Father Patrick Whitney reflects on 50 years with the church

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Pastor Reverend Father Patrick Whitney. (Courtesy of Susan Giordano)

There wasn’t a lot going on in Father Patrick Whitney’s hometown in rural Ireland. He wanted to see more of the world, and he believed that becoming a priest with the Roman Catholic Church would be the way to do it.

“There were priests who were in Africa and America and it seemed like they were living an interesting life and had good stories to tell and seemed to enjoy what they did,” he said. “The area I came from, there wasn’t much to do, and I always wanted to work overseas.”

His priesthood brought him across the Atlantic Ocean to New York, where he has spent his career preaching at several churches around Long Island. His current home, St. Peter of Alcantara Parish in Port Washington, will hold a celebration on June 10 to commemorate Father Whitney’s five-decade career.

It was 50 years ago, in June 1968, that Whitney was ordained as a priest in Dublin. Shortly thereafter, he made his way to the United States to work for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, even though he knew almost no one on Long Island.

“I chose to come to America, and I’m glad I made that choice,” he said.

He served a number of churches in Nassau and Suffolk counties and was the founding pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Ronkonkoma, a position he held for 18 years. On June 28, 2006, he was named the 13th pastor of St. Peter’s, a position he has held ever since.

Even after five decades of work, Father Whitney is still going strong. He celebrates daily mass at St. Peter’s and three of the five weekend masses along with baptism, wedding and funeral masses. He visits hospitals and nursing homes, drops in on religious classes at the parish school, and attends services presented by the Interfaith Council of Port Washington.

He also makes occasional visits to Ireland to visit family and friends and preside over baptisms and weddings.

When considering which aspect of being a priest he found most rewarding, Father Whitney had a hard time deciding on just one.

“Working with people who had addictions, particularly alcohol, it was very rewarding to see them turn their lives around,” he said. “Also helping to prepare couples for marriage … and working with religious education teachers to prepare them to teach the kids, that was very rewarding too.”

Of his time in the church, he said the most difficult parts were the sexual abuse scandals that rocked dioceses around the country, along with the challenge to draw people back into the church.

“Particularly in this time where secularism is very strong, commitment to faith is a challenge,” he said. “Many people don’t see the value of it in their lives.”

But as he prepares for retirement, Father Whitney is optimistic that people will continue to be drawn to the church’s message and said he was encouraged by the work of Pope Francis.

“He has seen the reality of the world and he sees the hope in it,” he said. “We need to be open to changes in society. No matter who someone is, we need to offer them the love of Christ, to listen to their needs and respond to them as best we can.”

Father Whitney’s celebration will begin on Sunday, June 10, with a special liturgy at the 11:30 a.m. mass. This will be followed by a gathering in St. Peters Parish Hall that is open to everyone.

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