By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FAIRHAVEN, Mass. — It’s been quite a year for Father Thomas McElroy, SS.CC., pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Fairhaven.
It all began on Mar. 11, 2013, when the Sacred Hearts priest underwent an emergency surgical procedure to remove a cancerous tumor from his right lung.
Having cleared that hurdle, in January Father McElroy traveled to Rome on a 10-day pilgrimage of thanksgiving for his speedy recovery, during which he met and stayed in the same apartment building as the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Now, after serving more than 30 years in the Fall River Diocese in a variety of roles and as pastor of three different parishes, his provincial superior, Father Johnathan Hurrell, SS.CC., has approved his request to retire from pastoral ministry.
Effective August 8, Father McElroy will step down as pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Fairhaven, where he’s been assigned since 2008.
Father Bob Charlton, SS.CC., who has served as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Edinburg, Texas for the past eight years, will return to Fairhaven to assume the pastoral duties from Father McElroy.
“Part of the reason for my retirement is, it’s time,” Father McElroy told The Anchor. “I want to get out of the leadership role and I want to do more priestly stuff. And my doctors have said they don’t want me to be working where there’s any type of stress or tension. So my provincial said I can continue to do parochial work in the sense of celebrating Mass, administering the Sacraments, and whatever I can in a limited capacity.”
Even though he’s giving up the administrative duties of being a pastor, Father McElroy, 74, won’t be traveling far — he plans to stay here in the diocese and will be living at the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary residence on Adams Street in Fairhaven, just across the street from his current parish.
“I’m happy about that,” he said. “I’ll be doing a lot more retreat and Spiritual direction work now.”
Father McElroy began his ministry in the diocese in 1983, when he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in New Bedford.
In 1987 he became director of the Sacred Hearts Retreat Center in Wareham, where he served for six years before being named pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet, which at the time was still a mission of the Sacred Hearts’ congregation.
“We had a program going on to return the parish missions we had back to the diocese (so we could) take on new areas of ministry,” Father McElroy said. “So I was the last of the Sacred Hearts priests to serve as pastor there. We founded that parish along with St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s parishes in Fairhaven and Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in New Bedford.”
When Father Paul Caron became the first diocesan pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish, Father McElroy returned for a brief stint at the Sacred Hearts Retreat Center in Wareham before becoming pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in 2008.
“I had four years at Our Lady of the Assumption, three years at St. Francis Xavier, and six years at St. Joseph’s — so 13 years of pastoral ministry altogether,” Father McElroy said.
While he said there have been many great things about serving as pastor, Father McElroy admitted he won’t miss “doing paperwork or signing contracts.”
“I’m doing contracts now for some of the employees, which is something you have to do when you have a (parochial) school,” he said. “We never learned anything in the seminary about this. I never had to balance a checkbook in my life until I was 43, when I first became a pastor in a parish. I came from a community where everything was taken care of for you — you didn’t have to worry about anything, you just kept going.”
Originally trained in spiritual ministry and retreat work, Father McElroy said it wasn’t long after his ordination that he soon found himself administering to a parish.
“They needed someone to do pastoral work in the diocese where I was in Rochester, N.Y.,” Father McElroy said. “Then I did some work in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas when then-Bishop Humberto Medeiros brought (our congregation) down there. We were his confessors when he was chancellor here (in the Fall River Diocese) and when he became bishop, he asked if we would go down there and form our own mission.
“When I was finished in Texas, that was the beginning of my parochial work (here in the diocese). Over the course of my ministry, I’d say the community has assigned me to 18 different missions.”
One of the new avenues that Father McElroy is excited to explore in retirement is prison ministry. Following in the footsteps of fellow Sacred Hearts Father Matthew Sullivan, who has been referred to as the “Mother Teresa” of prison ministry among inmates and staff at the Dartmouth House of Corrections, Father McElroy recently revived weekly Mass celebrations at the Dartmouth correctional facility.
“We haven’t had a full-time priest there in years, so I asked if I could get involved,” Father McElroy said. “I’ve become active with the Residents Encounter Christ community of lay people from different parishes who have been going there. So I got involved through them. I go every Friday to celebrate Mass and I’ve been offering Mass for the women — there’s been nothing for the women before.”
Noting there are about 2,300 people incarcerated at the Dartmouth House of Corrections, Father McElroy said he’s also working on a program to provide the Sacrament of Reconciliation for inmates along with Spiritual counseling for them.
“I go down there every Friday,” he said. “The last group I had — they only allow a certain amount in each section — but I had 22 guys for Mass. And they’re so hungry and they have no idea why. Because I don’t get to sit and just talk with them, I’ve turned the homily into lessons so that I can teach them during Mass. They have such problems, but you learn a lot from them. And when Mass is over, I’ve had many of them ask: ‘Are you coming back?’ And I tell them: ‘Yes I am.’ You can tell it’s something they need to have, even though they don’t know why.”
Even though the notion of celebrating weekly Mass at the prison was initially met with some resistance, Father McElroy said he was able to convince them otherwise.
“I told them this was wrong because they were not allowing them to celebrate their faith, and they have a right to that,” he said. “For years they weren’t having regular Masses unless someone would come to celebrate one for a special occasion. But I said it has to be a permanent thing and we need to do this all the time, and they agreed.”
Although he’s anxious to begin working on these ministries, after celebrating his final Masses at St. Joseph’s Parish this weekend, Father McElroy said he’s first going to take a little time for himself.
“I’m 74 years old and I’ve never gone on a sabbatical and I’ve never taken any extended time off, so I asked my provincial if I could have one year to relax a bit,” he said. “So for the first year, I’ll basically be traveling around to visit my family and other members of my community. Most of my family lives in Rhode Island now, so I’ll be able to go and spend some time with them. I’d like to go down to Texas and visit some of the people I know there, too.”
Looking back over his years of pastoral ministry, Father McElroy said there will be some things he will miss.
“I think I’ll miss the ability to have people affect me,” he said. “We have such great talent in this parish — as there was in New Bedford and Acushnet. The greatest thing I saw here was the ability of people to return to their faith, to return to the Church, and not be afraid. I saw a great deal of that happen here in the programs and different things that we’ve offered.”
Father McElroy said he’ll also miss interacting with the students at St. Joseph’s School, celebrating Mass for them, and the welcoming sense of belonging that is a hallmark of St. Joseph’s Parish.
“There’s a sincere sense of hospitality here that people appreciate,” Father McElroy said. “I had one family come to join the parish the other day and they said: ‘We came here because we were so welcomed.’ You wish you had droves coming in, but as I always tell people: Jesus only had 12 and they ran away. So thank God for the ones we do have.”
“I’ll miss being able to celebrate the Liturgy with the community,” he added. “That is so exciting for me every week, every day. And you really get to know people. I was looking around the other day and thought to myself: ‘How many stories do I know here?’ There are so many wonderful stories. So that will be something I’ll miss. But I certainly won’t miss the daily grind.”