St. Francis to Welcome Father Bill as New Pastor

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Starting Friday, June 30, a new priest will be in charge at St. Francis de Sales church. But he’s not new at all. Father William Sweeney, better known as Father Bill, has been a priest for 36 years and has been bringing smiles to the parishioners of the Belle Harbor church for more than a year, but he’ll soon become Pastor as the beloved Monsignor John Bracken moves on to serve other local parishioners.

Since January 2016, St. Francis de Sales churchgoers have gotten to know Father Bill for his tendency to make them laugh. “Every Mass, I like to start off with a joke to get people’s attention,” Father Bill said. And it seems to do the trick. “I’ve been doing it for 36 years as a priest and it’s gone over pretty well so far.” But it’s not just at Mass. When The Rockaway Times sat down with Father Bill at the St. Francis de Sales rectory this week, he was in his element. “I was assigned here in January 2016, but I didn’t report until March because I fell and fractured my ankle and broke my leg,” Father Bill said, recalling a serious accident, but immediately made light of the situation. “Now I can tell when the weather is going to change,” he joked, much like he did on his first day at St. Francis. “I have a plate with three screws in my leg and on my first day here, during Mass, I said, ‘Sometimes people say priests have a screw loose. I can prove it, I have three!’” he said. “It’s always a good way of getting people to relax, when you start making fun of yourself.”

Father Bill, along with Father Jim Cunningham and Monsignor Bracken, have all found their own ways to make their parishioners comfortable. And it works. Father Bill says he won’t have much work to do when Monsignor Bracken leaves. “One of the great things about St. Francis is that it’s working. I don’t have to fix anything because people are coming to Mass. I would like to reach out to even more people who don’t go to church and do what Msgr. Bracken has done so well while he’s been here. He’s always made church feel like home. This is your home. This is your place. There’s no excluding anybody. Everybody is a part of our family. Our goal is just to make people feel welcome,” Father Bill said.

Msgr. Bracken, who just celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination, won’t be going far.  He’ll be saying Masses at St. Genevieve’s Church down in Roxbury. “It’s bittersweet because Monsignor is leaving and he’s been the rock that has been holding this place together. It’s been a pleasure working with him. He offered to give the keys back, and I said, ‘You're welcome here any time.’ St. Francis was his first assignment for ten years, and he came back three years ago to help down here after Sandy. This has always been his home,” Father Bill said.

As for Father Bill, his first home was Astoria. “I was born on Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish doctor said I ruined his celebration. I arrived early,” Father Bill joked. He lived with his parents, two brothers and sister. Father Bill says he never intended to be a priest. “I went to Cathedral Prep in Elmhurst and you usually go there if you were thinking of becoming a priest. I only went there because I didn’t get into any other Catholic high school and my parents wouldn’t let me go to public school. But while I was there I was introduced to a lot of nice, hard-working guys who had a love for the Lord and wanted to help people and help me during my teenage years. So I went on to a minor seminary for college and I was there for four years, but I was still dating at the time and wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this. I went on to a major seminary and the spiritual director was very good and he helped me decide,” he said. Father Bill was ordained by Bishop Mugavero in May 1981. “Now 36 years later, I’m still happy with what I’m doing,” he said.

Father Bill’s first assignment was Holy Family in Flushing, where he was for seven years. It was in 1988 when Rockaway first got to know Father Bill. He was at St. Camillus from June 1988 until October 1997. While there, he was named Chaplain of Stella Maris High School. In 1997, he was moved to St. Francis Prep High School, where he worked until January 2016. “I joke that I’m the slowest priest in the diocese because it takes me 19 years to get out of high school,” he said. In between that time at St. Francis Prep, Father Bill was also named pastor of St. Catherine of Sienna in St. Albans, where Al Roker, who Father Bill calls “very generous,” was one of his parishioners. Father Bill, a huge Mets fan, also got to spend some time saying Sunday Mass at Citifield before games.

After leaving St. Francis Prep, Father Bill found himself at another St. Francis, and he says he plans on staying. “The bishop said I can retire from St. Francis de Sales. I have 15 years before I want to retire, so I plan on being here for a while. I have sand in my shoes,” he said.

On Friday, June 30, at 9 a.m., there will be a Mass to say farewell to Msgr. Bracken, to welcome Father Bill into his new position, and to welcome the newest priest at St. Francis, Father Patrick Burns. Despite starting his position as pastor on Friday, Father Bill’s official installation won’t be until October 29. “I know that it’s summertime and I don’t want to drag people off the beach in the summer. So I decided to push it off until October. October 29, the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, was an option. I was a little hesitant to do it then, as it’s almost a solemn day, but Monsignor Bracken and Father Jim and some in the parish said it would be a great idea. It’s symbolic. It shows that St. Francis is going to continue and it’s a celebration of the great work that’s been done and it’s a great excuse to get the whole parish together for a party,” he said.

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