When the Rev. Christopher Nowak arrived as the new pastor at St. John of God in Central Islip two weeks ago, he did not give a typical first homily about all the changes he had planned. He couldn't.
Parishioners at the Roman Catholic church were still stunned by the sudden death of their popular 44-year-old pastor, Msgr. James Kissane, who was diagnosed with cancer around Thanksgiving last year and died less than a month later.
"The reality that I've encountered is that the parish is still in profound mourning over Father Jim's death," Nowak said.
While many new pastors "are talking about changes they are going to make or plans they are going to introduce," Nowak said, he instead is working with the parish to plan the first anniversary of Kissane's death.
All new pastors face challenges, but Nowak's are particularly acute as he steps into his new job. He was one of 16 priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre who, as part of an annual tradition, were transferred last month to new parishes where they took over as pastors.
"I'm trying to facilitate the bereavement process," Nowak said. "It's in remembrance of our loved ones that eventually that sense of loss and pain can change into peace and acceptance."
He said he has decided to help the congregation of 3,200 families heal by having parishioners write down memories of Kissane that will be printed each week in the parish bulletin in honor of the priest who led the parish for seven years.
The parish is also working on a memorial for Kissane - perhaps a large rock placed on the grounds with a plaque bearing the names of 600 people who donated to the "Glory Campaign" Kissane established to repair and enhance the church and other buildings.
Nowak, 45, said despite the challenges of replacing Kissane - whose duties included being chaplain to the Suffolk County Police Department - he is happy to be in Central Islip. He worked in the parish from 2001 to 2003.
"I've always seen my vocation as a priest working in poor areas with a bilingual community," said Nowak, who has worked in Peru and in the diocese's mission in the Dominican Republic. St. John of God is about 60 percent Latino, mainly immigrants from El Salvador, and 40 percent Anglo.
His last parish, St. Mary of the Isle in Long Beach, was a mix of Anglos, Latinos and Filipinos.
At St. John, he has also found himself immersed in things not strictly religious. A roller hockey league affiliated with the parish needs to have a sidewalk built next to a rink on church grounds. "They didn't teach us this in the seminary," Nowak joked.