Cole Webster left a career in hotel hospitality to become a concierge for the Lord. The Buffalo native will be ordained to the priesthood June 3.
Deacon Webster, 31, has an uncommon vocation story. But then again, there are as many vocation stories as there are priests. He was born to two parents who left the Catholic faith and raised their son in a variety of Christian denominations.
"I grew up going to an Assembly of God church, a couple different Baptist churches, a non-denominational church - the Chapel, it's a mega church," he said. "But the rest of my family, a lot of them, are Catholic. So, for Christmas and Easter we would often end up going to Mass with them. So, I had some exposure from very early on."
As he got older, he would ask questions about faith, like "What are the difference between the Protestant denominations that we were in and Catholicism?" A year at Canisius High School in Buffalo gave him a real immersion into Catholic life.
As a history buff, Webster enjoyed examining the two-millennia-old roots of the faith. Learning about the universality of the Church and the Eucharist helped him decide to become a full member.
"The more I learned, the more I fell in love with it," he said. "When I was 18, I decided, after hopping around to a variety of Protestant churches with my family, this is where my heart is leading me, this is where the Spirit is leading me."
He joined the RCIA program at St. Christopher Parish in Tonawanda. He had already been baptized as a child, so after a period of learning, he went on to receive the sacraments of confirmation and First Communion. He described his upbringing in a practicing Christian home. "Having a personal relationship with Christ was always the key and the center of my family life, my parents' faith and my faith. What I often like to say is I found a way to do that in a very concrete and sacramentalized way," he said.
The sacraments, along with the music and artwork experienced during the Catholic Masses, brought joy to the lad when he did attend those holy day events with his grandparents. He would watch the priests bring the Word of the Lord to the people and offer the Body and Blood of the Lord to His followers. He knew it meant something important.
"I've always had this fascination for the priesthood," he said. "Every time I was at Mass, I was in awe of the priest. I loved liturgy. I still have a very big passion for liturgy now. I thought that's something I could really see myself doing - but not right now, of course. I was going to college. I want to get my degree. Then I'll think about it, after I get all of my stuff done."
After graduating from Buffalo State with a degree in hospitality administration, he began working at Holiday Inn, where he enjoyed meeting travelers and helping them with their needs. "I absolutely loved customer service," he said.
He set himself a career goal of being an office manager. Once that was accomplished, he would revisit the idea of the priesthood.
"It ended up happening a lot sooner than I anticipated," he said. "I was about 22, then got the dream job. Then I was faced with that question, 'Now what am I supposed to do?' This was what I wanted, so now what?"
He kept his promise to himself to look into the priesthood. He called Father Walter Szczesny, then director of Vocations for the diocese, and began a year of discussions. It was then that he learned about Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora and what the formation process entailed.
"Through a lot of prayer and discussions and touring the seminary, I concluded that hotels will always be there, if God is really not calling me to (priesthood)," he reflected. "I have to say, I haven't looked back since."
At the age of 23, Deacon Webster entered the formation program at the seminary. He seems shocked when he looked back and realized that was in 2010. In the seven years since, he, like all seminarians, studied theology and philosophy. In the summers, he put his education into action serving in a series of parishes.
He served at the Church of the Annunciation in Elma, where he worked under Father Eugene Ulrich, who he called a "great man."
"One of the things he taught me early on was don't always surround yourself with yes people. You need a variety of personalities to hear from and a variety of talents that will really challenge you to think as a priest and what direction you want to take things," he said. That's where he began preaching at twice weekly Communion services.
The following summer, he experienced priestly brotherhood at St. Benedict's. Three priests lived at the Eggertsville parish. Deacon Webster learned the ropes from the pastor, a senior parochial vicar and another priest in residence.
"They shared stories and we'd go for ice cream together. A lot of Anderson's on that assignment," he said fondly.
He joined Father Joseph Propiglia on wake services and finance meetings, and helped the youth group make a movie about their 5K run.
A summer at St. Mary of the Angels in Olean, taught him that if Bishop Richard J. Malone sent him out into the country, away from his friends and family, he would be comfortable.
Deacon Webster spent his pastoral year, a 12-month period where seminarians work full time at a parish, at St. Mary's in Lancaster, where he did catechetical work with young adults and older adults.
"Going off Pope Francis, one of my philosophies was to see who was on the fringe; who in the parish is not being ministered to. Where can we strengthen ministries?" He asked himself, before reaching out to the 18-21-year-old young adults. He also built up the Catechesis for adults with video and workbook series.
After years of study, he looks forward to celebrating Mass and deepening his own spirituality, knowing anything can happen once he puts on his Roman collar. As a transitional deacon, he is limited to how he can serve. He has conducted baptisms. He cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions until he is ordained a priest.
"We say at seminary, you spend seven years training to be a priest, but you are not a priest until you are a priest. There's only so much prep work you can do before you can really do the other sacraments as far as anointing of the sick and reconciliation. That's all new."