Sometime in June of 1973, after ordination on May 5, I arrived at my first assignment, Immaculate Conception Church in Irwin. Priests will tell you that the first assignment is always special in their hearts. It is for me as well, but it was so brief and whirlwind that my recollections are fewer than in other assignments. IC was the largest parish in the diocese at the time, somewhere around 3,100 families. It was served by the pastor, Msgr. Augustine Marzhauser, a kindly gentleman who would not hurt a flea. There was another Associate, Father (now Msgr) Jim Gaston, who had been ordained about two years before me. Gus, I found out, had one Mass out of eight on Sunday (the early one), kept the books, and was pastor. After ordination years before, he served as pastor of a very small parish in Indiana County for nearly twenty-five years, then pastor at IC in Connellsville (mid sized, with school, high school, one Associate, etc) before coming to IC in Irwin (larger by far and with more responsibilities). It seemed to me that Gus, who was not a hands on person, was in over his head. But he was a great guy, gentle and kind. Jim was hands on, and made sure that things were taken care of pastorally. He taught me much (I usually tell him that he taught me everything that I know). My second year there, Father Len Sanesi, who was my former Vocation Director and rector at the Minor Seminary I attended, came to serve as pastor in everything but name - a difficult task with Gus remaining as pastor.
I was young, insecure and uncertain of myself, and overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the parish. I found that you got to know people in the small pockets of 100/200 families involved in various ministries and activities (school/CCD/organizations). Jim Gaston helped me get beyond my insecurity as time went on.
I touched lives, as I found out later. A number of our good parishioners at Elizabeth Seton were from those days. I had two servers from those days (John and George) that for many years kept in touch through Christmas cards and notes - one of whom is still actively involved at IC parish. One man (Pat) has publicly thanked me a number of times for inviting him to become a lector and then to take responsibility for the lectors, which he is still doing some 39 years later. A few years ago when I had a knee replacement, I was being transported from the hospital to rehab at Saint Anne Home in Greensburg when one of the ambulance guys saw my name and asked if I had ever been in Irwin. It turns out that I married either his Mom and Dad or his Aunt. They have (and so do I) a memorable picture of the wedding party on the jungle gym at the local playground (and I was on the top - couldn't do that now).
I remember the farewell that the altar servers gave me in the backyard of the home of Rudy & Bernie Roitz - and their gift of a yellow, ten speed bike.
One very memorable event was the local township Bicentennial parade my second year there - a big production on a Saturday. Our church, like many other groups, did a float entitled "Elizabeth Seton - Pioneer". Little did I know then that eventually there would be an Elizabeth Seton parish in the area and that I would serve as pastor. We won second place (Saint Agnes took first with a dove of peace - our was more creative and nicer, but who is holding a grudge?).
From that float creating experience came a wedding - two people (Dave and Mary Ann) meeting, falling in love, and sharing the Sacrament of Marriage which I witnessed. They are still great friends. I have many individuals and families that I count as friends whose friendships go back to those days.
I am sure that I will say this again, but it is remarkable how God works in our lives, the people he places before us, the experiences that help us to grow. My journey began in Irwin, in the 109th year of IC's existence, and though short lived, it was formational. Last year IC celebrated their 150th anniversary. I shared in two of those years, two years that for me were important to my priesthood.