Father Joseph D’Angelo was chaplain for the Nassau police department...

Father Joseph D’Angelo was chaplain for the Nassau police department and several other law enforcement agencies, presiding over ceremonies of all kinds as well as offering counseling. Credit: D’Angelo Family Library

The Rev. Joseph D’Angelo knew from as young as age 6 that he wanted to become a priest: In the attic of his family’s home in Brooklyn, he would “play Mass,” his relatives recalled.

Acting as the priest, he would set up an “altar” and distribute disc-shaped candies to his siblings and neighborhood friends during “Holy Communion,” his sister, Kathleen D’Angelo, said. He even recited part of the Mass in Latin, which was the norm at the time.

“Some people play house. Some people play doctor. We would play Mass,” she said.

Her brother went on to fulfill his dream: At age 25, Joseph D'Angelo became an ordained Roman Catholic priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, where he served for decades as a parish priest and became a well-known and beloved chaplain to law enforcement agencies. He died on Tuesday at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. He was 81.

Known as a “chaplain’s chaplain,” D’Angelo presided over funerals of officers, provided counseling when they suffered traumatic experiences, and even wrote articles for the FBI about how to minister to law enforcement officers.

He encountered hundreds of law enforcement officers over his career, which included ministering to police and correction officers in Nassau County, and sheriff’s department employees in Suffolk County.

“I have known Father Joe for over 34 years and can say that he brought so many positive qualities and attributes to our department with his extensive training and basic caring for people,” Nassau County police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said in a statement.

“As Police Commissioner, I have had the pleasure of working with him very closely for the past eight years as he was assigned to my office. Dedicated is an understatement, as Father Joe always wanted to make things better for both our sworn and civilian members. I consider Father Joe a dear friend and I will miss him greatly,” Ryder said.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said in a statement: “Father Joe has always been a true law enforcement professional as the department’s Senior Chaplain. He served the Nassau County Police Department with great distinction and used his extensive training in Crisis Management and counseling to benefit an untold amount of our members over his dedicated and lengthy career. The Tri State area has lost a great man and we have all lost a dear and caring friend.”

Nassau police are holding a special service for D'Angelo on Friday night after his wake.

D’Angelo attended Catholic school in Brooklyn, then entered the seminary to start his studies toward priesthood. He earned a bachelor of arts in liberal arts from Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, a bachelor's and master's in philosophy from St. Bonaventure University in upstate St. Bonaventure, and a master's in divinity from Christ the King Seminary in upstate East Aurora. He also later earned a master of science in labor and industrial relations from the New York Institute of Technology.

Over the decades, he served as associate pastor at St. Martin of Tours in Amityville, St. Joachim Catholic Church in Cedarhurst, and Church of the Sacred Heart in Merrick.

Brian Sullivan, the recently retired head of the union for correction officers in Nassau County, recalled that he first met D’Angelo in the early 1970s at St. Joachim in Cedarhurst, where Sullivan’s family lived. At the time, D’Angelo looked a bit like a “hippie priest,” Sullivan said, with long hair and sandals.

But eventually D’Angelo became drawn to working with law enforcement, in addition to his work in parishes, on campuses and in a hospital. He served as chaplain at Adelphi University and as director of the Office of Campus Ministry for the diocese, working out of Hofstra University's Interfaith Center. He also served as chaplain at Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow.

He became so well-known as a chaplain to law enforcement that he was asked to set up programs at other agencies, said Steven Kuehhas, undersheriff of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department. In 1996, D'Angelo assisted the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department in establishing its new chaplaincy program.

“I never met anyone that had such a deep background like that,” said Kuehhas said.

At one point, the FBI asked D'Angelo to write several articles about ministering to law enforcement for its Academy of Behavioral Science Unit, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

He had numerous memberships and certifications including with the National Center for Crisis Management and the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.

Underneath it all was his calling as a priest. Ordained in 1968, Father Joe for almost 56 years “celebrated the Sacraments and preached the Word of God,” the diocese said in a statement. “In times of joy and sorrow, he brought peace and comfort to the men and women who protect and serve our communities.”

In addition to his sister, D’Angelo also is survived by two brothers, Stephen, of Pacifica, California, and Christopher, of Farmingdale. A younger brother, Jon Peter, predeceased him.

Visitation is Friday from 2 to 7 p.m. at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Merrick, followed by a Nassau County police service from 7 to 7:30 p.m., and a vigil Mass at 7:30 p.m. The funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre. He will be buried at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.

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