Young diocesan priests appointed first-time administrators

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — There was a time not too long ago when newly-ordained priests would have the luxury of serving as parochial vicars, assistant pastors and curates for some time before they took over the administrative responsibilities of running a parish.

Until about the mid-1980s, the average stretch between ordination and becoming a pastor in the diocese was 20 years.

But with the shortage of priests and an increasing number of retirees in the Fall River Diocese and beyond, it’s clear those days are gone.

Amidst the latest batch of retirements and transfers announced last month by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., two young priests were appointed first-time administrators relatively early in their ministries.


Father Christopher M. Peschel, ordained just three years ago, was named parochial administrator of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro.

And Father Riley J. Williams, ordained in 2011, was appointed parochial administrator of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet.

Even though he’s keenly aware of the factors necessitating these changes, Father Peschel said he was still “a bit surprised” by the appointment.

“I wasn’t expecting to take over the administration of such a big operation — two parishes, a grammar school, and a cemetery — at only three years of ordination and 29 years old,” Peschel recently told The Anchor. “One pastor in the diocese approached me at a recent cathedral event and asked: ‘Who do you pray to? It took me 27 years to become a pastor!’”

Father Williams likewise said he wasn’t expecting to be transferred, much less being put in charge of a parish and school in Acushnet.

“When (the bishop) asked me whether I felt ready to take on this new responsibility, I told him that while I feel somewhat prepared from my experiences in past assignments, I knew I could also turn to my brother priests for help with questions that lay outside my previous experience,” Father Williams said.

Although he said he felt humbled to be asked to take on this added responsibility so soon after ordination, Father Peschel said Bishop da Cunha also made it clear to him that such appointments are becoming more common out of necessity.

“I don’t think there is a ‘normal’ anymore,” Father Peschel said. “I think the appointment of younger priests to administrative positions is inevitable, simply given the number of priests available. I’ll be the first one to admit, it’s less than ideal. One might typically think priests would have a much longer period of time before these appointments — but that’s operating out of a mentality from decades ago that simply doesn’t exist as an option anymore.”


Father Williams echoed Father Peschel’s sentiments, adding that the situation is not at all unique to the Fall River Diocese.

“Most of my seminary classmates are already pastors, and one is already on his second pastorate,” Father Williams said. “I think that this is simply a reality of where we are at as a Church and diocese at this point in time — creating a situation in which the lay faithful will be called to embrace more fully their share in the life of the Church for more fruitful collaboration in the future.”

Even though he has had just one assignment since ordination — as parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in South Yarmouth — Father Peschel said the experience has certainly helped prepare him to run a parish.

“I was privileged to have been assigned to work under the guidance of Father George Bellenoit,” Father Peschel said. “I can’t express enough gratitude to Father Bellenoit, who has been nothing but kind and supportive to me in my initial years of priesthood. He embodies the qualities of a great pastor and as much as the people of St. Pius will miss him, I too, will miss him and the sage wisdom he was able to offer me in the three years I spent with him.”

In the six years since his ordination, Father Williams likewise said he has “been exposed to nearly the full gamut of parish experiences” that will give him some insight into his new administrative role.

“One of the things I have come to love about being a parish priest is that there is no one apostolate to which we are dedicated — rather, we get to participate in many,” he said. “This also has the personal benefit of stretching me in areas in which I needed to grow further, as well as getting satisfaction from doing what comes most naturally.”

Despite the formidable challenge of taking on two parishes and a school, Father Peschel said he was happy to know he would be returning to Attleboro, where he previously served during his final year in the seminary.

“The year I spent in Attleboro, including the five months that I served as a transitional deacon, really helped me to understand what life in busy parishes with a school was all about,” Father Peschel said. “I learned a great deal in that year from my predecessor, Father Richard Wilson, and I’m very grateful for some of the frank and open conversations we’ve have. I really am overjoyed to be returning as parochial administrator.”

In addition to Fathers Bellenoit and Wilson, there’s a good chance Father Peschel will be seeking advice and counsel from Father George Harrison, whom he cited as being a mentor and who has been his Spiritual advisor since 2014.

“I wouldn’t be a priest today if it wasn’t for him,” Father Peschel said. “I always look forward to the chances I have to talk and pray with him about being a parish priest. He has kept my life firmly rooted in devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Blessed Mother, and I’m forever indebted to him for introducing those devotions into my life.”

Father Williams similarly cited Father Harrison, with whom he has been serving at Corpus Christi Parish in East Sandwich, as someone whose “example and guidance have been a great influence on my perspective of parish leadership,” he said.

Father Philip Davignon, who was pastor at Father Williams’ home parish of Our Lady of the Assumption in Osterville during the time he was studying to become a priest, is also someone he hopes to emulate.

“Seeing his humble dedication to his people and ministry is a model to which I continually aspire,” Father Williams said.

As he leaves Cape Cod for Attleboro, Father Peschel said he is “looking forward to getting to know the families that make up the larger family of the Church and leading as head and shepherd towards a shared vision.”

“The only title in my life that I have ever aspired to have is ‘Father,’” he said. “I see my new role as an administrator being that of a father of a rather large family and it is the role of a father to create a vision and set the course for his family.”

“For me, the experience of Spiritual fatherhood will be more profound as an administrator,” Father Williams agreed. “Being actually responsible for God’s people in a parish — really, the souls of all the people in a given area — is an awesome charge, and a challenge to which I will strive every day to prove myself equal.”

As associate director of vocations and seminarians for the diocese, Father Peschel added that laity can certainly help reverse this trend in the future by praying for vocations and encouraging young men to consider the priesthood.

“I think this is a clarion call to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the numbers of vocations in this diocese over the last couple years, and I know there are several guys applying for the (seminary) this fall, but we are still in a pinch from a numbers perspective.”

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