St. Joseph Cathedral, the central church for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, has undergone a changing of the guard. Father Charles E. Slisz has come out of retirement to take over the role of cathedral rector from Father Peter Drilling, who has served in that position since 2014. Father Drilling will continue his long career teaching at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora.
The bishop of any diocese serves as pastor of his cathedral, but as he is busy running the diocese, a rector is employed to handle the cathedral's day-to-day business. St. Joseph Cathedral has had 19 rectors beginning in 1855.
Both men consider it an honor to be chosen to serve at the "bishop's church."
"I don't mean that in the sense that we're hot stuff," Father Slisz said. "To be considered to be the one who do the day-to-day ministry at the bishop's church, I'm very grateful for that, humbled by that."
"To me, one of the blessings of the priesthood is that there are such a variety and there are so many different ways to exercise ministry," Father Drilling added. "When I was asked to come here, I thought, 'Here's another part of the variety of ministry, another opportunity to use my imagination and see what's going on, and how I could respond and, hopefully, help.'"
Father Drilling's varied career in ministry includes serving in parishes and teaching at Christ the King Seminary. He has also written extensively on theological and pastoral topics. In 2008, he was named president/rector of the seminary. As his six-year term was coming to an end, Bishop Richard J. Malone asked him to succeed Msgr. James Campbell, who was retiring, at the cathedral. That request came with a directive - reach out to the people of downtown.
"One of the points he brought up was, with downtown changing, it would be a wonderful opportunity to reach out and try to bring in some of the new people who were moving into downtown," Father Drilling said in the sharp tones of an educator. "I was rather excited about that. Of course, you try to do what the bishop wants you to do. So, I said, 'OK, I would be happy to see what I could do.'"
He spoke with the dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral just up the street and Father Benjamin Fiore, SJ, pastor of St. Michael Parish on nearby Washington Street, about welcoming the people moving downtown. Together they issued postcards to their neighbors inviting them to their churches. Father Drilling discovered that, even with all the talk of new apartments and businesses opening downtown, Buffalo has yet to see the influx expected.
During his time as rector, Father Drilling made two discoveries that demanded his attention - the homeless and the unbaptized.
"(I found) the indigents downtown wandering all over the place, sleeping in the cathedral, looking for food," he said. "Again I talked to the dean of the Episcopal cathedral, and we discussed the importance of putting together some kind of literature. So, we put together a sheet, which is available inside the church, about where people could go to get housing, food, clothing, counseling. That gave me the opportunity to visit a number of these places that provide these things."
He toured the City Mission, Little Portion Friary, St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, St. Vincent de Paul Society to see what the city offered. "Buffalo is wonderful in terms of making all kinds of things available for people in need," he noted.
The need for an RCIA program came when Father Drilling noticed the number of people wanting to be married in the cathedral. He saw close to 70 weddings last year alone.
"We have more and more people approaching the cathedral about having their wedding here. It's a magnificent setting and it's downtown near the hotels and restaurants," he said. "At the same time, these were good people who wanted to do what the Catholic Church asks you to do when you're going to get married. They were willing to come and meet with us frequently, work with us in preparing their ceremony, go through the Pre-Cana process, do the pastoral investigation before marriage. So, it wasn't like having someone witness your wedding at Delaware Park. They had to go through all these preparations."
This was how he found out some of the brides or grooms had not been confirmed or baptized. This led to a "significant" Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program for the cathedral.
Father Slisz, who retired from his role of pastor of St. Christopher Parish in Tonawanda in 2015, has spent the past two years celebrating Mass in various parishes as a fill-in priest when needed while he enjoyed that ministry he missed the homelike feeling of having his own parish.
"(I) have had a marvelous couple of years, particularly liturgically all over the diocese - here, there and everywhere. There is a great deal of work for retired priests out there to help out parishes that just don't have enough help," he said. "I came to realize that I miss having a parish community to be a member of."
While deciding whether or not to move into a priest retirement home, he, as a member of the Priests Personnel Board, became aware of the upcoming need for a new rector. "I said, 'Well, I'm willing to be considered.' So, here I am."
He looks forward to continuing Father Drilling's outreach and RCIA. "I love the idea that he started an RCIA. That's a dimension of the ministry that I have always loved very much. I hope that continued with great fervor."
He would also love to exercise his passion for theater at the cathedral through concerts and plays.