Diocesan News

Catholic Schools Are Parishes Unto Themselves for Chaplains

Father Ralph Edel, chaplain at  St. Francis Preparatory High School in Fresh Meadows, stands ready for the new school year in the school’s recently renovated chapel. (Photo: Bill Miller)

FRESH MEADOWS — Father Ralph Edel trained to be a parish pastor, so he anticipated that pivoting to become chaplain of the largest Catholic high school in the U.S. might be a challenge.

After his ordination seven years ago, he spent one year serving St. Margaret’s Parish in Middle Village. Then came his assignment to St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, where the Brooklyn native now serves a “ministry of presence” for 180 fellow faculty and staff, alumni, parents, and 2,400 students.

But as it turns out, Father Edel’s career shift was pretty seamless.

“When I was in seminary, I would have never thought this would be a thing,” he said on Sept. 7, the first day of school for first- and second-year students. “It was never even presented as a possibility. We were training to be parish priests.

“This is a parish unto itself in a lot of ways, but most of these parishioners are between the ages of 14 and 18.”

The Diocese of Brooklyn assigns chaplains to 15 Catholic high schools.

Father Edel’s chaplaincy is a full-time job, considering St. Francis Prep is the nation’s largest Catholic high school, according to Msgr. David Cassato, vicar for Catholic schools.

The first day of school can be hectic and exciting for students, faculty, and chaplains. Here, Father Ralph Edel, chaplain, helps everyone ease into the new year at  St. Francis Preparatory High School. (Photo: Bill Miller)

He said that most of the other chaplains are parish pastors who serve part-time in the schools.

“It would be great if we could have a full-time chaplain in each place,” Msgr. Cassato said. “But the diocese’s needs are so demanding that we have to do a lot of sharing.”

Still, he said, it is “tremendously important” to have a priest on campus.

“It’s such a delicate time in the lives of these young people,” Msgr. Cassato said. “The chaplain is there to guide them through certain moments, to keep them connected to the faith because you can get lost in those years.”

Stephen Winley and Blair Mulholland, both seniors, were on hand Sept. 7 to serve as “peer counselors” for the incoming first-year students.

Mulholland grew up Catholic and attends St. Anastasia Parish in Douglaston, Queens, but she still had questions about other religions.

“I have really random thoughts that I shared with Father Ralph. I would wonder, ‘Which religion is right?’,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think they realize we’re all just trying to figure it out. So they’re very open to your questions.”

Father Edel said he must also field questions from students who are not Catholic. He estimated that 20% of St. Francis Prep’s  student body belong to other religions, or none at all.

“I’d rather have kids who ask questions than kids who don’t care,” the chaplain said. “To have those conversations is always good. Then the goal is for them to see someone who is a Catholic priest living the Catholic life authentically.”

He said that life is one of joy and one that he hoped would be attractive to students, especially those considering lives as priests or religious.

Winley described himself as Christian but not Catholic. Still, he said his countless conversations with Father Edel “really elevated my high school experience.”

“Coming from a public middle school into a Catholic school, you can feel intimidated,” he said. “But you can sit down and talk to Father Ralph any time of the day. And it’s not just about Catholic things, it’s about everything — any problems you have.

“Honestly, I will miss not having a ‘Father Ralph’ in college.”


To Serve Everybody

Dr. Christian Sullivan, director of the campus ministry at St. Francis Prep, has worked with four chaplains during his two decades at the school. He described how these priests partner with faculty and staff.

“We have a very active campus ministry on campus, and the chaplain is an essential piece of that puzzle,” Dr. Sullivan said. “He collaborates with us laypeople, and we support his ministry as a priest.”

Together, they visit kids in the hospital and attend wakes and funerals for students’ family members. The chaplain will concelebrate a funeral Mass and, when asked, deliver the homily.

“This particular chaplain comes out with us to Manhattan to deliver food to people on the streets with our Midnight Run outreach ministry,” Dr. Sullivan said. “The kids see that Father Ralph comes out at night.”

Father Ralph Edel has been the chaplain for six years at  St. Francis Preparatory High School. (Photo: Bill Miller)

But the chaplain doesn’t just work with faculty and staff; he also ministers to them, assisting at their weddings and baptizing their children.

“The priority is the student,” Dr. Sullivan said. “But they also end up being very important to our alumni and our boards because the chaplain’s role is to serve everybody.”

But bonding with students demands that their chaplain respect their curiosities and concerns. To be otherwise would degrade his credibility with his “parishioners.”

“If at any time I waver in that, they’re going to know because that’s how teenagers are,” Father Edel said. “They are the best lie detectors — the best tellers of who you are if you’re not authentic and legit with them.”

He noted that the recent synod shared concerns about youth and their dwindling engagement in the Church. Father Edel noted that if he doesn’t preach and celebrate Mass to the best of his ability, he’s “blowing that opportunity” to keep the students engaged.

“So, there’s pressure on every homily, every retreat, every Mass, to make it the best encounter with our Lord possible,” he said. “Because if it’s not, there are 2,400 souls on the line.”

One thought on “Catholic Schools Are Parishes Unto Themselves for Chaplains

  1. I volunteer as a Catechist in St. Margaret’s Religious Ed program. When Fr. Ralph was assigned to St. Margaret, he would come to the classroom and chat with my students. He could also be found engaging with them in the school yard before and after class. We sure do miss him at St. Margaret, but I know he truly enjoys being the chaplain at St. Francis Prep. God bless him!