40th annual Lawn Party raises record support for Pope St. John XXIII Seminary

WESTON -- "It's nothing short of a miracle that we're able to have this wonderful event tonight," Father Corey Bassett-Tirrell, an alumnus of Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, said at the start of the speaking program at the seminary's 40th annual Lawn Party on Sept. 29.

His words rang true after a year of events held in virtual formats during the coronavirus pandemic, including a virtual program in lieu of the Lawn Party in 2020. Gathering once again under a tent on the seminary grounds, over 275 people attended this year, raising over $385,000, a record amount for this event.

Founded in 1964, Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary provides formation for men who feel a call to the priesthood later in life. This year was the 40th anniversary of the Lawn Party fundraiser, which brings together students, alumni, faculty, and friends and benefactors of the seminary.

The dinner chair this year was Christine Roessel, who provided the funds for the seminary's new community room, dedicated to her late husband, Raymond Kelleher.

During her remarks, she asked the first, second, third, and fourth-year students to make themselves known in the audience. She said the purpose of the Lawn Party is not only to raise money but also "to welcome the first years to their unique home for the next four years."

"One of the joys of the seminary are the stories of how these committed men wound their ways over diverse, inspiring, and difficult paths to get here. Over the years, I have loved listening to their stories, often with a sense of wonder," Roessel said.

With tongue-in-cheek humor, she recounted her own path to befriending the seminary community. She described herself as having grown up in "a man's world," enjoying wonderful relationships with her father and four brothers. She joked that she could only get one of her brothers paroled in time to attend the dinner with her.

When her husband of 47 years died, Roessel experienced a "downward spiral" of loneliness and anger at God. Within months of that loss, a friend of hers was diagnosed with leukemia. When she went to visit him in the hospital, she met his cousin, Father William Palardy, then rector of the seminary. She told him about the pain she was experiencing, and he invited her to visit for Mass and a meal.

"I thought to myself, here was a place where I could possibly find help and relief from my pain, and maybe see light at the end of the tunnel. Plus, I needed all the prayers I could get, and these men know how to pray," Roessel said.

Father Palardy was later assigned to St. Agatha Parish in Milton, Roessel's home parish and where she married her late husband. Her life changed again in 2015 when she met Bob Gonzalez, who had lost his wife of 50 years. They married two years later, with Father Palardy officiating the ceremony.

Finding a new vocation later in life is now something Roessel has in common with the seminarians at Pope St. John XXIII. Roessel said she and her husband are often asked why they married so late in life, at ages 76 and 81. Along with several facetious motives, she offered one serious reason: "We're Catholic."

After Roessel's keynote, the Lawn Party continued its tradition of having a seminarian share his story. This year the speaker was Michael Young, a fourth-theology seminarian from the Diocese of Venice, Florida.

Born in North Carolina, Young grew up in a devout Catholic family. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and during his service, he began to feel the call to the priesthood. He was inspired by the example of a military chaplain, Father Richard Powers, who advised him to complete his education and gain some life experience, and then see if he still felt the call.

After completing his military obligation, Young entered the police academy.

He reflected on the similarities between being a police officer and being a priest, both of which require being "a man for others."

"I had to always strive to be at my best when situations and people were at their worst," Young recalled.

Members of both professions, he noted, have experienced "severe criticism and scrutiny" from the media and the people they are supposed to serve. However, "from those who personally benefit from this service, there's a deep sense of appreciation and admiration," he said.

Young felt his call to the priesthood even more strongly during this time. He began his formation at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri but then discerned that his call was to be a diocesan priest.

"Now, God continues to bless me here as I've prepared for the priesthood in the company of men like myself who are second-career vocations. We are brothers. We share in a common faith, striving to respond to a divine invitation to follow Christ and to be men for others," he said.

He expressed gratitude to the seminary's benefactors.

"Without your financial support, there would not be a John XXIII. We could not have our vocations fulfilled. Know that through your support, each of you plays a genuine role in our formation," Young said.

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley echoed that sentiment in his closing remarks. He pointed out that if a younger man is turned away by a seminary, he can simply apply to another one, but second-career candidates may not have another chance outside of Pope St. John XXIII.

"If this seminary did not exist, there would be many men who would never have been ordained," Cardinal O'Malley said.

He said that, having been a seminary visitator and a bishop of four different dioceses, he has seen many seminaries in his life, but none like Pope St. John XXIII. And in each of his dioceses, he has had priests that were graduates of the seminary.

"Pope John has made that very unique and valuable contribution to the life, not just of the Church in Boston, but all over the country and all over the world," Cardinal O'Malley said.