Harry Connick Jr. mourns death of priest in online tribute

Entertainer Harry Connick Jr. speaks in Los Angeles in this 2019 file photo. (CNS photo/Danny Moloshok, Reuters)

By Catholic News Service

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (CNS) — Pianist, crooner and actor Harry Connick Jr. mourned the coronavirus-related death of the priest who gave him his first job in New York City and who married Connick and his wife, actress Jill Goodacre.

The priest, Msgr. Richard Guastella, died April 9 after battling COVID-19 symptoms for about a week.

Connick, who has debuted his own YouTube show during the pandemic, “Hunker Down With Harry,” used the opening sequence of the Easter episode of his show to pay tribute to the priest.

When he was 18, he was broke, walking up and down the streets of Manhattan looking for a piano-playing job, said Connick, a Catholic, who has since won Grammy and Emmy awards. “I needed to eat. I needed to buy some more ramen noodles.”

He recalled walking into Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on the Upper East Side, not far from the YMCA where he was staying. “This good-looking young priest” approached Connick and asked him what he wanted. Connick replied he was looking for a job — maybe playing at Mass. Then-Father Guastella said he could give Harry a job playing at a Mass.

“We became really close. We would go out for a hamburger, like every Sunday after church,” Connick said. “I felt I was with a rock star.”

Despite the passage of time, “we kept in touch, and as the years passed we asked him to marry us,” Connick said, flying him to his native New Orleans to officiate at the wedding Mass. “We asked him to baptize one of our daughters.”

Not long ago, Connick said, he got word of the illness of Msgr. Guastella, by this time the pastor of St. Clare Parish in the Great Kills section of Staten Island.

Connick called the hospital to where the priest had been taken. “I got to the ward where he was, and I got a woman on the phone,” but could get no closer to the priest than being able to convey a message through the woman.

“Please tell him, ‘I love you.’ And she said, ‘I’ll tell him.’ I got word the next day that Father Richard died. And I can’t — I can’t, I can’t — put it into words. I’m heartbroken, Jill’s heartbroken.”

Msgr. Guastella had been pastor of St. Clare since 2008.

“It really makes me think that despite this chaotic world we live in, love wins. It just wins. And I love you,” Connick told his online audience, “and I know — I know — that we will get through this. We’re going to be better because of this despite the loss, despite the uncertainty, despite the pain. We’ll come out of this … and we’ll have some wild stories to tell our kids.”

“Msgr. Guastella embodied what it means to be a parish priest,” Auxiliary Bishop Edmund J. Whalen of New York told silive, an online news service serving Staten Island.

“He served as a true shepherd of his people, walking with them so as to grow in God’s love as a parish family,” the bishop said. “He genuinely loved his parishioners as he shared their joys and sorrows and through it all radiated the joy of God’s life. He loved being a priest for God’s people and taught them to love the Eucharist, the institution of which we celebrate today. Now he is teaching us about what the Resurrection means for us.”

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan presided at the burial of Msgr. Guastella April 14 at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. A memorial Mass will be offered at a later date.

Before becoming pastor at St. Clare, he was pastor from 1987 to 2008 at Holy Rosary Parish, also on Staten Island. He was named a monsignor in 1995. When he was at Our Lady of Good Counsel, he was parochial vicar there from 1983 to 1987.

A native of New York City, he was ordained by Cardinal Terence Cooke at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1972. From 1980 to 1983, he served as vocation director for the archdiocese. Before that, he was parochial vicar at Holy Rosary Church in the New York borough of the Bronx, 1972-1980.

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