Encouraging by example

St. Daniel and Immaculate Conception Parishes excel in promoting religious vocations

by Claudia Mathis / sun staff writer

At a time when vocation promotion is of the utmost importance, two parishes in the diocese stand out as producing a record number of men and women who have entered the priesthood and religious life — Immaculate Conception in Fulton and St. Daniel in Syracuse.

What makes these parishes stand out among others?

Father Stephen Wirkes, pastor at Immaculate Conception and Holy Family/St. Michael’s Churches in Fulton, said it’s due to the wonderful efforts of Father William (“Bish”) Brown, who served as pastor at Immaculate Conception from 1975 to 1997. Father Brown inspired at least seven people to enter priesthood through the example of how he lived his life. According to Father Wirkes he exuded happiness and contentment. “He was a joyful priest who always talked about the priesthood,” said Father Wirkes. “He loved being a priest. I had the joy of knowing him until he died three years ago.”

Father Joseph Scardella, director of the diocesan Office of Ministerial Formation and Liturgy and RCIA, was one of the people directly influenced by Father Brown. Father Scardella said he felt a sense of belonging as he grew up in the parish, participating in the choir and as an altar server. “My experience in the choir and the liturgical training I received was a wonderful experience,” he said.

Father Scardella remembered how Father Brown would say to the younger altar servers, “Pay attention, because when I get old, one of you will have to replace me.” Father Scardella said the phrase has stayed with him and the example of Father Brown’s life made it apparent that the life of a priest was fulfilling. “He encouraged us to think about entering the priesthood,” said Father Scardella. “Father also taught us a reverence for the church and liturgy.”

Even though when Father Scardella was a senior in high school he struggled with his decision to enter the priesthood, he doesn’t regret his choice. “I wouldn’t do anything else with my life,” said Father Scardella. “I’m very happy. I like imparting my love and knowledge to the people that I work with in the formation office.”

Father John Manno, parochial vicar at Holy Cross Church in Dewitt, was also inspired by Father Brown to enter the priesthood. Immaculate Conception served as Father Manno’s home parish in his formative years.

Like Father Scardella, he remembers Father Brown’s phrase about paying attention when he served as an altar server at the church. “He loved his priesthood and celebrating the Mass,” said Father Manno. “He always took the opportunity to talk about the priesthood, especially on Holy Thursday.”

Reflecting on his earlier years, Father Manno said his parents and Father Brown influenced his decision to enter the priesthood. Father Manno believes that vocation promotion comes from the parish community, family and seeing a good example of priestly life and ministry exemplified by the parish priest. “Father Brown was such a positive influence on all of us,” said Father Manno.

Father Brown taught Father Manno’s eighth grade religion class. Impressed with Father Manno’s ability to answer classroom questions, Father Brown suggested he consider the priesthood.

After some encouragement from his parents and his own contemplation, at the end of his junior year in high school, Father Manno told Father Brown that he would indeed like to enter the priesthood. “He smiled and said, ‘I’m tickled pink,’” remembered Father Manno.

Also influenced by Father Brown’s positive example, Deacon Gregory Kreinheder is studying theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md. He was ordained a transitional deacon April 1, 2006 and will be ordained a priest June 2, 2007.

Deacon Kreinheder said that although the parishioners of Immaculate Conception asked him to consider a religious vocation, it is the encouragement he received from Father Brown that he remembers most clearly. “I saw him as a role model, and, from the earliest years of my life, wanted to emulate him,” said Deacon Kreinheder.

After his ordination, Deacon Kreinheder is looking forward with excitement to celebrating the sacraments, which he said have affected him very deeply throughout his life.

Msgr. Eugene Yennock, pastor at St. Daniel Church in Syracuse for the last 26 years, said there are a number of factors that make St. Daniel Parish successful in its vocation promotion efforts. The first is that St. Daniel has traditionally had a large number of altar servers. Msgr. Yennock mentioned that 75 percent of priests were former altar servers. Another factor is that the students in St. Daniel School are exposed to Catholic tradition and the sisters and priests are present to talk with them about vocations. Msgr. Yennock also said the “good families” in the parish are responsible for its success. In addition, Msgr. Yennock mentioned the efforts of a rosary group that has been meeting in the community at each other’s homes for the last 25 years as a factor. The group prays the rosary for vocations. He also cited the “good priests” who have served St. Daniel in the past as an example for the young people.

St. Daniel Deacon Joseph Celentano, principal at St. Daniel School, agrees. “We are a parish that is fortunate to have a spiritual leader such as Msgr. Yennock,” said Deacon Celentano. “He’s a model priest.” He also attributes the prayerful attitude of St. Daniel parishioners and the grace of the Holy Spirit as factors in the success of vocation promotion at St. Daniel. Also contributing is the parish’s Perpetual Adoration, which has been held at the church for the last 15 years.

Msgr. J. Robert Yeazel, pastor at Holy Cross Church in Dewitt, spent his formative years as a young person at St. Daniel Parish. “I melded into the parish family,” said Msgr. Yeazel. “I noticed the happiness of the priests. They enjoyed life. I said, ‘If caring for people brings you this much happiness, I’d like to be a part of it.’”

Msgr. Yeazel began to think about entering the priesthood while attending Grant Junior High School in Syracuse. He had been asked to write an essay about what profession he was interested in. He responded, “I’d like to be a priest or a pilot because I’d like to be close to heaven.”

St. Daniel is the home parish to four current seminarians — Bernard Smith, Christopher Seibt, Christopher Celentano and Chris Ehrich.

Christopher Seibt, who is attending Theological College in Washington, D.C., said he was influenced not only by Msgr. Yennock’s example of what a good priest should be, but also by St. Daniel parishioners. “They encourage vocations not only through their prayers, but also by their example,” said Seibt. “They live very faithful and holy lives.”

Smith shares Seibt’s view of the parishioners at St. Daniel. After joining the parish in 1995, he became involved in parish activities because of the enthusiasm and  community spirit he felt there. After he started teaching in the diocesan Formation for Ministry Program, he began to think about entering ordained ministry.

Growing up in the St. Daniel Parish was a profound experience for Deacon Chris Celentano. He remembered feeling like he was part of a large extended family. He was also impressed as a young boy by Msgr. Yennock. “What struck me most was the dedication and love Msgr. Yennock had for the priesthood and the church,” said Celentano. “He preached with passion, prayed with devotion and served the people.”

Msgr. Yennock is very proud of the seminarians. “They are very fine young men who all show great promise,” said Msgr. Yennock. “They are certainly qualified and they have extraordinary gifts.”

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