Father Raphael is a wild card, a gifted spiritual and pastoral leader who we have talked out of retirement to be our minister,” said Patricia Ruane, president of the parish council of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Phoenicia. “He is drawing people back to the church.”
“I think since he’s come into this parish, that he’s invigorated people,” agreed parishioner and Shandaken town board member Faye Storms.
In person, Father Raphael Iannone is down-to-earth, a 78-year-old man with glasses and short silver hair. Somewhat incongruously, he wears a brown friar’s robe with a knotted white rope belt. Since his arrival at St. Francis in July of 2013, his effect on the local parish speaks to the changes going on in the Catholic Church, from Vatican II to the pastoral decline that has led to a rotating series of priests heading up the Phoenicia church over the past decade.
The Second Vatican Council met from 1962 to 1965, in an effort to modernize the Catholic Church. One of its effects was to allow the laity to take responsibility for the day-to-day running of the church, as a strategy to reduce the paternalistic relationship between priest and people. The Phoenicia parishioners have embraced this responsibility to a greater degree than most churches have, said Father Raphael. As a result, they were able to entice him out of retirement.
“There are a lot of priests who are ready to retire but don’t want to be benched,” said Ruane. “They still have fire and energy — they’re at the top of their game spiritually, but they’re exhausted by the work of running the parish.” Father Raphael had filled in several times in the past when the resident priest was out of town, and parishioners liked him. “When we recruited him,” explained Ruane, “we promised the laity would do finances, buildings and maintenance, all the stuff that takes away from his focus on the spiritual life of the community.”
Another change in the Catholic Church has been the declining membership, with a parallel reduction in the number of priests, especially since the sexual scandals of 2000. In Phoenicia, where the church is part of the larger Woodstock parish, the small congregation had to fight to keep its church open when the New York diocese was downsizing its administrative budget. Priests assigned to St. Francis by the diocese have been relatively inexperienced young men, often from foreign countries, and not always a good fit for the congregation. Most stayed only a few years before moving on to other assignments. Ruane hopes that Father Raphael will stay for a long time.
“He figures out what people need, and he responds,” she said. “He knows where people sit in the church, so he knows if you’re not there on a weekend. If he doesn’t know somebody, he shakes hands and asks your name — he finds out about you. It’s hard not to be in his sights and in his heart.”
The priest also mingles with parishioners at coffee on the lawn after services and at dinners held in people’s homes throughout the geographically far-flung parish, which reaches from Margaretville to Woodstock. “Every November, we have people host eight to ten people at a potluck,” said Ruane. “He comes to every one of these meals. People love sitting down to dinner with the man.”
In addition to the long-term relationships Father Raphael has established among his flock, Ruane finds an intellectually compatibility. “We have a lot of elderly parishioners who are very devout,” she said. “We also have a lot of weekenders who are searching for a church away from home. We needed the right kind of person whose message is both challenging and uplifting. The Gospels talk about Jesus saying, ‘Come this way, and I will give you a peace the world cannot give you.’ Father Raphael offers that message.” His sermons are also salted with references to literature, history, current events, math, and physics, keeping listeners engaged and on their toes.
One of Father Raphael’s goals is to bond the church and the surrounding community. The St. Francis parish hall, one of the town’s largest indoor meeting spaces, has long been used for a variety of local functions, from performances to community conferences. “The town being very close-knit, it’s important for the church to be part of that,” Father Raphael observed. When the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice was using the hall, he suggested equipping the building with wifi to make it more functional. He attends Phoenicia Rotary meetings to find out how the church can be supportive.
Lately, several weddings have been held at St. Francis, including some in which the wife or husband is not Catholic. “A lot of people who vacation here, or come on weekends, find the church beautiful, welcoming, and warm. Their children want to get married here,” noted Father Raphael. Vice President Joe Biden’s attendance at a service in late August sparked talk in town, helping to put the church on residents’ radar.
Another form of outreach came through an ecumenical prayer service for peace, held at the Catholic church in Allaben, west of Phoenicia on Route 28. Ministers from as far away as Margaretville and Willow came to share the concept of peace, with musician Dennis Yerry providing a Native American perspective.
Father Raphael is a Capuchin friar, member of a Franciscan order that emphasizes fraternity among its devotees. “Fraternity is different from community,” he said. “You can be in a monastery and never talk to the guy next to you. My friary is St. Joseph’s in New Paltz. I go back there Thursday evening and return here late Friday night to begin services on Saturday.”
He grew up in Verona, New Jersey, where his father was a conductor on the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. Father Raphael was ordained in 1964, having studied mathematics, physics, philosophy, and theology. He taught math in the New York City public schools, worked as an alcohol and drug counselor, and served as a hospital chaplain. In the city, he said, “I was a street priest. I’d play ball with the kids in the schoolyard, and I’d go to Knights of Columbus meetings. I wanted to be with the people.”
Storms appreciates that populist quality. “I see him reaching out to the community,” she said. “I want to organize music at the church — classical performances, jazz. He’s into it. He’s doing more teaching, trying to embrace teens, younger parents. He’s helping people understand they don’t have to be devout, strict, lace-on-your-head Catholics to be part of this parish.”
Standing in the aisle of the church, which was built in 1902, Father Raphael gestured toward the pews. “I like it that our building is not too big,” he remarked. “I can make eye contact with everyone.”++
For more information on St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, see https://www.hvinet.com/sfdchurch. Services are held Sunday at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., Saturday at 5 p.m., and Monday through Thursday at 8 a.m. The church is located at 109 Main Street in Phoenicia.