BRADENTON -- All together they've spent 62 years in ministry at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bradenton. But the pastor, the sister and the business manager are all stepping away from the leadership team this year.
"It's not easy and it didn't come just overnight. It's something I've given a lot of prayer and reflection and everything to," said Sister Una O'Donnell, O.S.F., pastoral minister for the congregation for the past 23 years. Sister O'Donnell has taken a volunteer assignment to serve in Peru.
Equally thoughtful but leaving for retirement are the Rev. Paul McLaughlin, pastor at St. Joseph's for the past six years, and Rebecca Ferguson, business manager, who is finishing
33 years at the parish.
The sister explained that as a Franciscan her focus was on foreign missions and her first one was to Boston in 1963.
Born in Donegal, Ireland, she said she loved living in East Boston and her only struggle was when she was reassigned to Syracuse, N.Y., where the lack of noise at night kept her awake.
After serving the pastoral ministry here so long, she said she has seen some families through baptism, marriage and death. Yet, "I have heard many times people volunteer to go to Peru. That was one of my reasons. Then I kept looking at Isaiah 6, the call of Isaiah. It kept coming to my mind. Isaiah heard this voice asking, 'Who will I send?' Send me," the sister said.
McLaughlin's longest single ministry was 24 years as a Navy and NATO chaplain, which included service in Bosnia during "scary times. The three entities still had a strong hatred for each other then.
"Originally I was interested in the Peace Corps idea, but we didn't know anyone who was in that. I had two uncles who were priests. In 1962 I went with the Mill Hill Missionaries, who go to Africa, South America and Afghanistan," said the Connecticut native. He studied at Our Lady of Angels Seminary in Albany, N.Y., and was ordained a priest in 1971 in the Archdiocese of Hartford.
When he retired from the Navy, he worked for a veteran's hospital for two years and then was assigned to St. Joseph Church. "The staff is great," he said.
Finding a new pastor for St. Joseph's will be handled by the diocese, said Billy Atwell, communications director for the Diocese of Venice.
When a priest retires, other priests in the area who may be interested may apply, he said. "Bishop (Frank) Dewane assesses the needs of the parish community and based upon the talents of the priest applicants as well as other available priests, he makes a determination as to who would be the best fit," he told the Herald via email. The time frame varies depending on the needs of the parish and the availability of a priest to be reassigned, he noted.
Ferguson said she got the job when she was approached by the pastor.
"I had three kids at Saint Joseph's School. Whenthe pastor at the time said, 'You practically live here already. Would you like to get a paycheck?' I started here part time and went to full time.
"I make sure the resources are there for Father and Sister to do the real work of the church," said Ferguson.
Formerly in real estate, Ferguson converted to Catholicism after her affiliation with the parish.
"It isn't just us three," said Father McLaughlin. "It's the staff itself and the wonderful volunteers we have, too. The food pantry, the bereavement group, we have so many ministries. There are about 40 of them."
"Everybody on the staff here is fully invested in this church. It's not a job to them. Whatever needs to be done, they just step up and do it. And when you work with people like that, it blossoms," Ferguson said.
Dee Graham, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7024, or at twitter @DeeGrahamBH.