PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Some priests discover their vocations in grade school, while others don’t start thinking about them until they’re in college or later.
But no matter the timing, a mother’s support always sustains them. Just ask Fathers Sean Suckiel, Daniel Kingsley, and Gregory McIlhenney.
Each mother said her son as a child may have signaled his future intentions by playing priest or displaying genuine pastoral care.
Mary and Ron Suckiel raised their three sons in Maspeth, Queens, and belonged to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish in neighboring Ridgewood. Mary recalled that one evening her husband came home cold and tired from working all day as a delivery driver.
“And the minute he walked through the door,” she added, “Sean said, ‘Let’s go down to the basement and have Mass — the Italian Mass.’ My husband said, ‘I just got in. I’m soaking wet.’ But it didn’t matter. This is what he wanted to do. And he did this with his cousins.
“And you couldn’t laugh at him because he was very serious.”
Elizabeth and Charles McIlhenney raised two boys and a daughter in Cape May County, New Jersey; Gregory is the youngest.
“I can go take you all the way back to his younger years, like the time he was in kindergarten,” Elizabeth said. “He would always practice the Mass upstairs. He’d take my doilies off the table (to make an altar), and he would be in his own little zone.
“And then there was one year our oldest, Charlie, was not feeling well, so he didn’t go to church with us for the Passion of Our Lord. But Greg said to me, ‘Is it OK if I stay because Charlie couldn’t come to church today?’ ”
The little brother wanted to last through a second service to receive Communion for his brother.
“I said that was fine,” she recalled. “But it amazed me that a young boy would want to sit through the Passion twice.”
Father Kingsley’s mother, Daniella Pierre-Kingsley, is from Haiti. She recalled her son’s earliest pastoral moment as a little boy in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The family belonged to St. Vincent Ferrer Parish in neighboring East Flatbush.
“I was cleaning,” she said, “and I was listening to French music and feeling nostalgic. But then I was thinking of Haiti, and I was homesick. Daniel came in and saw me crying.
“He put his hands on my forehead, and he was praying and saying, ‘God, if it’s my dad who is causing my mother to cry, please forgive him. And please speak in my mother’s heart so that she can forgive him, and we can all live in peace.’
“OK, at that time, he must have been maybe 8. So we didn’t know what it was. But there was something very different about him like he was chosen, set apart.”
Father Kingsley, ordained in 2015, said his father, Idowu Kingsley, came to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria. The father of four died of cancer before his son’s ordination.
He said that while his father was not as devout as his mother, he worked hard to ensure he received a Catholic education at Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary in Elmhurst, Queens.
Father Kingsley is the eldest of the four children. His siblings are sister Faimie and brothers David and Joshua. His mother said her husband did “sterling work” helping her raise their children.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that he’s not here. But I promised him when he was dying that for as long as I live, we will always speak of him.”
In 2020, Father Kingsley came to St. Clare Parish in Rosedale after serving as parochial vicar of St. Martin de Porres in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
His mother attends St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Flatlands but is frequently seen in the pews at her son’s church. And he enlisted her help for St. Clare’s “Spring Fling” gala fundraiser.
“She knows a lot of people,” he said. “She’s very sociable. And when she says to her friends, ‘I’m organizing a party or a fundraiser for my son’s church,’ her friends show up. When I was installed as pastor of St. Clare, my mother probably invited 100 of our closest friends to the Mass.
“She’s been my biggest cheerleader.”
Father Kingsley and Father Suckiel had a similar formation path. Both attended Cathedral Prep High School and earned their bachelor’s degrees in philosophy from St. John’s University.
Father Suckiel, ordained in 2012, earned his master’s of divinity and a master’s degree in theology from Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington, Long Island.
Father Kingsley also attended seminary at Huntington but finished his master’s in theology at St. Joseph Seminary, Dunwoodie, Yonkers. A few months after his ordination, Father Suckiel was a brand-new parochial vicar at Blessed Trinity Parish on Breezy Point when Hurricane Sandy fiercely came ashore and swamped everything.
It took three years to rebuild the parish community, he said.
His father and his brothers loaded up tools and supplies to aid the recovery. In addition, his mother purchased Christmas trees to bring holiday cheer to displaced parishioners.
“I think it’s just another day for us,” she said.
Father Suckiel served three years at the parish and expected to be there at least three more — a typical assignment. But Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, now retired, called him away early to become vocations director for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Six years later, Bishop DiMarzio installed Father Suckiel as pastor of Holy Family Parish, Fresh Meadows, Queens, just in time to help his flock through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My mom has always been very supportive,” he said. “There was never a moment where she wanted me to doubt my vocation.”
Father Suckiel’s parents retired in St. Petersburg, Florida, but they visit their son often.
“They come home for Christmas and Easter,” he said. “It’s beautiful for my mom to see me and to pray with me. And it’s also refreshing for me to offer the Eucharist and to show my parish family to my parents.
“My mom walks away feeling like I’m in good hands.”
Father McIlhenney’s formation differed from those of Fathers Kingsley and Suckiel.
Although he played priest as a kindergartener — he made his older sister, Jennifer, play the nun — he didn’t seriously consider the priesthood until adulthood.
He was studying pre-med at Stockton University in New Jersey when a campus chaplain, Father Jeff Burton, planted the seed. He asked if the student ever thought of being a priest.
“No,” was the response, but the seed formed roots.
While driving home with his mother for a holiday break, the future Father McIlhenney divulged that he no longer wanted to be a pediatrician but maybe a priest. She wept tears of joy.
Still, his path of formation had some twists.
First, in 2005, he entered Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. But he left after three years to take a break and process some doubts. He worked in student affairs and development at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Again he was asked if he had considered the priesthood, this time by his local pastor.
The seed planted by Father Burton sprung from dormancy.
He contacted Bishop DiMarzio, whom he had met years before in New Jersey, where he was the bishop of the Diocese of Camden for a few years until 2003, when he was installed in the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Bishop DiMarzio sent him to the Pope John Paul II House of Discernment, Cypress Hills, Queens. Meanwhile, he worked for Catholic Cemeteries in the diocese. After that, he studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome and St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie.
“My mom never wavered in the challenges and struggles I had with formation,” he said. “From the moment I told her I was going to do it, I thought she was upset at me. But then she told me that they were tears of joy.
“She said she wasn’t surprised at all. She said, ‘I can see you being a priest.’ And she’s always been there 110%.”
Following his ordination in 2014, Father McIlhenney held parochial vicar posts at St. Patrick Parish, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, and St. Anastasia Parish, Douglaston, Queens.
He, too, had to shepherd parishioners through COVID-19.
Another emotional moment is on tap for May 20 when Father McIlhenney is installed as pastor of St. Andrew Avellino Parish in Flushing, Queens. He has worked there as administrator since 2021. No doubt his mother will weep again, as she did during his ordination.
“It was just beautiful,” she said. “I felt like God gave him to me as a gift,” she said. “And I was giving him back to God now to serve the people.”