Priests and religious tell of responses to God’s call

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Some people are called to the religious life. They have chosen Christ to be the center of their life. They value Christ over all else and are totally dedicated to His will and His work.

The following priests and religious have shared the story of their response to God’s call:

Father Frederick Mannara, beloved pastor at Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse, attended Our Lady of Pompei Church in Syracuse as a child. It is there, he said, that the priests and the church left a good impression on him.

“My good family life was conducive and I had good experiences with the church and the priests,” said Father Mannara. “I was a good kid — I was faithful to my religious education in grammar school and I took pride in achieving at that age.”

Father Mannara graduated from Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse and described his time there as very inspirational. “It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “The Christian Brothers were fine examples to me and my experiences with some of them were very inspiring.”

Father Mannara said his years of service as a priest have been happy, productive and rewarding. His experience has been all that he thought it would be, except for his administrative duties. “Managing and maintaining a parish’s programs was not what I envisioned,” said Father Mannara. “We weren’t aware of these things in seminary school.”

Father Richard Dellos has served as pastor at St. Joseph-St. Patrick in Utica for the last seven years and has served as a priest for close to 42 years. “It’s been full of surprises and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” said Father Dellos.

Even when he was an altar boy at St. Anthony’s Church in Endicott, Father Dellos enjoyed serving the church. “I liked the Mass and the priest, Father Richard O’Neil — he still helps me,” he said.

While attending St. Ambrose Catholic School and Seton Catholic High School in Endicott, Father Dellos was impressed by the spirituality of his teachers, the Sisters of Charity. Also playing a major part in his decision to become a priest was Father Matthew Wieczorek, his high school religion teacher.

Father Dellos said that when he entered the seminary at 17, he knew nothing of the Charismatic Renewal, which later played a major role in energizing his ministry. “The Charismatic Renewal in 1974 ignited my priesthood with its spiritual opportunities,” he said. “It gave me encouragement and enthusiasm.”

Father John Smegelsky, pastor at St. Michael’s Church in Central Square, said he was interested in the church from an early age. His parents were devout Catholics and his family attended devotions, Mass and all secular activities at St. Mary’s Church in Oswego.

“I felt called when I was in high school,” said Father Smegelsky. “I attended Oswego Catholic High, and about my junior year it came like a bolt out of the blue. I felt that that was what God was calling me to do. The Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse were very instrumental in my vocation to the priesthood.”

Father Smegelsky said that the work he is presently doing as a priest is what he envisioned as he entered the priesthood. “The greatest privilege is saying Holy Mass,” he said. “I make a Holy Hour each day in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and, of course, praying the Divine Office each day is a source of great spiritual strength. I can’t forget Our Lady. The rosary is most important in my life.”

Father Smegelsky also enjoys visiting the elderly and sick. “They have so much wisdom to offer — even though I am 72 myself, I still need the wisdom of others,” he said. “As you know, priests these days are pulled in all directions.”

Father Smegelsky will be celebrating 44 years in the priesthood on May 21. Asked if he would do it again, he said, “Of course I would, but let me say this: it has not all been honey and roses. If a priest truly wants to follow Christ, he must expect a few thorns and thistles along the road, and even like Simon the Cyrenian, help Jesus carry the cross. As I reach retirement years, I can look back and say with all sincerity, it has been a most fulfilling and joyful experience. I’m sure I could have done a better job, but I have to remind myself that I am only human with faults and failings, even though I have been touched by the Eternal High Priest in whom I put all my faith and trust.”

Sister Robertine Palladino, OSF, serves as the receptionist at the Franciscan Center, a chapel and spiritual center located in the Carousel Center in Syracuse. She said she never intended to be a religious. After graduating from Solvay High School, Sister Robertine worked as a secretary for a little over a year.

Sister Robertine began to think about entering religious life right before she graduated from high school. A sister asked her what she wanted to do after she graduated and Sister Robertine jokingly replied, “I want to be a nun. She discounted every objection I gave her for being one. I thought they [sisters] were too holy and good, but she told me that in order to be a sister, I just needed to love God.”

Sister Robertine was impressed by the Franciscan Sisters she encountered in high school and at her home parish of St. Cecilia’s in Solvay. She especially liked talking to her business teacher. “I respected and liked them,” Sister Robertine said. “I thought they were nice women. I never thought I would be one of them.”

Sister Robertine is celebrating 60 years of serving as a Franciscan Sister. “Not one day of my life have I regretted my decision,” she said.

Sister Michelle Nguyen, DC, serves as director of youth ministry at Historic Old St. John’s Church in Utica. A native of Saigon, Sister Michelle repeatedly told her pastor that she had no desire to enter the religious life when he asked. “When he first asked me when I was 13,” Sister Michelle said, “I asked him about the sisters and I didn’t think it was for me.”

She changed her mind, however, after visiting an orphanage. “I was touched when I saw how the sisters were helping the children,” said Sister Michelle. “The sisters appeared happy and content and it seemed like they were family.”

Sister Michelle then told her pastor that she wanted to serve as a sister in the orphanage. “I said I could serve the orphanage for one year but I learned that the Holy Spirit community of God asked me to do other things.”

Sister Michelle said the time she has served as a religious has been extremely rewarding and it has also been challenging.

“I thank God every day for my faith,” she said. “I’m happy that he called me to work with him.”

As pastoral associate at St. Cecilia’s in Solvay, Sister Lucy Flaherty, MFIC, wears many hats. She works with adult faith formation, teaches Scripture, serves as chairperson of the liturgy committee, helps out with the sacraments for young children, visits the homebound and assists the pastor with wake services.

Sister Lucy entered in 1962 in Newton, Mass., and has been involved with Catholic school education serving as teacher or as principal. “My goal has always been to teach,” said Sister Lucy.

As a young adult, Sister Lucy, along with her parents, was very involved with St. Cecilia’s, her home parish. She said that when she was between 17 and 20 years old, Father Jim Lauducci and Deacon Jules Kulak had a profound effect on her decision to become a religious.

Sister Lucy’s life is different from what she envisioned it to be when she first considered becoming a sister. “I didn’t think I would go on missions,” she said. “But I’ve been in almost every part of the U.S.”

She finds society very different today and it brings more challenges such as teaching moral values in a society where violence on TV and in movies is acceptable.

Sister Lucy, reflecting on her years as a sister, said it has been a happy period. “It’s been very rewarding, being able to influence people’s lives, especially children,” she said. “I like bringing people closer to God.”

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