Father Charles McCarron moved to Shelter Island in January, the new vicar of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Last June his predecessor, Father Joel Ireland, resigned as pastor of St. Mary’s after less than two years in the parish. By all accounts, the events leading to Father Ireland’s departure were contentious and painful.
A professional who turns an ailing organization into a healthy enterprise is known as a turn-around artist.
“It’s what we call in the church business being a non-anxious presence,” Father Charles said. “As stuff swirls around, you are able to be present, not personalize things, try and see what is really going on, and help things heal.”
Father Charles brought with him a five-year-old Yorkshire terrier named Bogart and a gift from his former parishioners at St. Lawrence in Dix Hills when they heard St. Mary’s would be his next church — a 5-foot-tall statue of the Madonna and Child, originally carved in the 1930s for St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Astoria.
Born and raised in the Fordham section of the Bronx, Father Charles was the only child of Scottish parents who met in the U.S. but had no family here. “Our street had a large concentration of Scots,” Father Charles said. “My playmates and babysitters were all Scottish people. I spent many summers as a kid in Scotland. I’m the only Yank in my family.”
Raised Roman Catholic, Father Charles’ early life centered around St. Nicholas Tolentine, aka “The Cathedral of the Bronx,” which was his church, grammar school and high school. Offered a full scholarship to Fordham Prep, he turned it down to stay with his classmates. “We were together from first grade through 12th. Most of us are still in touch,” he said. “Those were the days when the city was more like small towns. Very close.”
At Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he began his journey to the priesthood, becoming a postulant in 1973 at 17, the first stage to becoming a Capuchin Franciscan Friar. His director and mentor for those years was Father Seán Patrick O’Malley, who is now Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, one of eight cardinals appointed by Pope Francis in 2013 to reform the central administration of the Catholic Church.
Father Charles took a break from the seminary, moving back to New York where he became a social worker and a New York City probation officer working with violent first-time offenders in the South Bronx. “I held on to my badge,” he said, and held it up for inspection.
After a year he returned to the order, completed his studies for priesthood, and was ordained in 1986 by Bishop Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn.
In the 1980s the AIDS epidemic was beginning, and Father Charles began to work with people suffering from a disease that was not well understood at the time. “Clergy really were not stepping up. Another priest told me that the chaplains were avoiding AIDS patients in the hospitals, so I went,” he said. “I thought work with people with AIDS would be a very Franciscan thing.”
Explaining his desire to work with people living with AIDS and HIV, Father Charles described one of the main events in the life of Saint Francis: his encounter with a leper. “He had a great horror of lepers but instead of running, he got off his horse and kissed him,” Father Charles said. “That was Francis’s moment of conversion. It’s always been part of the Franciscan tradition to go to those who are outside, on the edges.”
After working to help people with AIDS on Long Island and chairing a national AIDS conference, Father McCarron become parish outreach developer for HIV and AIDS at Catholic Charities Health Services. In this role, he was in the difficult position of being on the front line for controversial issues where the official teaching of the Church and the pastoral response were not always the same. “When there was a question from Newsday, it would often get referred to me,” he said.
He took a leave of absence, got a law degree, and Catholic Charities invited him to come back as the administrator of the AIDS programs, but not in a religious capacity.
During this period, his connection to the Catholic Church was changing.
During the years he worked at Catholic Charities, Father Charles began to attend an Episcopal Church in Forest Hills, Queens. “The Episcopal Church is very open and welcoming,” he said. “It’s a liturgical church, an ancient church.”
He approached Bishop Walker of the Long Island Episcopal Diocese and asked if he would consider receiving him as an Episcopal priest. When an Anglican becomes a Catholic, it’s called “Swimming the Tiber,” a reference to the Roman river. Father McCarron decided to “Swim the Thames.”
With Bishop Walker’s help, Father Charles spent two years studying to get an Anglican degree at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, spending two months in the Church of Uganda working in their AIDS program. He became vicar at the Church of the Resurrection in Queens, a landmark church in terrible physical and financial condition that had not had a permanent priest for 15 years. “It’s a beautiful church, but it was falling apart,” Father Charles said. “I got government grants and helped rebuild the place and put it on stable footing.”
While still the vicar at the Church of the Resurrection, he was asked to take over administration of Family Consultation Services, a troubled agency with financial and personnel issues. Later he started Great Neck Episcopal Ministries, and then went to be vicar of St. Lawrence of Canterbury in Dix Hills. “But I always wanted to be a parish priest again,” he said. “They asked me to consider coming here.”
With the exception of a ferry-to-ferry tour eight years ago, Father Charles had little experience with Shelter Island until he was asked about the St. Mary’s post. “I went on retreat and brought the Chamber of Commerce Shelter Island map, thumbtacked it to the wall, and prayed about it,” he said. “By the end of the retreat, I had decided this would be my new adventure.”
“I’ve had a very hectic life,” Father Charles added. “With my monastic training, it doesn’t worry me, the quiet of the winter. I’m single, I’m alone, and so I had no problem with that. It’s a different kind of ministry. It certainly is rural, but it’s a special kind of rural.”
Less than a week after Father Charles arrived, he met with Father Peter de Sanctis of Our Lady of the Isle and Pastor Stephen Fearing of Shelter Island Presbyterian Church over drinks. “We’re not competing.
There is the sense that we all bring something different,” Father Charles said, “keeping our diversity and the unique gifts of our traditions. Respecting each other.”
His goal is to help define the mission of St. Mary’s, “to help figure out what we should all be doing together, to surface our unique approach as Anglicans.”
“I have to be willing to change myself to be part of the community,” Father Charles said. “I look forward to living into my new life here.”