Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fr. Stephen Schenck (1952-2012)

Fr. Stephen Schenck, SDB (1952-2012)

Fr. Stephen Charles Schenck, SDB, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in Port Chester, N.Y., died suddenly of a heart attack in the parish rectory on Saturday morning, Nov. 10. Medics tried in vain to revive him, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at Greenwich Hospital.

Fr. Steve, 59, had been Holy Rosary’s pastor since mid-2009. Last year he celebrated his 40th anniversary of religious profession as a Salesian of Don Bosco.

Father Schenck was the son of the late Charles and Eileen Bolster Schenck. He was born in Brooklyn on November 25, 1952, and baptized at Holy Family Church on Flatlands Avenue on December 14. He was raised in Malverne on Long Island, however, where the family worshiped at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish and Steve attended parochial school and was confirmed in 1964. He maintained a warm relationship with the parish for the rest of his life.

Steve entered Salesian Junior Seminary in Goshen, N.Y., in 1966 and graduated in June 1970. He was admitted to the novitiate, located in Ipswich, Mass., on August 31, 1970. His master of novices was Father Theodore Ciampi. He and 19 classmates—13 from the New Rochelle Province and 6 from the San Francisco Province—professed first vows in Newton, N.J., on September 1, 1971.

Bro. Steve spent the next four years as a student of philosophy at Don Bosco College Seminary in Newton and graduated on May 31, 1975, with a B.A. summa cum laude. During these years he developed the musical and dramatic skills that would serve him and young people so well during the years of his pastoral ministry.
Fr. Steve was really happy when at a keyboard. Here he performs a hymn during the Rector Major's visit to the Marian Shrine in 2007.
While he was in college he was diagnosed with diabetes, which had already begun to show itself during his last year of high school and which was to afflict him for the rest of his life and perhaps contributed to his sudden and untimely death. But, his confrere Fr. Steve Shafran said, “He never let his health challenges get in the way of throwing himself into service for others.” 

At various summer camp assignments over the years, he “developed visual aid/skit catechetical programs,” according to one personnel inventory that he filled out.

Bro. Steve was assigned to Salesian Preparatory School in Cedar Lake, Ind., for practical training, where he taught Spanish, Latin, algebra, and a philosophy elective, and directed the band and choir. He also accumulated a store of memories, many of them hilarious, with which he regaled his confreres in future years.

In 1977 Bro. Steve began his theological studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio. Once again he excelled academically, graduating with an M.A. in theology summa cum laude. His master’s thesis was titled “The Pneumatic Ecclesiology of Heribert Mühlen.” Mühlen (1927-2006) was a German Catholic theologian whose “work is concentrated mostly on pneumatology [theology of the Holy Spirit], ecclesiology and pastoral theology,” according to Wikipedia.

He had three principal fields of apostolate during his years in Columbus: working with the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry (1978-1979), serving as a pastoral counselor for seventh and eighth graders at St. Cecilia School (1979-1980), and serving as deacon at St. Leo Church and pastoral counselor for seventh and eighth graders in its parochial school.

Fr. Steve and 7 other men of the New Rochelle Province were ordained by Bishop Edward Hermann of Columbus at Christ the King Church in Columbus on May 23, 1981. To the province leadership he identified as his preferred pastoral fields “DRA activities, counselling, positions where I would be able to be musically and dramatically involved.” Over the next 31 years his preferences were very much realized, to the benefit of students, parishioners, retreatants, and confreres.

Fr. Steve’s first priestly assignment was to Don Bosco Technical HS in Paterson, N.J. (1981-1986), where he was director of religious activities (DRA). His musical talent came out strongly in his work with the young men of Don Bosco as he composed a number of hymns in a style that appeals to young people. In this period he composed “Friend of the Young and the Poor” in honor of St. John Bosco, which proved so popular that it has remained a favorite at Salesian celebrations across the U.S., and in other countries too.

A three-year stint followed at the Salesian Center for Youth Ministry in Goshen (1986-1989) leading youth retreats and other programs. In 1988 he began studies in religious education and youth ministry at Fordham University, which resulted in an M.S. degree in 1990.

Fr. Steve’s first assignment to Holy Rosary Parish came in 1989, when he was posted there as assistant pastor for two years with responsibility particularly for youth ministry. In 1991 he moved to the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw-Stony Point, N.Y., and began two 3-year terms on the provincial council with oversight and guidance responsibilities for the province’s youth ministry programs.
Fr. Steve (2d from left) joins other priest jubilarians renewing their priestly commitment in 2006, when he celebrated 25 years as a priest
As the New Rochelle Province celebrated the centennial of its foundation in 1998, Fr. Steve served on the committee planning various festivities. Fr. Shafran served with him and remembers: “We had worked together closely when I was on the vocation team in Stony Point at the same time he was province coordinator for youth ministry, but it was when we were asked to collaborate on the celebrations at the Felt Forum of Madison Square Garden in New York that I came to see his extraordinary talents come alive. [He showed] humble service, hard work, extreme and total dedication to the young and the poor, total dedication to the educational approach of St. John Bosco and consummate belief in the Salesian principles that are foundational to our views on youth ministry—that, together with his gift of music … as a means for prayer and reaching the young.”

A second assignment to Don Bosco Tech in Paterson came at the end of his 6 years on the provincial council in 1997. As director of the school, he labored mightily to provide a sound education for the poorest boys in Paterson and to keep the school afloat financially. He took a personal interest in each confrere, member of the staff, and student, encouraging and correcting as need be, deeply appreciative of each one’s contributions to the life of the school or the community, or to himself in his coping with diabetes. In the face of the school’s aging buildings, as well as the demographics of the area, raising sufficient funds proved to be a losing fight—not in Fr. Steve’s eyes but in those of the province leadership, who decided in December 2001 to close the school at the end of the school year in May 2002. It was a hard blow for Fr. Steve to absorb (as well as for many other people).

He headed south in 2002, to Miami, for a less stressful responsibility as assistant pastor of St. Kieran Church. The parochial experience was prelude to a more serious pastoral responsibility in 2003, when he was named pastor of the Church of the Nativity in Washington, D.C., and superior of the Salesian community staffing the parish and Don Bosco Cristo Rey HS in Takoma Park, Md.

Fr. Steve’s pastoral sensitivities and his musical talents both struck powerful chords in the Washington parish. He relished bringing the parish’s fine Gospel choir to province events, such as the visit of the Rector Major to the Marian Shrine in 2007. Bro. Tom Sweeney of the Washington Salesian community writes: “His love for the arts also spread to Nativity’s parishioners. Before Christmas, he would organize a bus to go to New York to see a play, have a nice dinner, and stay overnight at Stony Point or a hotel. He was the life of the party and enjoyed every moment of it.” Fr. Steve also put together a group of young musicians and singers, from Washington and elsewhere, to cut a CD of his music, called “The God Who Is True to Me,” released late in 2009.

Bro. Tom also remembers: “Steve loved to cook. It was total relaxation for him just to go into the kitchen and prepare a delicious meal for the community on some Sundays and feasts. He always made sure all the ingredients were fresh and were the best. He would play a favorite CD as he prepared the meal. While waiting for something to be cooked, he would be doing crossword puzzles. He would serve the meal and then sit down to enjoy the meal and all the accolades that would be lavished on him by the community. He wanted to make sure that the community had a great meal and would just relax and enjoy each other’s company during the meal. He was a community type of guy.”

Taking a half day or full day off each week, Bro. Tom continues, Fr. Steve would go for a bike ride or a movie and then speak of his day’s adventure at dinner with the community, discussions that both he and the confreres much enjoyed.
With his usual elan, Fr. Steve entertains his family at the reception after the province's jubilees celebration in 2011
Bro. Tom concludes: “I know I will truly miss him—living with him in the seminary, attending Fordham with him as we both were going for our Masters, and having him as my director here in Washington. But most important, he was truly a friend and a true Salesian. It is sad that the young and new confreres will never know him and also realize the impact that he had on the province and on individuals.”

When his term as director ended in 2009, Fr. Steve was sent back to Holy Rosary Parish in Port Chester, this time as pastor. Succeeding the very popular and zealous Fr. Tim Ploch, he had big shoes to fill—which he did. He had already learned a good amount of Spanish, and he honed that skill in his daily interactions with the parish’s largely immigrant population.

As pastor of Holy Rosary, he was involved in the training of the Salesian novices of the United States in 2009-2011, while the novitiate was located at the parish, particularly their apostolic work like teaching CCD and working in the youth center. This year he was similarly involved with the New Rochelle Province’s prenovices, who moved into the parish at the end of August.
Fr. Steve, at right, joined Fr. Tom Dunne and Fr. Bill Keane, at the altar for the 1st profession in August 2011, in Holy Rosary Church
He also offered warm hospitality each August to the Salesian Lay Missioners and Salesian Domestic Volunteers during their orientation period, during which they spent a week working in the summer camp of the two Salesian parishes of Port Chester; this year they resided in the parishes for two weeks instead of one, as previously. Adam Rudin, director of the SLM program, laments Fr. Steve's loss: “Fr. Steve was such a blessing to the Salesian Lay Missioner program in the years that I have been affiliated, both as an SLM and as director. Fr. Steve was one of the biggest advocates of the program and really seemed to ‘get it.’ He was a master at integrating lay missioners into a community of vowed religious and was great at orienting newly commissioned lay missioners on what the realities are like in community life. I think that’s the word that keeps coming up when I reflect on Fr. Steve: community.”

One of the SLMs, Paula Rendon, writes from Ethiopia: “I am deeply saddened to hear that he is no longer with us—even though we only got to know him for a couple of weeks, he was an integral part of our formation and preparation for our year of mission.”

Typical of his personal approach to people is what he showed to Fr. Paul Grauls, who had been his vice director and assistant pastor in Washington: “On the day of my 50th [anniversary] at Stony Point [last September], Steve came up to me in the vesting room, gave me a warm kiss and very special wishes. I had not seen him since he left Nativity.”
Fr. Steve was chosen to speak for all the jubilarians in 2011, and he did so with his customary humor and eloquence
On the occasion of his fortieth anniversary of religious profession in 2011, Fr. Steve said: “I have enjoyed my years of priestly service, especially all those things that involved me with young people. I have found that my interactions with them, especially the poorest among them, have taught me at least as much as my formal studies have, if not more. Above all, it’s been in the active ministry that I have experienced the presence of God in my life, and I count myself blessed to have received and followed this vocation.”

Fr. Shafran sums up his reaction to Fr. Steve’s life and death thus: “I greatly appreciated his wisdom, sensitivity, writing, preaching and spirit of joy—what a great sense of humor! What a gift he has been to the province! What a void this leaves in us. I am greatly saddened and know that many, many others who had the benefit of Steve in their lives feel the same—a great feeling of emptiness in the gut ... but with great faith we must see that the Lord has welcomed this holy man of God and faithful Salesian to himself.”

From Chile, Father Harry Peterson, SDB, one of Fr. Steve’s high school teachers, writes: “He has ALWAYS been an inspiration. Steve’s profound sense of what’s right, of what’s Salesian, his tremendous dedication to put to good use, with great simplicity, his keen intelligence and many gifts, have made him the son of God, in the charism of Don Bosco, that has enhanced and rejoiced our whole province.”

Fr. Pascual Chavez, Rector Major of the Salesians, wrote this to Fr. Tom Dunne today: "I had the opportunity to meet him several times, first as regional councilor for the Interamerica Region when he was the director of Paterson, and then as Rector Major, and I can tell you that he gave me a wonderful impression because of his great Salesian identity, of his love for the poor and those most in need, well expressed in his songs. At the same time, I was witness of his illness, but the news of his death has been for me a great surprise. The last time I met him was in Washington [in 2007], so my mind and my heart are full of beautiful memories of him."

Fr. Steve is survived by his sisters Eileen Gavigan and Patricia Schenck, brothers William and Mark, eight nephews and nieces, and three grandnephews.

Fr. Steve was waked in the parish church on Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 12-13, including Rosary and Mass each evening. Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop emeritus of New York, presided over the Mass of Christian Burial on Wednesday morning, and our provincial, Fr. Tom Dunne, preached. Burial in the province cemetery followed.

A day or 2 later, Sr. Teresa Gutierrez, FMA, send me a couple of short video clips of Fr. Steve making a presentation to the teachers of the sisters' 2 South Florida schools as part of their orientation for the new school year last August. They're not a complete presentation by any means, but they do give a taste of Fr. Steve's style:


1 comment:

Fr Mike said...

Former DBT Paterson student Rodney Rodriguez wrote to Fr. Mike on May 31, 2015:
"I just read your article on Father Steve, I attended don bosco tech during its closing but I knew Fr. Steve for a few years prior. I loved him like a father, he was a great, smart, compassionate man; I just wanted to thank you for your article and more insight into his life."