When Jim Spillane, a member of St. Barnabas Roman Catholic Church in Bellmore, recently learned that the parish would soon be losing its popular pastor, he was stunned.
"I was almost in tears two weeks ago when I heard him [Rev. Peter Dooley] say in church" that he will be transferred in June, said Spillane, 75, a retired New York City firefighter and a parish member for 43 years. "I think he is one of the most outstanding priests I've ever met. Very few could top him."
Disappointment and even anger have been triggered by the Diocese of Rockville Centre's plans to transfer Dooley, who has presided over the parish for 16 years. Diocesan officials say that is beyond the normal limits and his talents are needed in other parishes.
Still, when diocesan representatives showed up at a packed town-hall meeting last week at the parish, they were greeted with emotional and sometimes acrimonious comebacks. Parishioners say Dooley has united a parish conflicted over issues related to the previous pastor, inspired thousands of people, and helped turn a church deficit into a surplus - no small concern in a diocese where officials say 100 of 133 parishes are expected to lose money this year.
Thomas Griffin, 18, said Dooley has inspired him to consider becoming a priest. "He's really like a second father figure and a real role model for us," Griffin said.
Diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said, "We realize and understand the emotions of a parish losing a beloved pastor. It's certainly not an easy decision to make, but the diocesan bishop needs to look at the needs of the entire Catholic Church of Long Island when assigning men to various positions within it.
"Sometimes that means asking a popular pastor to take on a new challenge in a different part of the vineyard that is in need of his gifts," he added.
Dolan said pastors normally serve a six-year term in a parish and that can be renewed for another six years. Occasionally they are granted a third term or - in the past - even more.
Dolan said Bishop William Murphy is trying to stick to the standard two-term limit, and even when pastors receive a third term they are told that could be interrupted if they are needed elsewhere. Parishioners are asking that Dooley, 62, at least be allowed to finish his third term.
Dooley did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment. But in Sunday's church bulletin he thanked parishioners "for the support you expressed for me personally" at Thursday's Town Hall meeting. "It touched my heart."
At least a few parishioners say they understand why the diocese is transferring Dooley, though they don't want to see him go, either. Joyce Caggiano, who said she's been a member of the parish for 63 years, said, "There may be other parishes that need him, to be built up the way St. Barnabas has been built up."
But most parishioners simply seem angry and feel the diocese is not listening to them. When one suggested at the meeting that Murphy - who was not at the meeting - resign, the crowd cheered.
"I am very upset," said parishioner Pat Neville, 74. "This parish wants him and they love him - everybody."