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Bishop William Koening’s arrival: An evening text, a gift of the Holy Father — brother priests share gratitude in Diocese of Wilmington

Bishop John Barres, Rockville Centre, N.Y., talks with Msgr. John Hopkins, left, and Father Charles Dillingham before Bishop William Koenig's ordination Mass at St. Elizabeth Church, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Photo/Don Blake

The text message arrived around 9:30 on the night of April 29. Father Charles Dillingham checked his phone at the rectory at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Hockessin, where he is the pastor. It was from a fellow priest.

“I’m sending you a gift from Long Island tomorrow morning. Stay tuned, my friend,” read the message from Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

“I’ve known Bishop Barres a long time, so we’ve kept in touch. He was trying to tell me something, but it completely flew by me,” Father Dillingham said.

Bishop Barres had been an associate pastor at St. Elizabeth Parish in Wilmington when Father Dillingham was the pastor. They remained friends after Bishop Barres left Wilmington for the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., in 2009, followed by Rockville Centre.

Priests from around the Diocese of Wilmington pray for Bishop William Koenig during his ordination Mass at St. Elizabeth Church, Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Photo/Don Blake

Father Dillingham asked the bishop if he needed to be around the rectory to receive the gift. Bishop Barres responded that the gift would be arriving around 6 a.m. on April 30.
“In my mind, I was thinking maybe he’s coming. Maybe he has a meeting in Wilmington,” Father Dillingham said.

He got up early, turned on the lights at the rectory and checked to see if he had food and coffee just in case his friend dropped by.

“I had all this in my mind that Bishop Barres was coming. And, of course, I was totally off. He tried, but it just flew right by me.”

The “gift,” as it turned out, was the next shepherd for the Diocese of Wilmington, Bishop William E. Koenig. The Vatican normally makes those announcements at 6 a.m. on the East Coast.

Father Dillingham spoke with Bishop Barres later that day, and the bishop “had every glowing comment to make about our new bishop. That he was just a first-class, great priest, loved by the people and loved by the priests.”

Long Island, he added, is making a great sacrifice sending Bishop Koenig to Delaware and the Eastern Shore.

Msgr. Stanley Russell shakes hands with Bishop Koenig. Dialog photo Joseph P. Owens

One of Bishop Koenig’s assignments in Rockville Centre was vocations director. Father Norman Carroll, who fills that role in the Diocese of Wilmington along with pastor of St. Elizabeth, is looking forward to hearing what the new bishop thinks about vocations. It’s always good, he said, to speak to someone who has that experience in a different place. The two can talk about what has worked and what hasn’t.

“It will be good having him as part of the conversation,” Father Carroll said.

Father Steven Giuliano, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Seaford, is intrigued by the fact that Bishop Koenig is not already a bishop. Although he has worked closely with other bishops, the fact that he will be ordained in Wilmington may give a fresh perspective.

Not only will Bishop Koenig be getting used to the diocese, “but we get to break him in as a bishop. We get to grow together as he gets used to his ministry,” said Father Giuliano, who spent 11 years as a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia but has been in this diocese now for 30 years.

“I’m hopeful that fresh eyes will bring a new enthusiasm and new ideas,” he said.

He believes that Bishop Koenig’s time as vicar for clergy in Rockville Centre will play a role in how he guides the diocese.

“Hopefully, he’ll have a good relationship with his brother priests,” Father Giuliano said.

In Elkton, Md., Father Jim Yeakel, the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, also is excited to see a bishop ordained in the diocese, which is happening for the first time since 1897 and only the second time since the diocese was founded in 1868. He is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, but as a pastor, he has had more interaction with the bishop and the diocese than with his provincial. He spent a few years ministering in Manhattan, but he never crossed paths with Bishop Koenig.

Father Tim Nolan, left, chats with Father Rich Jasper at the St. E center in advance of the installation. (Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens)

“What little I have heard, and this is definitely secondhand, I have heard some of our parishioners say they’ve heard from people that live up there what a good priest he has been,” Father Yeakel said.

One of the items in the new bishop’s biography that Father Yeakel noticed is that he holds a degree in social work, which gives them something in common. He hopes that plays a role in how he leads the diocese.

“I’m kind of anticipating that he’ll come down on the pastoral side often because of that sensitivity,” he said.

Father Yeakel said he looks forward to having a conversation with Bishop Koenig about their shared interest in social work.

He also noted that Bishop Malooly deserves credit for his work in 13 years leading the Diocese of Wilmington. That is especially true considering that when he arrived, the diocese was in the middle of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal and the resulting bankruptcy.

“I respect and admire Bishop Malooly a great deal. It was a rough 20 miles of road that he had to take the diocese down, but I think he did it really well,” Father Yeakel said.

Father Greg Corrigan, the pastor at Resurrection Parish in Pike Creek, is hopeful that the Catholic Church can make some adjustments from what it was “BC” — before COVID.

“Before Covid, you could walk past another person who was so engrossed with their smartphone, they didn’t even see you, like we didn’t exist,” Father Corrigan said. “We weren’t all wonderfully connected before all this began. And now, some folks are working hard to find new ways to connect, thanks be to God. But a lot of folks are working to reconnect by returning to what was.”

He hopes the Catholic Church in Wilmington can find a way to attract back to its pews those people who have stopped attending during the pandemic, along with the folks who had abandoned the church before.

“The uncertainty and death brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity for humanity to reflect on how to build a better world,” he said.

He would like to see a “rethinking of a new model of development, which has an indisputable point the coexistence of peoples in harmony with creation.” He hopes for a focus on what it means to be Catholic. For too long, Father Corrigan explained, Catholics have been “parish” people.

“We must reach across parish borders and connect with others,” he said.

Msgr. David Kelley, left, and Msgr. George Brubaker at the St. E Center before the installation. Dialog photo/Joseph P. Owens

Other areas of concern to Father Corrigan include diversity, the environment and technology. He would like to see more bridges built in a time of extreme polarization and partisan obstruction.

“Out of the chaos, God creates a time for creativity, new ways of thinking,” he said.

Father Giuliano noted that Bishop Koenig will have to pay attention to the increasing number of Catholics in the diocese, corresponding with a decreasing number of priests to serve them. Many of the active priests are above retirement age or approaching it.

“That will have a big impact on our diocese. It’s going to be a challenge for our people,” he said.

He said the bishop will have a challenge in envisioning a new model of leadership in the parishes and the effect that will have on the priests.

“In a lot of ways, it’s the administrative part that burns us out as priests, not the sacramental stuff,” Father Giuliano said.

Father Carroll has been busy as St. Elizabeth has been undergoing some work in advance of the ordination and installation. The rectory will be available for hospitality, and Grant Hall, the St. E Center and the parish school all will be in use. He has heard good things about Bishop Koenig.

“One of the guys who should be going into the seminary this August went to school at Stony Brook. He had a priest from campus ministry there who recommended him who said we’re getting a really great guy,” he said.

Father Dillingham said he never gets nervous about a new bishop because “we have the bishop that God knows we need.”

After speaking with Bishop Barres, Father Dillingham is excited to meet the new bishop. He knows it is a sacrifice for him to leave a very successful career, along with his family and friends, for a diocese where he does not know anyone.

“Everybody will pull together. We will welcome him with open arms. He’s here for a reason,” he said.

And if Bishop Koenig wants to stop in Hockessin for a bite to eat and a cup of coffee before a morning Mass, Father Dillingham will be ready.

“(Bishop Barres) said, ‘When I said 6 a.m., I thought that may give you the clue.’ He tried his best, but it went right over my head.”