After 22 years in the north country, the Rev. Richard W. Kennedy, pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, is saying farewell to Watertown, at least for the next few years.
Father Jonas Tandayu from Indonesia will succeed him.
According to Father Kennedy, priests from developing countries are playing a larger and larger role in American Catholicism.
“If Jonas were not here, there would not be a replacement for me,” Father Kennedy said.
Father Kennedy is headed to Allentown, Pa., to take charge of a retirement community for 13 priests.
Reflecting on his arrival in the north country, Father Kennedy said, “I came with the blizzard of ’77 and nearly froze to death my first year.”
Despite the inhospitable conditions, he managed to survive and even return to Watertown after making two missionary trips to Papua, New Guinea, which is not far from Indonesia, and working as the principal of a high school in Ohio.
Returning to his adopted Northern New York hometown in 2004, Father Kennedy witnessed drastic changes in the area’s parochial education with the closing of Sacred Heart and St. Anthony’s elementary schools and the consolidation of the Catholic junior high and high school at Immaculate Heart Central.
Another big change was the reduction in regular churchgoers.
In the 1980s, Father Kennedy wrote a letter in the weekly bulletin expressing his disappointment that there were fewer than 1,000 attendees at the weekend masses.
“Now we’re lucky if we get 400,” he said.
It’s a trend that doesn’t necessarily translate to the classroom, where Father Kennedy still teaches junior religion three times a week.
According to Father Kennedy, adolescents still struggle with questions about life, morality and God.
Today, however, Catholics are much more educated about their religion than they used to be and classes involve much more discussion, he said.
It is perhaps an appropriate mode of scholarship, given the fact the church will need to “get serious about laypeople taking over the running of the parish” in the future, according to Father Kennedy.
“There are so many choices today of what young people can do,” he said. “Lifelong commitment to a celibate priesthood isn’t one of them.”
Father Kennedy, who is from Mansfield, Ohio, entered the seminary at 14 and never looked back.
At the time, the priesthood was a viable option for someone who wanted to lead an educated life.
Father Kennedy speaks highly of the education he received in the seminary, though he shudders at the mention of Latin, which he studied for five years.
Ordained in 1967, Father Kennedy was one of the first classes of priests to say the Mass entirely in English after Vatican II.
So change is nothing new to him, and if his classroom discussions are any indication, the thirst for spiritual guidance is not at all diminished.
Father Kennedy said he could see retiring in Watertown, where “all” his friends are, after his six-year commitment in Allentown.
The parish is throwing a going-away party for him Jan. 18.
There will be a Mass followed by dinner and a roast, where parishioners former and current will have a chance to tell Father Kennedy what they really think of him — in a humorous way, of course.
It’s a fitting send-off for a man who seems to be sustained by his sense of humor.
“You get to stand back and laugh at yourself and not get too serious about what you’ve done,” he said. “This has been a great church to work in and a great diocese.”