgium’s University of Leuven.

Charlie is grateful to the Province for allowing him to utilize his talents in the ministries that have come to define his life as a friar.

“Becoming a friar and being able to share in different ministries has been my biggest achievement in life. It’s something I would not have been able to do without the support and encouragement of the Provincial leadership, which has helped me to continue to be a good, faithful and effective friar,” he said.

Charles O’Connor in 1975 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.

“The support, encouragement, and camaraderie of the friars always impressed me. I always saw this brotherhood and fraternity as the nexus of the Province,” Charlie said. “The friars at Timon High School were in tune to those contemplating religious vocation – in fact, it was the invitation of friars to weekend visits to the seminary in Callicoon that started my journey, but it was the encouragement of the friars and being around them that really sealed the deal with the Franciscans.”

His family upbringing undoubtedly also played a role in his faith formation – coming from a Catholic family whose father prayed the Rosary daily. His parents were very devoted to him and his four siblings.

“We were their life. They would drive us all over to sporting events and activities, and my father would come to the early morning Masses that I served as an altar boy” he said.

Charlie characterizes himself as a history buff, but among a stack of American history books can be found a good murder mystery. He confesses that he also occasionally watches a horror thriller. But one of his favorite activities is a daily walk.

“Walking gives you the opportunity to clear your mind of the clutter. It’s really quite meditative,” said Charlie, before running off to his car to get to St. Francis Chapel in time to hear the confessions of people taking a break from shopping and the clutter of their own lives.

— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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