The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, as well as St. Joseph’s in Scotia and Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake, spent the last year coping with the sudden death of their pastor, Father Jerry Gingras. A rosary garden, named in memory of Jerry's dog, Grace, was installed in his honor at Immaculate Conception. (Mike Matvey and Thomas Killips photos)
The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville, as well as St. Joseph’s in Scotia and Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake, spent the last year coping with the sudden death of their pastor, Father Jerry Gingras. A rosary garden, named in memory of Jerry's dog, Grace, was installed in his honor at Immaculate Conception. (Mike Matvey and Thomas Killips photos)
This Friday dawned just like many others in upstate New York. It was a bright, fall morning with sun just touching the leaves that were starting to turn oranges and reds. Birds could be heard chirping outside of the Church of the Immaculate Conception on busy Route 50 as cars whizzed by, their drivers on the way to work or maybe some grocery shopping at PriceChopper just down the road.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn was in the main office of Immaculate Conception in Glenville when she got the phone call, one that she recalled as one of the worst moments of her life. It was Oct. 8, 2021 and the person on the other end of the line said that Father Jerry Gingras, beloved pastor of Immaculate Conception, as well as St. Joseph’s in Scotia and Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake, had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was just 71 years old.

“We had gotten a phone call that something had happened to him and that it was clear that he had another episode. … Then a short while later I got another phone call that he was gone and I issued this primal scream,” said Szpylczyn, pastoral associate for administration. “It was one of the most horrible moments of my life because I worked for him for 13 years, every day. I couldn’t process it. Utter shock.” 

Father Gingras had his first “episode” in September when he suffered a mild heart attack, but no one could have imagined that he would be gone just a little over a week later. 

“He was getting treatment for that but it wasn’t like his death was imminent. He was going to need to do some follow-up stuff. He was someone who was in good physical health, who took care of himself, but his family did have a history of cardiac stuff,” she said. “Did it seem like he was stressed? That this was going to happen to him? No. That was a shock. The first heart attack was a shock. … There are a lot of stresses with running multiple parishes. It is really, really hard, and the rule book for it, the guidebook, is being written in real time.”

One year later, Immaculate Conception marked the first anniversary of Father Gingras’ death on Oct. 8 with a blessing of the Rosary Garden — named “The garden of Grace” for Father Gingras’ beloved dog — and a Mass in which his Memorial Cross was taken off the wall and given to his family. This is the story of who Father Gingras was, how the parishes that he served dealt with the grief over time as a community and how the new pastor, Father Thomas Konopka, has aided the healing process. 

Father Gingras was born in Chicopee, Mass., and joined the Conventual Franciscans after his ordination at the Cathedral in 1978. He became a priest in the Diocese of Albany in 1994 and began serving Immaculate Conception under then-pastor Father J. Thomas Connery, a towering figure at the parish. After three years as an associate pastor at Immaculate Conception, Father Gingras was named pastor of the Church of St. Mary at Clinton Heights. In 2007, Father Gingras returned to IC as pastor. Szpylczyn said he embodied all the traits necessary to unite a parish.

“He was a wonderful priest in the sense that he was also very human. He was not a clerical person in the negative sense of the word. He had a delightful sort of presence. He joked around a lot,” she said. “He would sort of pop up out of nowhere. One of the standing jokes in our office is, maybe somebody came in to get a Mass card and they would be sitting there talking to me. And he would always come popping out of his office and he would say, ‘I am paying good money for this.’ To which I would reply, ‘No, actually you’re not because nobody is working for the Church to make a lot of money.’ ”

This funny and sweet side was coupled with a deeply pastoral side that shined when he interacted with parishioners — or people who had been away from the church for years — dealing with loss.

“Even if he never knew the person and we got a call — ‘My father hasn’t gone to church in 20 years and he is in hospice and he wanted to make it alright with God’ — Father Jerry would go there and the whole family would be transformed by what happened,” Szpylczyn said. “He went and he was pastoral and cared for the living and the dead and understood what a good death really was and helped shepherd people to that. The most beautiful funeral you would see would be a Father Jerry funeral. He was a good priest and a great homilist. (He had the) ability to make a funeral that would often bring families back to church.” 

He also guided the parish through the tragic death of Father Connery, who died on Oct. 31, 2019, the victim of flash flooding in Herkimer County.

“He also had all of us oriented to the care of those who were mourning. At this worst moment in people’s lives they would be cared for and not judged,” Szpylczyn said.

But how would Immaculate Conception, which had lost its long-time pastor emeritus and current pastor within two years of each other, care for itself?

In the immediate aftermath of Father Gingras’ death, the parish sprung into action. The community that he had built was ready to comfort each other, through their tears and prayers, the best way they could.

“Let me say this because this is important and it really speaks to what Father Jerry had created. Our staff and some key volunteers that day in our grief and our sorrow and through our tears, we just came together like this most well-oiled machine,” Szpylczyn said. “This was the Holy Spirit in action. We all knew what we had to do. I will always look at that as an incredible moment. Not just the horror and sadness but the incredible experience of … it was his legacy that — poof — we just all came together.” 

The community was aided and comforted by Father Leo Markert, a retired priest in the Diocese who played a pivotal role in celebrating Masses.
“Father Markert was really important to us and I can’t state that clearly enough,” Szpylczyn said. “As a priest, he was like our father at that point. He was really there for everyone in a very powerful way and remains so. He is still a vital part of our community and helps Father Konopka now.”

It is an awesome vitality for Father Markert, who at 86 just celebrated his 60th anniversary to the priesthood, is sacramental minister to the three parishes as well as chaplain at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons School. Father Markert said he was equally shocked at Father Gingras’ sudden passing.

“It was a real shock to me when he had his first heart attack. Then when he had his second one and died, I was very concerned about the parishioners,” Father Markert said. “They were certainly mesmerized by his death and his loss and felt loss in many ways because he was a good pastor to them. They appreciated him and loved him greatly. I did the best I could to reach out, not trying to replace him at all but just holding the fort until the new pastor would come. And that didn’t happen for about six months.”

As the funeral came and went on Oct. 14, the parish, still in shock and grieving, continued to carry on led by the Holy Spirit and the memory of Father Gingras. 

“Immaculate Conception is a very special place, it is warm and welcoming,” Szpylczyn said. “It is a vibrant community and an active community and so it’s like we really all took care of one another and the presence of God was very rich because we just kept going. I think we just carried one another. That staff and volunteers and key trustees and the community we just all kept going. We couldn’t stop. We had to keep going. We never closed and went away. The office was still open every day. We had a lot of work to do and we were all in shock and grief for a long time and yet we kept going.”

There was never a day where there was not a priest for Masses at the three linked parishes. Szpylczyn kept writing the bulletin letter — unsigned — that Father Gingras had written because “the bulletin editor said you need to keep doing this because people need to have something from the Gospel. We just tried to keep feeding people and that is what fed us.” 

As the brightly colored leaves that once adorned the trees fell to the ground and the season changed into winter, the Season of Advent was soon upon the parishes. Although there weren’t specific grieving groups, Rachel Winters, the pastoral care director at IC who is trained as a bereavement counselor, came up with a healing idea for Christmas. She had an artificial tree in the gathering space and parishioners could write their memories of Father Gingras on a piece of paper and they were made into ornaments for the tree. There was also a blank basket in the gathering space where memories of Father Gingras could be written and shared with others. All the memories were sent to Father Gingras’ sister and family.

“That was a powerful and concrete action of the community having a grieving space in the absence of any grieving counseling,” Szpylczyn said. 

The grieving continued into the new year and the Lenten Season at the parishes, but one constant question remained.

“Are we going to have a priest? Is somebody going to close? In terms of the day-to-day operations, Father Jerry had created a different staffing model that had just started to come into being,” Szpylczyn said. “There was that leadership in place, but we all worked together, every single person on the staff did what they had to do.”

On March 11, the Diocese announced that Father Konopka would be the new pastor at Immaculate Conception, St. Joseph’s and Our Lady of Grace. With his background — he is a licensed clinical social worker and director and therapist at the diocesan Consultation Center in Albany — he would seem to be the perfect fit. 

At first, Father Konopka was reluctant to leave his assignment as pastor of St. Mary’s Church at Clinton Heights and as sacramental minister for the parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph in Rensselaer.

“They had asked me at one point and I wasn’t really ready to move from where I was and they had asked me again, and then a third time,” he said. “I said I need to meet with (Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger). They had asked and I was doing a lot of praying about it. The Bishop said due to your pastoral and professional skills you would be the best fit. … It was in the middle of Lent and I had been working with some folks in RCIA and I wanted to make sure that I could baptize them.”

With his commitments satisfied, Father Konopka officially took the reins of the three parishes on May 1. And the first thing he did — and continues to do to this day – “is a lot of listening and not a lot of changing.”

“Those are tough shoes to fill for lots of reasons,” Szpylczyn said of Father Gingras. “I think that (Father Konopka) was the right person for it. He is a very different person than Father Jerry, a different priest. He is great. I can’t imagine it being anyone else. I am so thankful for him every day.

“Father Jerry was deeply personal and if he met you, he remembered something about you, which was a great gift because people would come to church once and he would be like, ‘Oh, you’re Mike.’ And you could show up a month later and say, “You’re Mike, you work at GE.” And people would say, you remembered me. That meant a lot.

“Father Tom is more reserved, which is not a word that you would ever use with Father Jerry. One of the things that I love about Father Tom … I appreciate candor. And Father Tom will say, ‘I had to be asked to come here three times’ and somebody would say to me, ‘Why would he say that to us?’ Because it’s true. Not that he is meaning it as an insult but we don’t always know how or when to say yes to God. Or then he will say I’m overwhelmed and people will say. ‘Why is he saying that?’ And I say because he is and it is a reminder of his humility and humanity that we are all overwhelmed and we are going to do this together. And we are one in Christ as messy as that is most of the time.”

As the time went on, the parishioners started to approach Father Konopka and tell him their memories and experiences with Father Gingras.

“Now that I have been there for five months, what I noticed is as people have gotten to know me, the conversations are starting and that is fine. People have got to trust the leadership,” Father Konopka said. “They felt a little lost.

“Jerry’s death was so sudden. Sudden death is always harder. You can expect a death to happen and it is still a shock, but when somebody dies unexpectedly like Father Connery or Father Jerry that just compounds it. It is survival mode. What I am beginning to see, and what I hope, is moving a little bit away from survival mode. There is leadership there. I am trying to do as much listening as I can.”

As the months went on and the anniversary of Father Gingras’ death approached, Father Konopka decided to write a five-part insert for the bulletin that dealt with loss based on Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Father Konopka added that the three parishes experienced the grief differently. At IC, Father Gingras was there the longest and the parishioners grieved about losing a pastor and a friend. At St. Joseph’s and Our Lady of Grace, they dealt with the sudden loss of Father Gingras, but some had thoughts of ‘Are we going to close or are we going to stay open.’

“It goes back to how close they were or perceived they were. For a lot of us who are priests and our position of being there for people, a bond gets formed, like between a therapist and a client,” Father Konopka said. “They might not know a lot about me but I know a lot about them and there is nothing wrong with that, and that will intensify the grief and the loss. And adding the other factor of whatever other griefs and loss that person is dealing with, it becomes that moment of extreme pain. I know there is anger about the fact that it happened. Was it stress of this new assignment where he was pastoring three churches? That is a question that we need to look at. We need to allow that community to teach us. Why did this happen? What caused it?

“I noticed it from them about their concern for me and I hear it in all three churches. ‘We don’t want to lose you. We don’t want it to happen to you.’ And sometimes I say, ‘Folks, I am OK.’ But they are concerned, that is a natural reaction. They are coming out of a real reality base.”

Father Konopka said there are rituals in the Catholic Church that give grief a context, but “we don’t use them and then people create their own.” He added in the Hindu tradition, close family members shave their heads when someone dies; in the Jewish tradition, those mourning the death of a parent recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for 11 months.

In the Catholic tradition, our rituals include: Visiting the grave; saying prayers during every step of the Order of Christian Funerals; knowing the Prayers of the Dead; having a Mass said once a month for a year after the person is dead; having a memorial Mass offered and having the family coming (which IC did); and the month of November being dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. 

“Unfortunately today, you are supposed to be over this in three days, because that is how much time work gives you,” Father Konopka said.  

Another ritual that Immaculate Conception does, like many other parishes, is to place a Memorial Cross on the wall for the deceased and a year later, give that cross back to the family. Father Gingras’ family, led by his sister, Rochelle, received the cross at the memorial Mass last month. Perhaps the final stage in the year-long process is keeping Father Gingras’ memory alive, through what Father Konopka called “narrative therapy.”

“How do we write Father Jerry into this new chapter of the parish’s life? How does he become a part of it? … The best thing is being present and not rushing the process. 

“I would not use the word healing because we are never done with grief. The best analogy that I have ever heard in any workshop that I have gone to is that when grief first happens it is like a hurricane coming up the coast. It ravages things. But as time goes on and people embrace grief, those waves get gentler and gentler but they never go away.”

Nearly one month after Father Gingras’ memorial Mass, there was a real chill in the air and frost on the ground on this Wednesday morning in November. The Immaculate Conception parking lot was filled with cars as the 9 a.m. Mass had just let out. Members of the parish staff were working in the offices next to the church and Szpylczyn was busy processing a bunch of new baptism certificates.

The sun, ever lower in the sky, was just making its way over the top of the church, illuminating the cross in white, circular light. The Rosary Garden to the left of the church still was covered in shadow. It remains a place for contemplation and prayer, for remembering the past and those that have died before us, while offering hope for the days to come.