Diocesan News

‘A Priest’s First Parish is Always His Most Loved’

After Father Christopher Heanue’s final Mass as administrator of Holy Child Jesus Church, many parishioners approached the departing priest and asked to have their pictures taken with him. He gladly accommodated. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

Father Heanue Says Goodbye to Holy Child Jesus Church

RICHMOND HILL — When a priest leaves the parish he has been serving to take on a new assignment, it is always a bittersweet time. Feelings of joy and anticipation over what comes next are mixed with sadness at the thought of leaving parishioners — many of whom became like family — behind as he begins a new chapter.

For Father Christopher Heanue, those emotions are heightened because the parish he is leaving, Holy Child Jesus-St. Benedict Joseph Labre, is not only his current assignment, it was the first parish he was assigned to after his ordination into the priesthood six years ago. And prior to his ordination, he served there as a transitional deacon.

On June 27, Father Heanue served his final Masses as parish administrator, bidding farewell to hundreds of parishioners who came to wish him well. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio recently announced a new assignment for him — rector-pastor of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights. 

“A priest’s first parish is always his most loved,” Father Heanue told the congregation at the 12:30 p.m. Mass, the second of two Masses he served back-to-back on that busy Sunday. He was also the main celebrant at the Spanish language Mass at 10:30 a.m.

Father Heanue’s parents, Martin and Kathleen Heanue, attended the afternoon Mass. Mrs. Heanue cried when talking about the relationship her son has built with parishioners. 

“He’s like family to them. They treat us like we’re part of their family, too,” she said.

For a priest, leaving his first parish always brings about mixed emotions.

Father Kevin Abels knows the feeling. Father Abels, pastor of Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge, was assigned to St. Sebastian Church, Woodside, fresh out of the seminary in 2003. After five years there, he was assigned to serve on the faculty of Cathedral Preparatory School and Seminary and as associate director of vocations for the diocese.

“Any priest looking to be of service for the first time feels it’s very exciting coming into a parish. Then you realize that all good things come to an end. Leaving was bittersweet because I loved every moment of being there,” he said.

Priests are fully aware that a life of service means serving a greater good, Father Abels said

“It’s a reminder that the call to be of service is not only for one particular parish but to the greatest needs of the diocese. But I was very, very sad to leave. At the same time, I was grateful and looking forward to the next challenge. But certainly, with that first experience of being at St. Sebastian, as a newly ordained priest, you have memories that will last you a lifetime,” Father Abels said.

In a bit of symmetry, Father Heanue’s final Masses at the Richmond Hill parish took place on the exact same day when, six years earlier, he was ordained a priest.

While parishioners at both Masses demonstrated with standing ovations and gifts how much they love and admire Father Heanue, he said it was he who should be grateful.  “You have helped make me the priest I am today,” he told them.

He learned a lot from his parishioners, he said.

“You have taught me that this is a parish that gives,” he told the parishioners, marveling at their ability to raise funds for the Annual Catholic Appeal, volunteer their time to help others, and work to keep the church and Holy Child Jesus Catholic Academy going strong.

Prior to the 12:30 Mass, Father Heanue recalled how he had to hit the ground running when he arrived at the parish years ago. Almost immediately, he was tapped to serve as parish administrator — an unusual role for a transitional deacon.

“I remember the assignment here and being excited but also very nervous, wondering why I, as a transitional deacon, was being named administrator. I was very, very nervous about it,” he said. “But the people have been just great. The reason the parish was as successful as it was is because the people loved me and I loved the people. If they see you love them and they love you back, it’s a success.”

Leaving the only parish he has served up to now “is the definition of bittersweet,” he said. “I’m excited about what’s to come. But it’s also a sad day for me.”

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros, pastor of Holy Child Jesus-St. Benedict Joseph Labre, has known Father Heanue since he was an adolescent. He ordained him as a deacon and has watched him mature as a priest. 

“The dynamism of Father Christopher has been a blessing to all of us,”  Bishop Cisneros said. “As I get older, he gets more energy and things get done in the parish.”

Parishioners at the farewell Masses spoke of how they will miss Father Heanue.

“He’s a good man,” Blanca Saguilan said. “He’s very clear when he speaks. He helps you to understand the meaning of everything.” 

Marin Rodriguez, a lector, said that while she will miss him, she understands why he has to go on to a new assignment: “He’s an amazing, amazing man. But we have to share him with the world.”