KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO
Father George Michell, who retires in June as pastor of St. Patrick R.C. Church in Southold, shows off some of his own photographs. A camera buff, he’ll be devoting more time to his lifelong interest in photography.
At 75, the Rev. George Michell doesn’t feel his age, but in line with church policy adopted in recent years, he’ll be stepping down in June as the full-time priest at St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Southold.
He wants his parishioners — all longtime friends — to know that he’s leaving them in the good hands of his friend, the Rev. Peter Garry.
“The people are going to love him,” Father Michell said about Father Garry. “He’s not going to be me, but he shouldn’t be me,” he said.
The two priests have been friends since 1971 and Father Michell looks forward to being right upstairs in the rectory and still preaching on some Sundays. He also stands ready to fill in for vacationing clergy at other nearby Catholic churches.
As a youth attending Regis High School, a New York City all-scholarship Jesuit boys’ school, he was first inspired to follow a religious career, but he was also pulled in another direction — to become a teacher.
“I was never too far from the Catholic institution,” Father Michell said. What he knows is that his high school experiences have informed every aspect of his life, including his passion for nature photography. He became Regis High School’s official photographer, beginning his lifelong love affair with cameras. Coming from a poor home, he never could have afforded the quality equipment his work at school provided him.
“I was enormously shy,” he said. “The only time I wasn’t shy was when I had a camera in front of my face.”
When he went off to Fordham University in 1949, it was to pursue a teaching degree.
“The priesthood was in the back of my mind, but so was teaching,” he said. At first, he thought he’d be a math teacher, but he switched to English after a battle with geometry.
Although he did teach fifth-graders in the Island Trees School District for two years and “enjoyed working with the young minds,” he couldn’t see himself teaching the same subjects day after day, year after year, he said.
“In the background, there was always a maybe,” he said about lingering thoughts of the priesthood. He went to a Benedictine abbey summer program and took time to think about his options.
“Finally, I realized I had to give it a shot,” Father Michell said. His mother had died of an embolism around the time of his Fordham graduation in 1953. His father wasn’t surprised by his decision to study for the priesthood, he said.
He went to a seminary in Huntington, where he “met some of the best people ever,” many of whom remain his friends today.
From the outset, he knew he wanted to do parish work.
“I love what priests do,” Father Michell said. On Sundays, when some priests might feel burdened officiating at three or four Masses, he sees it as simply talking with a group of friends.
Growing up, Father Michell experienced a time in the church when priests often stayed at one church throughout their careers. But from the time he was ordained in 1964, he was destined to move to several churches.
“If they’re happy, move them” seemed to be the diocese’s philosophy toward assigning priests, he said with a shrug.
He spent three years in Islip Terrace, nine months in Center Moriches, nine years in New Hyde Park, three years in Sound Beach, six years in Smithtown and 10 years in Commack before coming to Southold, where he has been at St. Patrick for 15 years.
“I’ve loved all my assignments,” Father Michell said. What attracted him to St. Patrick, he said, was “a chance to be a pastor in a small community. It’s hard work at times, demanding, but definitely worth it.
“I just like this place, ” he said. “I like these people. It’s nice to be able to walk the streets and be part of a community.”
He’s now at the point where he’s seeing the children of people at whose First Communions he officiated. He has seen many through their early Catholic education, marriage and family funerals. His ninth-grade confirmation class is filled with children he baptized.
What’s ahead for Father Michell is lots of travel and photography, he said. Transition day is June 23. Two days after Father Garry takes the helm, Father Michell will be off to Honduras to visit a child he sponsors there. He also wants to spend more time traveling in the southwestern United States and in Alaska.
But mostly, he looks forward to remaining a vital part of the Southold community he loves.
“They made me a promise I couldn’t resist,” he said of Bishop William Murphy’s pledge that Father Michell wouldn’t have to worry about paperwork even as he remained in the rectory as pastor emeritus.
On Sunday, June 6, the community is invited to gather on the church lawn between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to share refreshments, wish Father Michell well in his retirement and thank him for his service.