By Marie Elena Giossi
Antonio Contreras was a man who brought people closer to God – first as an Episcopal priest and most recently as a Catholic journeying toward ordination to the Catholic priesthood.
When he died earlier this month, his faith community lost its spiritual guide – but not its way.
Contreras had been teaching the Catholic catechism to nearly 50 Hispanic members of his former congregation, who left the Episcopalian Church with him and started on the path toward full communion with the Catholic Church.
They are now regulars at the 1:30 p.m. Spanish Mass on Sundays at St. Michael’s Church in Flushing.
Two Sundays ago, this community met to find out what its next steps would be following a Mass concelebrated by Father John Vesey, St. Michael’s pastor; Father James Massa, moderator of the diocesan curia and vicar for evangelization; and Msgr. Jeffrey N. Steenson of Houston.
A former Episcopal bishop, Msgr. Steenson heads the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, created two years ago by the Vatican for former Anglicans in the U.S. and Canada who seek to be Catholic. Thirty-five communities have been received into the ordinariate, and 15 are in formation.
Msgr. Steenson came to personally offer his condolences to the community. Following Mass, he took time to meet them, offer blessings and assure them of his support as they continue their journey in the Catholic faith.
“It’s not an easy journey because they have to really want to be a Catholic,” Msgr. Steenson explained. “For them to lose their pastor in mid-passage like this is very difficult.
“I wanted to be here to tell them that we love them and … to give them encouragement. Because they’re a Spanish-speaking congregation, we’ll work hard to find a Spanish-speaking leader to help them,” as Contreras had.
Contreras was born and raised in the Catholic Church in Puerto Rico but left during his college years after having a positive encounter with an Episcopal priest. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 2005 and was known as Padre Antonio – a pastoral, community-minded and dynamic preacher in Brooklyn and Queens.
He later told Father Vesey that even while serving in the Episcopal Church he held onto many of his Catholic convictions, especially the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament – which is what eventually led him to resign his priesthood and leave the Episcopal Church.
Four months ago, he entered into full communion with the Catholic Church as a layman and began preparations for priestly ordination in the Catholic Church in 2015.
Shock and grief spread through his community when the 45-year-old died of a heart attack Aug. 9.
Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chapetto presided at his funeral Mass at St. Michael’s Church. Father Vesey was the main celebrant, and five other priests served as concelebrants. Contreras was buried in a Roman cassock holding a priestly stole.
Though he never realized his dream of being a Catholic priest, he was certainly a shepherd. “He was responsible for inviting his whole (Episcopalian) community to enter the Catholic Church,” Father Massa said. “He cleared a path back for these people.”
Contreras met weekly with the group to attend Mass at St. Michael’s followed by catechesis and fellowship in the church basement.
“They’re like Antonio, very enthusiastic and charismatic,” said Father Belen Gonzalez y Perez, who knows the community personally. “They’re very interested in … participating and contributing to the Catholic faith community.”
Father Gonzalez y Perez is the first former Anglican priest to be ordained a Catholic priest in the Brooklyn Diocese. Knowing the challenges of the journey firsthand, he helped guide Contreras on his path and assisted in catechizing his flock.
Alex Lopez is a member of that flock.
“He (Contreras) created community,” recalled Lopez, a husband and father who followed Contreras to the Catholic Church with his wife and children. “He inspired everyone with the way he preached and interacted with the whole community.”
Jonathan Rodriguez, a young adult member of the community, said Contreras was not just a priest but more like a member of his family.
He shared that his late pastor was teaching him about God, the Bible and “the good and beautiful things one can find and understand through God.”
Contreras told him that there are different paths one could take, “but there is only one true path and he told me that’s to follow God and Jesus Christ.”
“He pretty much guided me here, and I came knowing it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
The next step for this faith community, Msgr. Steenson said, is to “finish what catechesis and preparation they need to be received into the Catholic Church” sometime next year.
Until someone is appointed to lead this community, Father Vesey has promised that he and St. Michael’s parish priests will minister to them and lead their religious instruction.
“We as a parish feel they are our people, and we want them to know that,” said Father Vesey, who trusts in the Holy Spirit’s guidance. “They have to continue to ask Jesus and come closer to Jesus, no matter the obstacles.”