Column: Celebrating 40 years as a priest

When he was a child, age 6 or 7, Joe Staudt thought he might become an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church one day in the distant future. 

He grew up in East Meadow, one of five children — two boys and three girls — and the church and the work of its priests held a strong appeal. He also felt the mysterious presence of God in his life, even at a young age.

The Staudts were a solidly middle-class family. His father was a well driller for a company called C.W. Laumann, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. His maternal grandparents were both born in Poland.

He attended Parkway Elementary School in North Bellmore and went on to St. Pius X preparatory high school in Uniondale. Life was pointing him toward the priesthood. All the pieces seemed to be falling together. But, of course, nothing is that simple. Life never follows a straight line.

“When I was 6 or 7, I asked for a cassock,” he recalled as he sat in a busy auditorium at the Southold American Legion Hall Sunday afternoon. “I said I wanted ‘priest clothes.’ It was a cassock for kids. I used to dress up in it and play Mass, and my brother and sisters were the congregation.”

Several years later, during high school, his mother came to him while he polished his shoes on a sheet of newspaper on the kitchen floor. It was a Saturday night. Mass was in the morning.

He recalled what she had to say.

“My mom said, ‘Your father tells everyone you will be priest.’ But on this night, my mother said, ‘I want you to know you don’t have to do this. If you feel you can’t do it, you won’t disappoint us. We will always love you.’

“What she said that night has stayed with me all these years. It was a very important moment. I said, ‘Mom, I appreciate it.’ ”

Father Joseph W. Staudt was ordained March 4, 1978. On Sunday, the crowd at the American Legion Hall had gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that ordination. He is now Monsignor Staudt. The day began with a standing-room-only Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel R.C. Church in Mattituck, which his siblings attended. Six brothers named Chalifoux who were with him on his ordination day returned for this anniversary and for the celebration afterward.

“We met Father Joe when we were 6 to 15 years of age and after our father died,” said Richard Chalifoux. “He was a hugely important presence in our lives. He married us, he baptized our children — he was always there for us.”

Msgr. Staudt’s journey from the boy growing up in East Meadow to the priest he is today has had many twists and turns, as any life does. Only four members of his high school class of 34 continued on to seminary and ordination. At Cathedral College in Douglaston, the 60 young men who started out as freshmen had dwindled to perhaps 40 by graduation; those who dropped out discovered that a career as a priest just wasn’t for them.

Of those who left, Msgr. Staudt said, none took him aside and explained why they were leaving.

“They knew early on they didn’t want to be priests,” he said.

After three and a half years at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Lloyd Harbor, he was placed as a deacon in a parish, where he did weddings and baptisms. A year or so later, he was ordained a priest. He estimates that about half of the 12 or 14 people he started out with at the seminary ended up being ordained.

His first parish was Corpus Christi in Mineola, then St. Sylvester in Medford, St. Patrick’s in Bay Shore and Christ the King in Commack. Eleven years ago he came to Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue. He loves it here, he said, and hopes to be able to remain until he retires in six years.

But, again, his life, like everyone’s, has not followed a straight and easy course.

“I would say in every parish I had different kinds of crisis,” he said. “I would say to myself, ‘Did I make the right choice? Can I do this for the rest of my life? Should I leave and get married and have a family?’ I stayed because I liked the work of a priest. I always felt that pull.”

In Sacred Heart Parish, Masses are celebrated in Mattituck at Our Lady of Good Counsel. On a number of occasions, Msgr. Staudt has preached a message about holding on to faith when something truly devastating happens, like losing a child.

“You can’t reason if someone loses a child,” he said. “People go through a terrible time. You can’t say, ‘You should still believe, here are the reasons.’ There isn’t logic. They say, ‘Where was God? Our little girl is dead …’ People might get angry at God and throw him out of their lives, but he will never throw them out. God believes in you, whether you believe in him or not.”

Msgr. Staudt was still at Christ the King in Commack when the priest sex abuse scandal broke.

He could tell people were leaving the church because of it. “I spoke about it for weeks from the pulpit,” he said. “I told people, ‘I hope you understand how horrified we are by this.’ I was in a store once and a woman and a toddler were there and I waved at the toddler. She pulled him away from me.”

What has he learned in 40 years?

“I believe what Pope Francis said, that he wants his priests to smell like the sheep. To be in the flock with them, and not up on a high hill looking down on them. I want to be among them.”

What would he say to a young man just starting out on the same journey he took?

“I would say you have to be a person of prayer. You have to ask God, is this what he wants for you? And is this what you really want to do? If you feel this isn’t for you, it will become clear to you. But I would not change anything. Even when I wondered if I had chosen the right course, those moments made me a better priest.

“It is like when you have a storm on a lake,” he added. “You hold on to the boat. You wonder: Are you going to make it? But then the calm comes.”

Photo caption: Msgr. Joseph Staudt at a celebration of his ordination 40 years ago. (Credit: Steve Wick)

The author is the executive editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected].