When 300 people gathered for a farewell dinner in honor of Father George Hommel of St. John’s Catholic Church of Woodstock, he sang, in imitation of Frank Sinatra,
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it HIS way,
pointing upward with a forefinger and smiling his mischievous smile.
The swan song was a perfect choice for Father George, who is famous for his love of Broadway shows, possesses a melodious voice, and has devoted himself to the service of his religion for most of his life, 25 years of which were spent in Woodstock. Because he’s about to turn 80, he is forced to retire, and he’s ready.
He doesn’t plan on doing little weekend gigs once he’s settled in the John Cardinal O’Connor Clergy Residence in Riverdale, a home for retired priests and bishops. He’s looking forward to sitting on the porch, gazing out at the Hudson “with a martini in one hand and chocolate in the other.” Several of his classmates from St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers are already living there, so he’ll be in good company. He’ll also have easy access to Broadway for his traditional Wednesday matinees. He likes all kinds of shows and tends to lip-synch at musicals.
Hommel grew up in an apartment in Parkchester, a planned community developed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and located in the central Bronx. His religious vocation was inspired early on. “When I was very young,” he said, “I had good examples of what a priest should be.” Hommel’s German-American father, who had never been baptized, was received into the church by the local parish priest, Father Dan Shea, who met with him once a week to study scriptures and Catholic traditions. At Mount Saint Michael Academy, Hommel spent a whole extra year studying Latin. While he was in seminary, the Second Vatican Council came along. He held his first mass on the day the language of mass was switched to English.
After ordination, he served at churches in New Rochelle and then White Plains, also teaching social studies in the Catholic high schools. During his 20 years at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, he took his students several times to Europe, flying on discount airlines and staying in hostels.
In 1994, Father George came to head St. John’s in Woodstock. He has also been the vicar for Ulster County, installing new pastors at local churches and serving as a go-between with the diocese. When asked what changes he’s seen in the Woodstock congregation over the decades, he said attendance has been steady, but there are now fewer children and fewer weekenders. As for the Catholic Church itself, he remarked, “In the early years it was all doom and gloom and judgment.” Since Vatican II, there’s been more optimism. The biggest change under consideration, the ordination of women, is not something he expects to see in his lifetime, but he said, “I have no problem with it.”
Recently, a few days after Father George had presided over a funeral, the widower of the deceased came to visit with two checks, one for his retirement and another for the church. “You’re not doing it for reward or recognition,” said Father George. “But when it comes, you appreciate it.”
He will depart on July 1, crossing paths with Father Tom Kiely, who will start up on June 30, transferring from a church in Cold Spring. Because there were no applications for a post at St. John the Evangelist in Centerville, the schedule of local services is going to change. On Sundays, Father Tom will hold an 8 a.m. mass at Centerville, followed by a 9:45 mass at St. Augustine’s Chapel in West Shokan, arriving at St. John’s in Woodstock for the 11:15 service.
St. John’s Roman Catholic Church is located at 12 Holly Hills Drive in Woodstock. For more information and mass schedules, see https://sjwoodstock.org.