(A version of this story appeared in the Nov. 28, 2012 issue of Saugerties Times. Apologies if anything is out of date!)
Father Chris Berean of St. Mary of the Snow and St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic churches in Saugerties has been a priest for over 25 years. Father Chris (“the kids at St. Mary’s don’t even think I have a last name,” he jokes) became a priest at age 26, starting out at St. John’s Church in Woodstock before coming to St. Mary’s, first as an assistant and then as pastor these past six years, with a three-year stretch in the middle as pastor of St. Francis de Sales in Phoenicia.
Berean was born in Brooklyn, but within a few years his family had moved to the town of New Windsor in Orange County. “I’ve really been a small-town boy my whole life,” he says, adding that part of the appeal of living in Saugerties for him is that it reminds him so much of what his home in New Windsor was like when he was growing up. “Of course, now, it’s very different there – it’s more like Long Island, with strip malls and built-up neighborhoods – but when we moved there it was still very much a small town,” Berean says.
His father was a lineman for the telephone company, and his mother was church secretary, with the family very active in the local parish. He grew up with an older sister, now a nurse, and a younger brother, now a police officer.
Berean’s first job, as a kid, was delivering newspapers by bicycle with the canvas bag slung over his shoulder. “I never thought I would say I’d been in a profession that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. He was a volunteer EMT, driving an ambulance all throughout high school and college, and worked as a bartender, a maintenance man and a truck driver; all to earn money to pay for four years of college and four years of graduate school.
Berean has a bachelor’s degree in History from Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, Queens and a master of Divinity degree from St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. Did he know going into college that he was going to become a priest? “I was thinking about it,” he says. “It’s kind of like being in a relationship with a woman: the college years were like dating, and the seminary years were like being engaged.”
And in the same way that people who are just dating don’t always get married but those who get engaged rarely break it off, he says, the same principle applies to seminary school; not every undergraduate goes on to become a priest, but by the time one makes it to seminary school, not many break off the engagement. Berean says that when his first four years in college were up, it was a natural thing for him to apply to the seminary system. “I just knew it was the right thing to do,” he says.
Berean has traveled widely, both in this country and abroad. In Europe, he visited the many castles and sites like Hampton Court and Versailles, and here in this country, he particularly likes the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina and the many local Hudson Valley mansions. “Every one of these places is special,” he says, “and fascinates me. I enjoy both the beauty of the architecture and the art and furniture, and the history of the places and how people lived in them.”
In early 2012, Berean traveled to the Holy Land with the Cardinal, the entire trip a very moving experience, he says. He now holds the rank of Knight Commander in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre have existed since the 10th century, says Berean, when they fought in the Crusades and protected pilgrims traveling from Europe on their way to Jerusalem. Now, instead of using swords to protect those in need, he says, the Knights use checkbooks. They raise money to build schools and hospitals, and work to ensure the wellbeing and income of the persecuted Christians and Catholics who live in that part of the world; a small percentage of the population but very much caught in the middle of the struggles between the Jews and the Muslims, according to Berean.
In his spare time in Saugerties, he can often be found building wooden model ships alongside good friend, Jack Norton, who taught him how to do this kind of work, he says. The current project, his sixth, is a replica of the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship in Mystic, Connecticut.
And the man cooks. When he travels, he takes home cookbooks as souvenirs, and likes to throw big dinner parties where he does all the cooking. Berean learned how to make Italian dishes from his mom, but has branched out, even taking one-day classes in baking and French cooking at the Culinary Institute. Every year he cooks a special dinner in February to thank people in the parish who go above and beyond the call of helping out the church.
What do you think makes Saugerties unique, and what do you like about it?
I truly love living here. The people in the town of Saugerties are very community-minded, and the town itself is a beautiful place; it’s well kept, it’s run well and when you walk down the street people know who you are. One of my favorite places to go to is the Dutch Ale House [Father Chris has his own mug assigned to him at the Dutch; a “mug club” for regular patrons]. I enjoy going in there, because I meet so many people, and I enjoy the familiarity, sitting around and talking with them. It’s a very friendly town, and I feel very much part of the town family, which is important, being a priest, because I don’t have a family of my own. Both my parents have passed away, and I really don’t have a home in New Windsor anymore; this has become my home, and the people here have become my family. They’re a good group of people, and when you need them, they’re there for you.
What qualities do you most admire in others?
Honesty. And the ability to look beyond what a person does for a living or how wealthy they are, and to see them as a person. That’s a very important quality, to not be judgmental; to be a person that will take the time to find out who somebody else really is. Being able to treat others the way you would want them to treat you.
What profession, other than your own, would you have liked to attempt?
If I hadn’t become a priest, I would have loved to be a detective. I enjoy all that very much; I love to watch detective shows like Criminal Minds and CSI, and I’m a huge Law & Order fan.
What is your idea of the perfect day off?
First of all, sleeping late! Everybody in the parish knows I hate getting up in the morning, and we have a 6:45 a.m. Mass; that’s very early. Mostly I enjoy being with my friends, my brother priests, when they come up from the city to visit. I have a lot of friends who come up, and we go all over the place.
Do you have any heroes?
St. Peter, who was Prince of the Apostles, the first Pope. He was the most human of all of the saints. Also St. Margaret of Scotland, who was a great queen yet every day went out and worked with the poor and brought them food. She broke all of the social norms and was an amazing person.
Do you have a favorite motto or words of wisdom you live by?
I just try to live my life to be the best person I can be. If you can wake up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror, and say to yourself, ‘I’m being the best person I can be,’ that’s all anybody can ask of you, even God. He’s not so much concerned with our successes and failures, but do we try, really try, each and every day to be a decent person.
What character in history would you like to have dinner with?
Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. I’m a historian, and particularly like maritime history, and his victories during the Napoleonic Wars were nothing short of spectacular. I don’t admire his morals, but he was a brilliant, interesting man and I would love to sit down and discuss what he was thinking about during those many sea battles that he was involved in.
Is there a talent that you wish you’d been given?
I wish I could sing better. I’ve always wanted to sing really, really well. I can sing, but as I’ve gotten older my voice has gotten worse.
What would you like to hear Saint Peter say when he greets you at the Pearly Gates?
‘You’re in. Welcome.’