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In Wilmington’s Bishop William Koenig, friends and family describe a kind, genuine leader ‘always there for parishioners’

Bishop William E. Koenig poses inside St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington on June 30, 2021. Dialog photo/Don Blake

Catholics in the Diocese of Wilmington can expect a calm, pastoral voice as their leader now that Bishop-elect William E. Koenig is ordained and installed at St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington on July 13, according to some people who know him best.

Joining representatives from parishes, schools and ministries across the diocese that afternoon were plenty of friends and family members from Long Island and elsewhere, several of whom were happy to share their thoughts on the new shepherd.

One who has known Bishop Koenig longer than just about anyone is his younger brother, Mike, who talked about the family growing up in a quiet suburban area of Long Island. The house included their parents, Al and Mary, and Joseph, who is the bishop’s twin.

“We had a block full of kids,” Koenig said. “It was a young community. We’d play outside all day and come home at night. My father would whistle really loudly, and we knew it was time to come home for dinner.”

The new bishop attended St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary in Uniondale, N.Y., for high school, graduating in 1974. He played baseball and soccer there and coached those sports during his college days, his brother said. Mike would follow to St. Pius, but the priesthood was not his calling.

Father Koenig takes part in Stations of the Cross with parish youth at St. Agnes Cathedral School in the late 1990s.

“Eighty guys would start, and maybe 10 guys would go to the college seminary, and maybe three to the major seminary,” Mike Koenig said.
Several of Bishop Koenig’s schoolmates remain friends to this day. Some are priests, others are husbands and fathers. The bishop has a relationship with their entire families, his brother said. He’s the kind of priest who is there for those family weddings, first Communions and funerals.

Mike Koenig remembered his brother telling their parents when he was young that he wanted to be a priest.

“He never brought it up at the dining room table over dinner that I remember. But I think the decision was made pretty early in his life that this was something he was called to,” he said.

Dorothy Schultz, the bishop’s aunt, said her husband and Koenig’s mother were brother and sister. They grew up on a farm, and the new bishop was fond of fishing on the Delaware River. Schultz said she recalls him as a religious person growing up.

Enjoying some rest and relaxation in this undated photo are, from left, Bishop Koenig, brother Joe, dad Al and brother Mike.

“I didn’t know what he was planning on doing, but I was not surprised when he chose that,” she said from her home in Sullivan County, N.Y., about an hour and a half north of Manhattan.

Bishop Koenig has always enjoyed the activities available to him upstate. He and his family used to go tubing on the Delaware, and the bishop would golf — one of his favorite hobbies — with his aunt.

“I said to him last time he was here, if you want me to skip a hole, I’ll skip a hole,” she joked.

The bishop’s mother was a teacher, and his father used to go hunting in the Catskills. One time before they were married, Schultz said, his mother needed a ride back to Long Island, and the friend who was supposed to do the driving was not available. Al Koenig offered to do the driving, “and they were together ever since. I think she liked the other guy better until she got to know Al.”

One of the bishop’s good friends dating back to their days in the seminary together is Father Bob Whelan, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. They both attended Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, N.Y., and served as vocations director in their neighboring dioceses. Father Whelan said the Diocese of Wilmington will be getting a bishop who is “very friendly with everyone.

Bishop Koenig and Father Eric Fasano, the current vicar general of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., pose with a group of scouts at St. William the Abbot where Bishop Koenig was pastor around 2005.

“He’s a genuine person, a people person. We often get together for dinner, even with our busy separate schedules. Great friend, very reliable. Very smart, humble.”

He is also very helpful. Back in their college days, Bishop Koenig got a job as a waiter, and he got Whelan a job as well, the priest recalled.
Father Whelan said his friend tried to teach him to play golf, but that didn’t pan out. The bishop, he added, “hasn’t gained an ounce” since their college days.

He has remained loyal to the group of men with whom he went to Immaculate Conception. Father Whelan said the two have gotten together at least once a month for more than 40 years despite the responsibilities they have assumed in their respective careers.

“Bill is very faithful to that,” Father Whelan said. “Our class is kind of unique. It’s been kind of a support group. We share our highs and lows, have dinner. We’ll miss Bill. With his duties, he might not be able to get back every month.

“The word is bittersweet. We just had a farewell Mass and blessing for him sending him off to the wild of Delaware and Maryland. He won’t be a half hour away, but I’m sure we’ll find a way to maintain our friendship,” Father Whelan said.

No one who talked to The Dialog about Bishop Koenig has any doubt about the job he’ll do in the Diocese of Wilmington and the manner in which he will do it.

Bishop Koenig celebrates Mass on May 2, 2021, at St. Joseph Church in Garden City, N.Y. The priest from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., was appointed as bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington by Pope Francis on April 30.

Kathy Sena is a parishioner at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre and got to know the bishop during his first stint there, which began 23 years ago. He was at the cathedral for four years and eventually returned as rector. They remained friends in the interim.

Sena said her children were young and attended the cathedral school the first time Bishop Koenig was at St. Agnes. She was interested in becoming an extraordinary minister of Communion and spoke with the priest about that process.

“Through talking to him one-on-one, there was a connection. He’s a very spiritual person, a very supporting person, very understanding,” she said.

“We’ve seen each other through both our spiritual journey and from a friend point of view.”

She said Bishop-elect Koenig is friendly and always has a smile. He was there whenever she needed to talk.

“He’s just that type of a person that’s always there for parishioners and people he cares about. When you become friendly with Father Bill, he becomes part of your family,” she said, adding that the bishop-elect married her daughter last August.

Bishop Koenig in this family snapshot from 1986 with his late parents, Mary and Alfred. The event was a surprise 30th birthday party for the bishop at his first parish, St. Edward the Confessor, Syosset, N.Y.

Mike Koenig said his brother has been the go-to priest for their family. He and his wife have three children, and his wife is one of 10 siblings, so the couple has about 40 nieces and nephews, many of whom have crossed paths with Bishop-elect Koenig.

“He has been a minister for the nieces and nephews. They’re getting married and having their own children,” Mike Koenig said. “In that way, he’s been very instrumental in being a minister to my extended family. They consider him family as well.”

Sena’s experience as an extraordinary minister has led her to other ministries in her parish. She credits him for helping her become the person she is spiritually today.

During his time at St. Agnes, Bishop-elect Koenig was always supportive of the young people in the parish.

“He was at all the events,” she said.

Two of her three daughters will accompany Sena to Wilmington for the ordination and installation.

“I think that speaks to how the young people … feel about him, too, that they want to be there and want to be part of that special day,” she said.

Bishop Koenig’s first assignment after his ordination in 1983 was at St. Edward the Confessor in Syosset, N.Y. That’s where he met John Cleary, who has remained a friend through many transfers.

Bishop Koenig’s grandparents had a farm along the banks of the Delaware in Sullivan County, New York.

“He’s been a constant presence in my family’s life. He’s a very pastoral man,” Cleary said.

Echoing Sena, Cleary said the bishop-elect has always expressed an interest in Cleary’s grandchildren’s activities. The priest knows them and their interests. The two still get together, and Cleary believes the bishop’s time at St. Edward’s remains close to his heart.

“I think there is something special about the first assignment. I think there is something amazing about the number of people he knows from St. Edward’s,” Cleary said.

Bishop Koenig was able to keep his appointment to Wilmington a secret, even from his friends. Cleary said he heard about it on the news but was in touch with the priest shortly thereafter. One of the only disappointing aspects of the ordination, he believes, is Bishop Koenig’s parents are not alive to see it happen.

“He is a very family-oriented man. I knew his parents because we traveled on pilgrimages that he organized,” Cleary said.

The pastor of St. Anne Parish in Garden City, N.Y., Msgr. Thomas Harold, became the vocations director of Rockville Centre in 1996, taking over from Bishop Koenig. He describes his friend as nonjudgmental, with a broad range of interests.

“He is approachable. He’s very gentle, compassionate guy who invites friendship and relationship easily,” Msgr. Harold said. “He’s youthful. He’s a young 64. Youthful in energy. He was an avid runner. He ran three or four times a week as recently as 10 years ago.”

Bishop with his brothers and father.

As director of vocations, Bishop Koenig started retreats for the young men at the seminary, and he held a discernment program for those interested in the priesthood, Msgr. Harold said. Bishop Koenig lived at the college seminary.

“When I entered the vocation office, there was an energy and vitality to the programs. He was encouraging of my own efforts there. It was a dynamic vocation office,” Msgr. Harold said.

Msgr. Harold said the people of the Diocese of Wilmington can expect their new bishop to reflect the message in Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, 2013’s “Evangelii Gaudium,” in which the pope discusses the joy of the Gospel. His episcopal motto is “We Walk by Faith.”

One of his strengths, the monsignor continued, is that he led two parishes, including St. Agnes Cathedral, one of the biggest on Long Island. There, he has been responsive to the leadership of Pope Francis. He will bring faith, patience and openness.

“I think people will be confident he will reflect the present leadership of the church,” he said.

Father Anthony Cardone is a priest of the Diocese of Wilmington who has served in the Diocese of Rockville Centre since 2013. When Bishop-elect Koenig was named vicar of clergy last year by Bishop John Barres, he worked with Father Cardone to get him incardinated — formally accepted as a priest — into Rockville Centre. Now, as Wilmington’s ordinary, he will be on the other end of the switch.

“He was working on getting me to be permanent in Rockville Centre. He was working on that, and he said, ‘I was getting all your files and working with Delaware, and the next thing I know I became the bishop,’” he said.

“You’re getting a very spiritual man, a very prayerful man, very measured, calm, thoughtful. Just a well-rounded very holy priest,” Father Cardone continued. “God has blessed this diocese.”

Father Cardone, who recently returned to Wilmington to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his priestly ordination, was assigned to St. Raphael’s Church in East Meadow, N.Y., which was the Koenig family’s parish.

After the announcement was made, Father Cardone made sure to tell Bishop Koenig about Ocean City, Md., and its many golf courses. Father Cardone was stationed in the resort town while serving in this diocese.

“I told him, ‘You’re going to love it. The priests are great, the people are great.’ I don’t know if he had the ambition to be a bishop, but I know he’s excited to be the bishop of Wilmington,” he said.

Bishop Koenig at his first Mass as a priest.

Father Cardone believes he may have had just a little bit to do with Bishop Koenig getting the call from the Vatican.

“When I arrived eight years ago back in Rockville Centre, Bishop (William) Murphy had sent out a letter. He wanted each priest to recommend a future bishop, who we thought would be a bishop, and I put him down. I’m not saying I made him. Even then I thought he was a good candidate for bishop.”

In Wilmington, then-Msgr. John Barres helped Father Cardone get into the seminary to study for the priesthood, and in 2009 Bishop Barres was appointed to the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. Then, after Father Cardone went to Long Island and worked with then-Msgr. Koenig, another promotion was in the cards.

“I told Bishop-elect Koenig, ‘Anybody who touches me becomes bishop,’” Father Cardone said with a laugh.

Sena is sad to see her friend leave Long Island, but she is not surprised that he was entrusted with a diocese of his own. She expects to stay in touch.

“We think of him in the highest regard,” she said. “I think we will still keep in contact. When you form special friendships like that, the distance may be a little bit of a problem, but certainly it won’t change the friendship.”

Friends and family of Bishop Koenig traveled to be a part of his episcopal ordination and installation. Dialog photo/Don Blake

Cleary said Bishop Koenig’s “easygoing manner, his outreach to people, his warmth, all of those things” will be on display in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Cleary hopes to make the drive south occasionally to visit.

“I think he’s happy about it. He’s a man of the church, and he will follow through on any assignment that he’s been given,” he said.
Schultz, his aunt, said she was elated when her nephew told her about his new assignment.

“He’s very happy with the whole thing. I think he’ll make a terrific bishop,” she said. “At every parish, he was well-liked.”

That extended beyond Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York. Schultz said when her mother died, the bishop-elect drove upstate for the funeral, and when he saw a local priest, he stopped. It turns out they had gone to school together.

“It was so amazing,” she said.

Schultz will be at St. Elizabeth on July 13 for the ordination and installation, as will her five sisters. She is excited for the people of Delaware and Maryland to get to know the person she already knows.

“He’s a very personable guy, and he’s very outgoing. He’s just like his mother. He makes friends very easily, and I’ll think he’ll make a great bishop,” she said.

Like Father Whelan, Mike Koenig used the word “bittersweet” to describe his feelings about his brother’s new role.

“He’s not that far away, but he certainly wouldn’t be as available to play golf with or come to dinner with us. But I’m very happy for him. I think this is something that he wanted to do. Maybe the church needs him where he’s going. Responding to the call is a good thing and something that he takes seriously and faithfully,” he said.

Mike Koenig will have a chance to see some of his extended family in Wilmington as his brother begins the process of settling into his new home, meeting people and becoming familiar with the geography.

“We’ll have a chance to meet with them and kind of celebrate with the family. I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to celebrating with my family and being part of one of the major things in his life,” he said.

Father Whelan also will be among the many folks driving south through New Jersey into Delaware for the ordination and installation. He is certain his friend of nearly 50 years will excel at the position.

“He’ll be a good pastor,” Father Whelan said. “We’re very happy for him. We know he’ll do such a good job. It’s a sacrifice, leaving the diocese and leaving everybody behind.”

The pair have chatted about the Diocese of Wilmington, and invitations to visit are already going out, Father Whelan said. Bishop Koenig has asked Father Whelan to carry his miter at the ordination.

“Wouldn’t miss it.”