Father Joe retires as pastor

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By LYNN DEJARNETTE, Citizen Correspondent

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church of Chiefland held a retirement dinner for Father Joseph McDonnell recently at the Tommy Usher Center.

Father McDonnell said the Catholic Church requires priests to turn in their retirement papers at the age of 75, but he’s not going anywhere, he said June 22 to 200 parishioners and friends during the banquet.

“I bought a house here and I’m going to help out with Mass and other duties, which means I get to be a priest without all the administrative duties,” he said.

Affectionately known as Father Joe, McDonnell was born in Wisconsin and knew he wanted to be a priest by the age of 10. However, instead of attending seminary after high school, Father Joe attended college, got married and started a family.

It was only after his wife died that Father Joe decided to follow his heart and enrolled in a seminary to become a priest.

Father Joe stated that there are only three seminaries for older students and one of them happened to be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; this is where he enrolled and received his training. After his training, Father Joe, at 65-years-old, was assigned to St. John’s 10 years ago.

Longtime parishioner Donna Maynard said, “Father Joe was the third priest assigned to the church after Father Micheal Pendergraft, who had been the priest for 12 years.”

Another longtime parishioner Robert Ross said, “In the beginning, Father Joe’s children had a hard time with his decision to become a priest. Father Joe told them ‘I support you in everything you do, and all I ask is that you support me in the same way,’ which his children did.”

After dinner, Haven Hospice Chaplain Janice Clark presented a plaque to Father Joe as a thank you and in appreciation for his selfless support.

“Father Joe visited hospice patients in the Hospice Care Center, the patient’s homes or the nursing home anytime of day or night,” Clark said.

After the presentation, many parishioners commented on how good Father Joe was with the youth, how kind, down to earth, approachable and easy to talk to he is. Alex Sanchez, a seminarian assigned to St. Johns, put it this way, “Father Joe’s one-to-one interaction with people is very special.”

Art and Joyce Paukune said, “Father Joe made us better Catholics.”

They recalled how Father Joe encouraged everyone to practice daily prayer by placing a vase and a bowl of colored beads in the church’s foyer. The challenge was to pray for a minimum of 15 minutes per day; parishioners could put one bead in the vase for every day they completed this challenge.

Many parishioners also talked about Father Joe’s dedication.

There are four churches in the parish; St. Johns in Chiefland, Holy Cross Mission Church in Cross City, Christ the Good Shepard Mission Church in Trenton, and St. Andrews Catholic Church in Cedar Key. For the past several years, Father Joe has been serving in all four churches.

There was also talk of “Old McDonnell’s Farm” as there are two llamas, a pig, a goat, several chickens and ginny hens on the church property at St. Johns; and how the farm started with a comment from Father Joe that he would like to have a llama. And how a parishioner gave Father Joe a llama as a Christmas present that same year. Lastly, there is Baily, the dog who is Father Joe’s constant companion.

When asked what he remembers most about his time here, Father Joe recalled two stories.

The first was about “Baby Trinity” who was born very ill, and no one knew if she would survive. Father Joe and another parishioner went to the natal intensive care unit and baptized the baby a few days after she was born. Although she still has health problems, today Baby Trinity is a happy toddler.

The second story involved a mother who was addicted to methamphetamine and had four children. The church helped them with clothes and food and invited them to church. Father Joe recalled how one of the boys had some real problems. Father Joe assigned him to be an altar boy. One day the young boy brought a frog to church, and when he handed Father Joe the chalice for the wine, Father Joe was surprised to see a frog in the bottom. The boy is still involved in the church and is doing much better today.

Father Joe also talked about the church in general saying, “The church brings Christ to society. Today’s young people are looking for an answer to the question ‘What good is a church to society?’ The church is the living presence of Jesus Christ in our multiracial, multicultural society.”

One program Father Joe is passionate about is the St. Vincent de Paul Society. According to Father Joe, “The society gets the resources to the needy.”

Those resources include food, clothing and financial assistance. Members of the society are known as Vincentians, and Father Joe has been a Vincentian for more than 50 years.

According to Betty Brown, President of the Gainesville Conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Father Joe is the District Chaplin for the society and was a major influence in establishing the organization in Gainesville as well as locally.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Father Joe said, “I want to be remembered for making life better for someone and for letting people know about Jesus.”