This is the fourth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The 2017 golden and silver jubilarians will be honored in June at a Provincial Mass. The previous newsletter issue featured Anthony LoGalbo, OFM.
DURHAM, N.C. — His ideal vacation getaway is scaling a mountain. His introduction to ministry was celebrating Sunday Mass in a storefront. He’s described in a novel as a cross between James Bond and a Christian evangelist – and when parishioners come to him for spiritual exercise, they get unsolicited advice on fitness and nutrition because he’s also a serious amateur bodybuilder.
While this may sound like material for a TV drama series, it’s the real life of William McConville, OFM, who this year is commemorating five decades as a professed Franciscan friar.
“My world as a friar has been extraordinarily rich in ministerial, educational and travel opportunities,” says William, who since 2015 has lived at Duns Scotus Friary while serving as parochial vicar at the parish of the Immaculate Conception in Durham. “My Franciscan pilgrimage has enabled me to be this composite of a person that other people like, and that allows me to bring the Franciscan spirit to everyone who comes to me with their needs.”
These don’t sound like the words of someone who almost walked away from a religious calling.
Bill, as he is known, was raised in a typical Catholic household of the time, attending Sunday Mass and abstaining from meat on Fridays. He was one of four children, and the only one not to attend Catholic school. The family moved frequently since their patriarch was a career member of the U.S. Navy.
His interest in the Franciscans was sparked by a book he read as a seventh-grader about the life of St. Francis of Assisi – “he had everything, wealth and status, but gave it all away for a life dedicated to living like Jesus,” Bill recalled in describing what fascinated him most about the story.
But it was a visit to his grandmother’s house in Queens, N.Y., just before the family was moving to Alexandria, Va., that led him to the Franciscans. On her coffee table was a copy of The Anthonian, the Franciscan magazine published by St. Anthony’s Guild. He tore out the recruitment page.
During his freshman year at the local public high school in Alexandria, Bill wrote a letter to the Franciscans expressing his interest in the Order.
“I broke the news to my parents when a Franciscan recruiter contacted me to set up an interview,” Bill said, noting that there were times when he also contemplated following in his father’s footsteps. “My father was surprised, but supportive – although he told me he had bigger plans, that he expected me to one day become [U.S.] Secretary of State.”
After entering the Franciscan St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., in what would have been his second year of high school, Bill settled into the structured, disciplined environment and excelled academically (“except physics class,” he says with a laugh).
“The transition from public high school to the seminary was easy because my classmates were great – some are still my best friends – and the friars were good, caring men who provided a high quality education,” he said.
Education and Franciscan Formation
In 1966, Bill graduated from the seminary and was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J. He completed the novitiate and made his first profession in 1967.
“That was a very tough year at the novitiate,” he says. “No television, newspapers or contact with the outside world – and visits by family just four times [in the course of 12 months]. Not ideal for a 20-year-old kid.”
He spent the summer after novitiate studying logic at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., before moving on with his class to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Bill continued his studies at Washington Theological Union, where he received a master’s degree in theology.
It was at this point that he started to have second thoughts about religious profession. “I came to the realization that I jumped on the conveyor belt way too soon. I wanted to jump off and go to law school instead,” he recalled.
Still only in his simple vows, Bill left the friars in January 1970 (“with absolutely no intention of returning,” he says). He had no trouble assimilating, immediately landing a job at a shipping company in New York City.
Soon afterward, Bill was accepted into several law schools including Georgetown and George Washington universities. He also took a federal government exam and received employment offers that included the federal bureau of narcotics and dangerous drugs.
Bill decided on George Washington University law school in the nation’s capital because it was a five-night-a-week program that enabled him to work part-time in the Commerce Department’s maritime administration. Bill had his new future planned out – or so he thought.
Admittedly, practicing his faith energetically was not high on his list of priorities. Bill was more concerned about his social standing, and he had his sights set on specializing in admiralty law and landing a full-time attorney post at the Commerce Department once he achieved his law degree. But Bill experienced what he describes as a “mild” epiphany.
“It wasn’t a bolt out of the blue – but rather an intuition telling me that my talents and gifts as a human being would be best used as a Franciscan friar. I remember it as a very gentle awakening and unexpected reorientation of my life. With a more mature perspective, I realized I was meant to be a Franciscan.”
One year after leaving, Bill was granted permission in January 1971 to return to Holy Name College and the Washington Theological Union in the nation’s capital.
Bill went on to make his solemn profession in 1972 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1973 at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md.
He was then assigned to a two-year internship as part of the faculty at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York while also applying to Ph.D. programs at several universities, including Duke, Chicago, Vanderbilt, and Cambridge in England.
Accepted on a full scholarship by Vanderbilt, Bill began his doctorate studies in religion at the Nashville, Tenn., campus in 1975. At this time, he also came to realize the impact he could have as a Franciscan friar.
While studying at Vanderbilt, the local bishop asked Bill to lead a congregation called the Community of Christian Unity – a group of approximately 125 people disaffected not with the Church, but with their local parishes. They assembled every Sunday for Mass in a storefront that was occupied the other six days of the week by the local chapter of a national weight loss program.
“It may not have been the conventional setting, but that’s where I grew up as a friar. I flourished in that environment. Most importantly, it brought people closer to their faith. These were dissatisfied but good Catholics. The homily wasn’t just me preaching – it was a dialogue homily, with everyone participating in exploring the implications of the Gospel and Scripture readings,” Bill said.
Three years later, Bill took a leave from Vanderbilt to work with Cardinal Walter Kasper, a celebrated theologian, at the renowned theological center, the University of Tübingen in Germany. While living at Franziskanerkloster, a Franciscan monastery, Bill – who speaks fluent German and “passable” French and Italian – also celebrated Mass on weekends for American military personnel stationed in Germany.
Bill returned to Vanderbilt to complete his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1980. He taught at Regis University in Denver for two years, living at the Province’s former friary there at St. Elizabeth’s Parish, and at Washington Theological Union (1982 to 1989), where he also established a program in mission and cross-cultural studies with countries like Peru, Bolivia and Sri Lanka.
He also served for a decade on the board of the United States Catholic China Bureau, an organization that provides religious and laity from China with opportunities to study theology in the United States.
In 1989, Bill left the WTU to become president of Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., serving in that capacity until 1996.
“It was challenging; it stretched me more than I ever imagined,” said Bill, admitting that the balancing act was overwhelming at times, having to satisfy and keep multiple constituencies going in the same direction, maintaining a healthy balance sheet, and sustaining high academic standards. “Everything stopped at the president’s desk.”
After stepping down from the top post, he continued his work at Siena as a professor of religious studies from 1997 to the summer of 2001.
Day That Changed Everything
Serving 12 years at Siena and close to another decade in other academic ministries, Bill admits that he was apprehensive about returning to parish ministry when he arrived at St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh, N.C., with 135 boxes of books in tow. Then came a world-changing event.
The day after his arrival, terrorists toppled the Twin Towers in New York City.
It was very personal for him. Students he had taught at Siena, who were working for investment banking firms, perished in the attacks. Bill also had cousins who were New York City firefighters that responded to the World Trade Center that day (thankfully, none lost their lives).
“It was a very emotional and dramatic introduction to the Raleigh community,” he recalled.
From that day forward, Bill was no longer concerned how he would re-acclimate to parish life and his new home. The connection to parishioners was immediate, as he provided spiritual and emotional comfort.
“I bonded with people right away. Many were transplanted New Yorkers. There was a lot of counseling and consoling, getting people through the ensuing weeks and months. The morning after the attacks, more than 3,000 people attended the first Mass,” said Bill, who was born in Brooklyn and lived in Long Island when he was a child (both parents were Brooklyn natives).
Bill said when he left Siena, he felt the need for renewal. He just never expected to find it that quickly in Raleigh, where he wound up serving as parochial vicar for 14 years, under those unprecedented circumstances.
His arrival in fall of 2015 as parochial vicar of Immaculate Conception in Durham (when he was assigned there) was absent the drama and emotion. But he arrived with his same Franciscan spirit that inspired a parishioner, who authored a novel, to pay him tribute in the book’s afterword: “Fr. Bill, someone who helps bring people deeper into their faith.”
Vacationing with Bill is no day at the beach. He celebrated his 70th birthday last year with a trip to England, a grueling nine-day hike from the Irish Sea to the North Sea. That he’d rather do something physically challenging on vacation (while everyone else is sightseeing) is not surprising since he is an amateur bodybuilder who has competed in powerlifting contests, victorious in a North Carolina competition and making it to a national competition in Pittsburgh.
His interest in bodybuilding began 25 years ago, when Bill says he “made a commitment to better nutrition and physical condition.” He would rise daily at 4:30 a.m. for a weight training session so that he could be at his desk by 7:30 a.m. sharp. It’s a fitness regimen he has maintained ever since.
During the first two years of training, Bill gained 25 pounds of muscle, forcing him to replenish his wardrobe. But the old clothes didn’t wind up on the trash heap. “A lot of Siena students got really nice suits for their first job interview,” he quipped.
For Bill, several “extraordinary friars” have been a continuing source of inspiration – including the late Brennan Connelly, OFM, his English teacher at the seminary (who turned down a major league baseball contract from the Boston Red Sox); David McBriar, OFM, “a wise and compassionate friend for 50 years,” and Vincent Cushing, OFM, “a great academic who helped shape who I am today.”
Bill is a voracious reader of biographies, poetry, art history, and mystery novels set in Italy and England. He immerses himself in the history of early Christianity, 19th and 20th century philosophy and theology, and the relationship of Catholicism to culture.
As he reflects on his 50 years as a friar, Bill says, “Had I walked away for good, I would have missed out on the Franciscan experience. Being a Franciscan has made me a more enriched Christian man and has helped me to enrich the lives of others, especially through my teaching and parish ministries.”
— Stephen Mangione is along-time public relations executive and writer based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “WTU Announces Closing” – June 29, 2011, HNP Today
- “Father William McConville Still Up for a Challenge” – Winter 2006, Siena News magazine
- Past Presidents of Siena College — Siena website
- St. Anthony’s Guild website