A high school that inspires vocations

When it was time for Eric Silva to go to high school, his parents made the decision for him—St. Joseph High School—even though he wanted to follow his brother to Trumbull High.

A decade after graduating in 2008, Father Eric Silva has returned as chaplain of the school, which he believes played a decisive role in leading him to the priesthood. His story is part of what Father John Connaughton, vocation director of the Diocese of Bridgeport, describes as a remarkable spiritual phenomenon. Since 2003, there have been seven priests who are alumni of St. Joseph’s and one religious sister. Since the school opened in 1962, there have been 12 vocations.

Father Connaughton, Class of ’94, says in the past 15 years a strong Catholic culture has developed at the school. There has been a rediscovery of the Catholic intellectual tradition, a rediscovery of the sacrament of confession and an increased devotion to Eucharistic Adoration—all part of a spiritual culture conducive to leading young men and women to the religious life.

Alumni include Father John Georgia, ’67; Sister Kathleen Kelly, RSM, ’67; Father Gregory Huminski, ’72; the late Father John Baran, ’76; Father Joseph Marcello, ’94; Father John Connaughton, ’94; Sister Jaime Mitchell, ’95; Father Samuel Kachuba, ’01; Father Michael Novajosky, ’01; Father Robert Wolfe, ’06; Father Krzysztof Kuczynski Jr., ’06, and Father Eric Silva, ’08.

Both Fathers Connaughton and Silva credit Father Joseph Marcello, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena, with changes that began while he was chaplain from 2005 to 2009—11 years after he graduated.

His high school years were formative because the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn emphasized the importance of the Mass and devotion to the Blessed Mother. However, his original plan was to become an attorney like his father, who was a prosecutor and ran the State’s Attorney Office in Bridgeport. He describes his vocation as “an inspired intuition,” a gradual progression.

His parents, Joseph and Ellen, were surprised by his decision because they wanted him to marry and have children, and as Father Marcello says, “In Italian families, a priestly vocation is the best thing that can happen to your best friend’s son.”

He went to St. John Fisher for a year and got a degree in English literature and writing from Fairfield University. Later he went to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was ordained May 17, 2003, the anniversary of the canonization of St. Theresa.

His first assignment was at St. Joseph Church in Shelton. From 2009 to 2012, he served as Secretary to Bishop William Lori and from 2012 to 2015 with him as Archbishop of Baltimore. He was appointed pastor of St. Catherine of Siena in Trumbull in 2015.

While he was chaplain, he learned the students’ names by studying the yearbook and every morning held the door open and said hello when they arrived at school.

“I simply tried to be a good priest in the school and make the sacraments available to them as best I could,” he recalls.

Over four years, he renovated the sanctuary of the chapel after a donor gave them a new tabernacle and altar. He moved the Mass schedule into the school day so one or two classes could attend and he tried to make it relevant to courses they were studying, whether Latin, Spanish or Italian and say Mass in that language.

He also began regular Eucharistic Adoration and confession, and a course he taught on the relationship between faith and reason became popular with students.

Father Marcello says, “In order to discern a vocation, you have to come from a strong life of faith to begin with. That is why I wanted to make the sacraments available as much as possible, to give students time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and confession so that their own friendship with Christ could be deepened and they would be able to see clearly where God was calling them.”

He emphasizes that when discerning a priestly vocation, every story is different, but every one centers on the Eucharist. “My goal was to present the faith on its own terms the best I could and leave the rest to the grace of God.”

The Path to the Priesthood
Looking back, Father Silva says, “Holiness is very attractive and I saw people like Father Marcello living out the faith. He is someone who lived the priesthood without compromising. He didn’t lose an ounce of who he was.”

The seeds for his vocation were planted at St. Joseph’s.

“The faith became a reality for me because it was talked about in a very real way,” he said. “I was exposed to the traditions of the Church and different devotions.”

His prayer life deepened and he became active in the High School Apostles Program. He prayed the Rosary, he went to Adoration, he read the lives of the saints. However, the community of faith at St. Joseph’s was taken away when he went to St. Anselm College.

“College was an awkward time,” he said. “I found a group of people who weren’t going to Mass, and so I stopped going too…and did what other people around me were doing.”

During sophomore year, he began attending Sunday Mass and in Lent, he started going every day, which he says was a desire the Holy Spirit put in his heart.

That summer he had an internship at the Catholic Center and met Father Rob Kinnally, then vocation director, and visited St. John Fisher Seminary in Stamford. Later, on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in New York, he had a spiritual experience during Eucharistic Adoration.

“The Lord sort of tapped me on the shoulder in Adoration,” he recalled. “He put it into my heart to go into the seminary and there was a peace that came with that.”

He broke up with his girlfriend and left St. Anselm’s to enter St. John Fisher. He got his degree in philosophy from Sacred Heart University and did his theological studies at Mount St. Mary University in Maryland. At 28, he was the youngest priest ordained from the diocese.

Voted Most Likely to Become a Priest
When Sam Kachuba graduated from St. James School in Stratford, he was voted “Most Likely to Become a Priest.” His classmates knew something he didn’t. Today, he is pastor of St. Pius X Church in Fairfield.

“My time at St. Joe’s was extremely formative,” Father Kachuba says. “I learned things about myself that I don’t think I would have learned any place else, and I always felt very supported by my fellow students and faculty.”

In Sam’s freshman year, Frank Marchetti, a religion teacher who had been in the seminary, pulled him aside and encouraged him to consider the priesthood.

He joined campus ministry and took part in his parish youth group. He later learned that Mike Novajosky, who sat behind him in Spanish class, was considering the priesthood and they became close friends. Today, Father Novajosky is pastor of The Cathedral Parish at St. Augustine’s.

The seed was planted at a young age when he started serving Mass at St. Mark’s in Stratford. “I was introduced to serving at the altar and being around priests,” Father Kachuba recalled. “And my parents were very serious about making sure we prayed together as a family.”

Msgr. McMahon had a profound influence on him in addition to Father Tom Lynch, recently retired pastor of St. James, who once told him, “Sam, the priesthood is really a great life.”

He and Michael Novajosky entered St. John Fisher together. Father Novajosky enrolled in the Basselin Scholars Program at Catholic University while Father Kachuba went to Sacred Heart University and finished his bachelor’s in philosophy at Fordham. He went on to the North American College in Rome and the Gregorian. He was ordained on May 17, 2008.

From ‘boy crazy’ to crazy about Christ
Jaime Mitchell was sent to St. Joseph’s against her will.

“My mother wanted me to go to a Catholic high school, and I pretty much fought her  because I wanted to go to Trumbull High,” Jaime said. But she agreed to try it for a month and her opinion changed.

“I liked it and made friends pretty easily,” she said. “There is definitely a community spirit there and a lot of camaraderie.”

From first grade, Jaime thought she might have a religious vocation, but she was “boy crazy” in high school, she says. After graduating in 1995, she went to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and majored in hospitality management. Her career included positions at Robustelli Travel and Fairfield University. Her career was advancing, but her spiritual life was stagnant.

“I went the opposite way, the way of the culture, and found myself hanging out with people who liked to go drinking and partying,” she says. Until she went on a retreat and had what she describes as “an encounter with the Risen Lord.” She returned home, broke up with her boyfriend and started attending daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. Over the next few years, she went through several jobs, and her mother Marilyn told her, “I think you’re missing your vocation.”

Jaime looked into several religious communities and saw a video about the Franciscans of the Eucharist, who work in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago.

She recalls: “I said to the Lord, ‘I’m 35 years old, and we’ve got to get this vocation thing settled. I’m not looking anywhere else, so if this doesn’t work out, sorry. But if it’s meant for me, I really want to work with the poor and live with people who strive to be holy and want to do things for You.” She gave Jesus a list of “job requirements” … and He fulfilled them all.

In January 2013, she entered the community as a postulate and recently professed her final vows. “It’s everything I wanted and more,” she said. “God has been really good to me. He has shown me His love in so many ways and in the littlest details.”

Working with students
Leading students to faith is a daily job for Father Silva. Describing his role as chaplain, he says, “First and foremost, I just try to be present. There is a real need for a renewal of spiritual fatherhood. These kids are hungry for a spiritual father in their lives.”

He begins his day at the front door, greeting students as they arrive. He has morning prayer and Mass during second period. Students come to chat with him and during lunch, teachers bring their classes for Adoration and he hears confessions. Young people, he says, are thirsty for Christ’s compassion and mercy.

“I always felt I could come home to St. Joe’s High School because of the community, because of the people who are here,” he says. “I firmly believe it continues to provide those opportunities for young men and women, who need to be encouraged to follow the religious life.”

Counter-cultural Catholics
Father Connaughton says priests and parents must do their part in nurturing vocations and guiding “their children to do what the Lord has created them to do.” Whatever that may be.

“I have a lot of hope for the future of the diocese,” he says. “I see young people who are so much more engaged in the life of the faith than I was at their age and that’s a sign of God’s grace at work. We have to recognize the challenges we face but also realize there are many young people whose lives have been touched by the Holy Spirit and who want to be intentionally Catholic and be more authentic witnesses of Catholicism in a world that hungers for it without even knowing it.”

By Joe Pisani