GREENWICH—Back in the 1950s, when Alan Detscher was an altar boy at Sacred Heart Church in Byram, he missed two Masses…and the pastor “fired” him. It could have been an inauspicious start for a young man who was destined to the priesthood, but he took it in stride and pursued his vocation, which over 47 years took him from Greenwich to Rome and Washington and back again.
Msgr. Alan Detscher is retiring after 23 years at St. Catherine of Siena church in Riverside, which during his tenure as pastor has seen major renovations, the creation of new ministries and a restructuring of religious education and faith formation programs.
Monsignor, who has worked in different national and diocesan offices, holds degrees in sacred liturgy, a topic on which he has written numerous books and articles. He is particularly proud of the American edition of the Book of Blessings, which includes many prayers he wrote.
He still recalls the time he was rushed to a hospital in Washington with a perforated colon. “I was in agony, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t stand and the chaplain came in and wanted to anoint me,” he said. “As he began the rite, I realized he was using a prayer that I wrote.” It moved him to think of the far-reaching effect his words could have.
Commenting on his lifelong love of liturgy, Monsignor said, “For me, the liturgy has been the bond that has helped me to understand what the Church is. If I have done anything in my 47 years of being a priest, if I have helped and encouraged people to celebrate the liturgy well, then I have done something good for the Church.”
Much of Monsignor’s life has centered on Greenwich, where he was born on May 13, 1945. The son of Elizabeth Fuhr and Francis Detscher Sr., he attended Byram Elementary School and Greenwich High. His name was well known to people in town because of the family-owned Detscher’s Bakery.
When he entered Georgetown University, his original intention was to pursue a career in medicine, but then the Holy Spirit intervened.
“I was from a diocesan parish and that was my image of the priesthood,” he says, proudly noting that Sacred Heart has had more vocations than any other parish. For much of his young life, he was around priests, and their example proved to be an inspiration.
“I served Mass all through high school, and also for the Jesuit residents at Georgetown,” he recalled.
He credits his mother Elizabeth, a non-Catholic, with his early faith formation — she made sure he and his brother and sister went to Mass.
Because she was a Methodist, his parents were married in the rectory and not the church, he notes sadly. “She also had to promise that she would raise me as a Catholic. My parents were willing to do what the Church required,” he said. “When they were married 50 years, I got to go to Sacred Heart and renew their vows…in the church.”
One of the most precious memories of his priesthood occurred three weeks before his mother died when, he says, “I received her into the Church and gave her her first and last Communion.”
“She was always very proud of me,” he recalls, “and would introduce me by saying, ‘This is my son, the priest.’”
His mother Elizabeth was a teller at Byram National Bank and did all the bookkeeping for the family bakery. His father, Francis, was a summa cum laude graduate of the University of Notre Dame, who taught English and social studies at Greenwich High and eventually left teaching to work full-time at the bakery.
In his sophomore year, Monsignor left Georgetown and went to Saint John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., earning a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and one in Divinity. He also attended Woodstock College of Theology, receiving a master’s of sacred theology in liturgy. He later earned a license in sacred liturgy, summa cum laude, and a doctorate in sacred liturgy, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome.
He was ordained by Bishop Walter W. Curtis on May 15, 1971 and his first assignment was at St. Patrick’s Church in Bridgeport. Monsignor has held numerous diocesan and national positions, including Secretary to Bishop Curtis, diocesan director of liturgy, director of the diocesan office for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, and executive director of the secretariat for liturgy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He fondly recalls Bishop Walter Curtis and says he was like a father: “He transformed the diocese and helped transform me too.”
While he was a deacon, he spent a year at St. Roch’s in Byram, where the pastor let him preach every other day.
“Preaching became important to me,” he says. “He let me preach, and it helped me.” He said his time at St. Roch’s also provided him with an immersion in the Italian culture, noting that parishioners were often outside the church after Mass, joyfully hugging and kissing.
One of his closest friends is Deacon Renato Berzolla, who has known him 25 years. When he describes Monsignor, Deacon Berzolla uses the Italian word for faith —“fede,” whose letters are representative of Monsignor’s faithfulness, empathy, availability and example.
“This best describes Monsignor because he is a real man of faith,” Deacon Berzolla said. “He was always faithful to his superiors, the Church and everyone in the parish. And to do that, you have to be an acrobat.”
“He not only preached the Gospel, but lived the Gospel,” Deacon Berzolla said. “He was like an old-fashioned priest that people felt they could go to with their problems.” He is convinced that if any of his 14 grandchildren had something that bothered them, they would go to Monsignor without hesitation.
Reflecting on his 47 years as a priest, Msgr. Detscher said, “St. Catherine’s has been my home for almost 23 years. As my family has gotten smaller and smaller, people here have become my family. They are a part of my life, and I give thanks for that and for the priests I have worked with who helped me in many ways. Father Platt and Father D’Silva have been good colleagues and friends. I wish Father Platt the best as the new pastor. I know he will continue many practices and do new things. We often need the challenge of someone else doing things another way.”