Plant a seed…and watch it grow

Father Thomas McNamara is ordained a Capuchin priest

By connie cissell / sun editor

Smoothing the way has always been one of Tom McNamara’s trademarks. Whether it was clearing a path in the snow so his sisters could go sledding or interpreting for a migrant worker needing help with medical care, he has always been willing to make the way a little easier for others.

A few weeks ago, on Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he was ordained a Capuchin priest by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley at Sacred Heart Church in Yonkers, N.Y. Recently, Father McNamara returned to the Syracuse Diocese to celebrate Mass at many of the sacred places significant to him during his journey to the priesthood.

St. Joseph’s Church in Oriskany Falls was Father McNamara’s home parish. He grew up with Msgr. Matthew Luczycki and Father Moritz Fuchs as two of his priestly role models. Both are thrilled to witness his vocation.

In the case of Father Fuchs, young Tom watched as the parish priest not only served his parishioners but also kept himself grounded in the earth through his love of gardening. Father McNamara has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture from Cornell University.

“He was always in the garden and he was always building relationships,” Father McNamara said of his former pastor. “I watched him and I was very encouraged and I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that.’”

For Father Fuchs and Msgr. Luczycki, hearing that Tom McNamara was entering the priesthood as a Franciscan was no surprise.

“I knew he was thoughtful, I knew he was diligent and he was always careful about his decisions,” Father Fuchs said, remembering Father McNamara as a young high school student. “I learned about four years ago that he had decided to become a Franciscan. I see God’s grace in that.”

Father McNamara’s journey began in Oriskany Falls on July 1, 1958. He attended high school there graduating in 1976. He is the fourth of six children with one brother and four sisters. His mother was Italian and attended St. Anthony’s Church in Endicott while growing up. His father went to the Franciscan university St. Bonaventure,  another natural element connecting Father McNamara to the order. His father was a trustee at St. Joseph’s and his mother taught religious education. “They were a wonderful family,” Msgr. Luczycki remembered. “And Tom is a wonderful, very dedicated man.” Father McNamara’s parents are both deceased, but according to his sister, Barbara McNamara, his mother was convinced he was going to be a priest.

“Mom always wanted Tom to be a priest and was very convinced of it when she died,” Barbara said. “I started to think he would be one then, too.”

Like many other priests, Father McNamara grew up in a family dedicated to the church. He practiced distributing Communion with his siblings using graham crackers, and they extended their pretending to the choir loft and music ministry as well. Another childhood wish come to fruition, Father McNamara played guitar and helped out with the music at various parishes he served before his ordination.

Looking back on the road to his vocation, Father McNamara sees many events that led to his priesthood.

After college, he taught high school in Oxford, N.Y., working with students who really didn’t hold out much hope for the future when he seriously started to consider what God might have in store for him. “I had a sense of God’s presence leading me and guiding me,” Father McNamara said. “I taught for seven years — practical courses like welding, animals, plants, life skills. I worked with the students for a couple of years and I would see them succeed through that phase and then it would come to an end and the future didn’t look hopeful to them. They knew they probably wouldn’t get to college. Sometimes their families really couldn’t help them. My hands were tied and I wanted to help them in a deeper way.”

Father McNamara said he definitely felt a call at this time. “I felt it in my heart, not as much in my head, but definitely a call to my heart.”

The next logical stop was to approach the diocese to talk about a vocation to the priesthood. In what was then a disappointing revelation, diocesan officials decided that he was not suited for the diocesan priesthood.

Still searching but realizing he did indeed have a calling, Father McNamara left teaching and moved to the Town of Richland where he lived at St. Francis Farm with the Catholic Worker community. He said he loved the sense of community and stayed there five years. He had been denied the opportunity to begin study as a diocesan priest so Father McNamara said he began to look at himself more closely and try to figure out where he was being called. St. Francis Farm gave him the opportunity to live in community with lay people but they were always leaving, he said.

“It was difficult to get people to stay and I was committing my life to it, but I was alone,” he said.

He said he loved the Catholic Worker sense of openness to everyone but he was feeling a more intense internal call. Father McNamara met someone through his connection to the farm who told him that he reminded her of the Capuchins at her parish downstate.

“I called down there and this fast-talking New Yorker answered and I thought, ‘Oh no, this is a long way, I’m not sure,’” Father McNamara said. He did visit Garrison, N.Y. and was happy to find a mix of young and old — men from all different walks of life.

“They had a light and happy spirit,” Father McNamara said. “And when I prayed, I felt like I was home.”

Much has happened since that visit. Once he knew he was at home with the Capuchins, his final journey to the priesthood began. Father McNamara went back to school studying at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., living in Jamaica Plain, Mass., Toronto, Wisconsin and even some time in Honduras. His fluent Spanish has grown into a special call to his first assignment as a priest at St. Joseph the Worker in East Patchogue, N.Y. He’ll be working with day laborers smoothing the path in front of them as they make their way.

In the end, he said, the diocesen officials were right on target.

“They knew I wasn’t called to the diocesan priesthood and they were right,” Father McNamara said. “St. Francis is a natural fit for me.”

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