The Rev. Stephen Donnelly has taken an unconventional path to the priesthood.

The grand marshal of Sunday's 81st annual Huntington St. Patrick's Day Parade worked 18 years as a store manager at an A&P Supermarket before deciding to pursue parish life at age 36.

The 59-year old Donnelly, who has been at Huntington's Church of St. Patrick since 2010, first aspired to a career in law enforcement after earning degrees in criminal justice at Farmingdale State College and philosophy from St. John's University.

"I really didn't have any aspirations for the priesthood," said Donnelly, a 1973 Deer Park High School graduate. "It was an unorthodox journey."

Donnelly first began his theological formation in September 1991 after being recommended for a clergy role by his pastor, Brendan Riordan, of Deer Park's Saints Cyril and Methodius Church. He was ordained in June 1997 and held assignments in New Hyde Park, North Merrick and Sound Beach before arriving in Huntington.

He also serves as chaplain for the Huntington Ancient Order of Hibernians, the group that sponsored Sunday’s parade, which is considered the oldest one on Long Island. This year's procession featured more than 17 bagpipe bands.

"He found his calling later in life," said Greg Kennedy, president of the Huntington AOH. "He is just a wonderful guy."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In addition to his role at St. Patrick Church, Donnelly also finds time to help those struggling with addiction through drug-awareness organizations on Long Island. He also referees Suffolk County high school basketball games on weekends during the winter.

"He really has his head on the pulse of the community," said Kennedy. "He is someone who is always there for you."

Donnelly credits the customer service experience he gained in his nearly two decades working in a supermarket as solid preparation for becoming a spiritual leader. And after leading the parade through downtown Huntington, Donnelly ended back at St. Patrick Church, where just hours earlier he had conducted Sunday Mass.

"It has been a wonderful journey," he said. "I have loved every minute of it."