Health issues push popular pastor — a ‘shepherd who smells like the sheep’ — to retire

Frank O’Rourke still vividly remembers an encounter with a young woman — shortly before he was ordained into the Catholic diocese of Charlotte in November of 1975 — and this hypothetical question she posed to him:

If somebody gave you a million dollars, would that change you wanting to be a priest?

“It was a strange question,” he recalled. “I thought, Why would that change my wanting to be a priest? And so I told her, ‘No, I just think that it would give me other gifts to be able to share with people.’”

Since then, O’Rourke has made that spirit of generosity and his contagious passion for the liturgy a hallmark of a nearly 44-year career — one that started and will end, after several other assignments in the diocese, with him at St. Gabriel. O’Rourke, who is 76, announced last month his plans to retire from his job as pastor of Charlotte’s second-largest parish.

The decision, he said, was made after conversations with his siblings when he was visiting his hometown of Philadelphia over the Fourth of July, and comes in the wake of multiple personal health crises: In early 2018, doctors found cancer in a kidney he had removed; then, late this past April, he suffered a minor stroke that took more than a month for him to recover from (and his speech remains slightly slurred).

“My intention was to stay here another year — at least another year,” O’Rourke said. “But it just seemed to be the right time. ... I started saying, ‘Three strikes, you’re out.’ In other words, what was I waiting for? If something happened, I can’t just be relying on everybody filling in for me.”

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Father Frank O’Rourke is retiring in October after 44 years of baptisms, First Communions, confessions, weddings and funerals. Jose Sanchez(c) Courtesy of St. Gabriel Catholic Church

He will celebrate his final mass on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 13. Two days later, he will officially close the book on his time as leader of this congregation of roughly 3,500 families (nearly 11,000 members in all) on St. Gabriel’s campus in a prosperous slice of south Charlotte off Providence Road.

By all accounts, including his own, he has no plans to permanently ride off into the sunset. There is, however, a chance he might periodically sail off into it.

It seemed like a sign

From the earliest days he can remember while growing up in Philadelphia, O’Rourke thought he would like to be a priest.

He was the second-youngest of five children, born to strong Catholic parents — a father who worked in a union for Western Electric and a homemaking mother — and raised around extended family members who had followed their faith into the vocation: His mom’s brother and two cousins on his dad’s side were all priests.

But while young men who aspired to join the priesthood typically went straight from high school to the seminary, O’Rourke initially lacked the confidence to go that route, and for the first seven years of his adult life he chose another: He worked for a trucking company as a dispatcher and joined the Army Reserves.

Then right after his 25th birthday, he stumbled upon an advertisement in a Catholic magazine for Holy Apostles Seminary College in Cromwell, Conn., which was looking for young men who were coming to the vocation late; the minimum age for enrollment was, in fact, 25.

It seemed like a sign.

So he took a leap. And while he was never a stellar student in high school, O’Rourke shined academically at Holy Apostles, as well as at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he earned his degree in theology/priesthood studies.

Around this time, word was circulating that priests were needed in North Carolina for the new diocese in Charlotte, which was established in 1971 after being a part of the Raleigh diocese since the 1800s. It wasn’t a tough sell for O’Rourke: A close friend and fellow seminarian of O’Rourke’s was already there, having followed the call to become the first man ordained in the Charlotte diocese. (That’d be John McSweeney, who retired as monsignor in 2017 from Ballantyne’s St. Matthew, the largest Catholic parish in the U.S.)

Father Frank O’Rourke at his ordination in 1975. Courtesy of St. Gabriel Catholic Church

O’Rourke was ordained on Nov. 23, 1975, at St. Ann on Park Road, then promptly assigned to St. Gabriel as an assistant priest with a start date of Jan. 5, 1976.

Since then, he’s served all over the diocese — St. Benedict the Moor in Winston-Salem; Holy Family in Clemmons; Our Lady of Grace in Greensboro; St. Ann, St. John Neumann and St. Patrick in Charlotte; and, since July 2007, back at St. Gabriel.

Now, it seems, O’Rourke is ending his career on a somewhat bittersweet note.

“He finds great joy (in being a priest). He absolutely loves what he’s doing. And that’s what makes it even harder,” said Betty Jo “BJ” Dengler, a longtime St. Gabriel member who was his pastoral coordinator for nine years before retiring in 2016. “Some people burn out, and they get tired, and they’re ready. That is not Father Frank.

“It’s that he just can’t continue. Which is very, very sad, when we need such good priests like Father Frank.”

A welcoming parish

St. Gabriel has had a reputation for being a welcoming parish for decades, enjoying a membership that is a rich mix of conservatives, liberals and everyone in between.

But since Pope Francis took over the Catholic Church in 2013, O’Rourke — who says he is “very much so” a fan of the pope — has fostered overt efforts to make his parish an even more welcoming place while adopting Francis’s emphasis on helping the poor and being proactive in preserving the environment.

For example, when St. Gabriel recently encountered the need to repair roofing on the campus of its K-5 school, O’Rourke pushed hard for the church to use it as an opportunity to install solar panels despite pushback from some in his own parish. (“But Father Frank said, ‘This fits our mission here, and we can’t talk about effecting change in the environment and then not do it,’” said Bryant Brewer, chair of St. Gabriel’s finance council.)

O’Rourke also was a huge backer of St. Gabriel’s “Pope Francis Initiative Ministry,” created in 2017 in part to identify ways to use excess funds from the parish’s tithe to address specific needs of the poor and marginalized. Grants have included $50,000 for Charlotte-based Lily Pad Haven, which provides housing and support to victims of human trafficking, and $67,000 for a water sanitation and hygiene project at a school in Kenya.

Father Frank O’Rourke at the dedication of St. Gabriel Catholic Church’s most recent Habitat for Humanity home build. Courtesy of St. Gabriel Catholic Church

And O’Rourke and his associates — Father Gabriel Carvajal-Salazar and Father Fidel Melo — have an unexpected and unprecedented influx of Latino worshipers, with upwards of 700 flocking to a Spanish-language mass on Sunday evenings and a wide variety of Hispanic-focused programs on the church’s calendar throughout the week.

Said Chris Brown, a longtime member of the church: “It’s not necessarily logical that St. Gabe’s, a comfortable parish in a rich part of Charlotte, has one of the biggest Hispanic communities around. I think it’s just his openness to see beyond where St. Gabe’s is located, and its demographics. Father has supported that and allowed it to grow. ... It’s almost like a parish within a parish.”

O’Rourke describes himself not as a liberal activist but as slightly left of center, with views — including the support of the acceptance of married priests — that skew non-traditional while at the same time cutting off any discussion of allowing women to be ordained.

Interestingly, O’Rourke is perhaps most remembered by the general population in Charlotte for his part in the 2012 firing of St. Gabriel’s music director, Steav Bates-Congdon, who made headlines when he was fired after legally marrying his longtime partner in New York.

At the time, O’Rourke made no public comment on the matter. Asked this summer, as his retirement looms, whether he would have done anything differently if given the chance, he said: “I would hope that I would be able to find some way to handle that that wouldn’t be so painful, stressful. For me, and for everybody involved. My whole parish.”

‘Not just my occupation’

Respected former and current leaders of the Catholic community go out of their way to heap praise on O’Rourke.

Chancellor Abbot Placid Solari, at Belmont Abbey College, said “he has a kindness that draws people to him.” Retired Monsignor John McSweeney, O’Rourke’s close friend since their days in the seminary, said “he has a priestly heart” and “loves doing what he does.”

And Monsignor Anthony Marcaccio, at St. Pius X in Greensboro, offered this: “Whenever I mention Father Frank’s name to someone who knows him, they always smile. That’s a great indicator to me of somebody who’s engaged with his community, and relates to the people. ... He’s one of those shepherds who smells like the sheep,” said Marcaccio, who before his ordination was a transitional deacon at St. Patrick, during O’Rourke’s time as pastor there.

All agree that he’s making the right decision based on his health, but all also agree that — once freed of the day-to-day leadership responsibilities — O’Rourke will not abandon Charlotte or the diocese. Or his passion for making a positive impact on others through his ministry.

Though he’ll keep a safe distance from the affairs of St. Gabriel so as to allow his successor, Father Richard Sutter, to quickly begin making his own mark, O’Rourke said he hopes he can step in to be of service whenever any of the nearly 100 parishes in the diocese have a need. (Sutter, a 1991 Belmont Abbey graduate, has been at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Waynesville and Immaculate Conception Mission in Canton since last year; he was previously in residence at St. Patrick in Charlotte.)

If he does leave Charlotte, it will only be temporary: O’Rourke has said he might once again follow the example of his close friend McSweeney, who this year alone has been to 35 countries thanks to frequent stints as a cruise ship chaplain.

“I’m open to that, maybe, who knows?” said O’Rourke, who in fact has prior experience, having taken months-long sabbaticals in 2005 and 2016 to be priest for Crystal Cruise Lines’ “World Cruise.” “Another trip around the world as the priest chaplain on a ship doesn’t sound too bad.”

Father Frank O’Rourke during his ministry at sea in 2016 Courtesy of St. Gabriel Catholic Church

Whatever he does in retirement, it will always come back to God. By his own admission, though he said his life is full of happiness and friendships, he has no hobbies or pastimes aside from trying to enrich the lives of others through faith.

“This is my life. I mean, it’s not just my occupation — it’s my life,” O’Rourke said. “After 44 years, I still feel very humbled to be a priest. ...”

“Somebody gave me a plaque that said, ‘Blessed indeed is the man who hears many gentle voices call him father.’ And I would say I am tremendously blessed.”

Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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