The Reverend Edward Beck sat inside the rectory of St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Church last Friday morning riding tidal waves of emotions — sadness, disappointment, anger and confusion.
In four days, the Passionist priest would be forced to leave Montauk, the place he had called home for over a year, and without a clear explanation as to why.
Last summer, Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which oversees Long Island’s Catholic community, had placed him at the parish along with a fellow Passionist priest, the Reverend Robert Joerger, who served as pastor. But in July, the diocese abruptly ended Beck’s assignment, revoking his “residence and faculties” effective August 31.
Refusing to leave Joerger without Beck, the Passionists, who traditionally live in community, decided to withdraw from the Montauk parish altogether and both priests moved off the East End last Tuesday — further splintering an already fractured religious community that the two men helped stabilize, renew, and reinvigorate.
“It pains me because some of them have said they’re gonna stop going, they’re not gonna come to church, they’re gonna stop contributing. It’s affected their faith life,” Beck said. “And that is really sad to me, that something like this, that was so easily resolvable by just talking about it and trying to come to some compromise and understanding, that all of this hurt and pain could have been avoided — but that the bishop refused to take any step toward understanding, reconciling, or compromise.”
A Journey Into Priesthood
Growing up in Brooklyn, Beck was what he calls a “Sunday Catholic.”
He and his parents, who were not overly religious, would attend mass and, in grammar school, he served as an altar boy — but it was all perfunctory, he said, nothing more. That changed during a high school trip to St. Gabriel’s Retreat House on Shelter Island, he said, which was run by the Passionists.
“I think that was the first real connection with spirituality that went deeper than rogue religion,” he said. “These guys, these priests and brothers, seemed very different from the priests I had met previously. They had a way of relating to us as teenagers that was inspiring and enticing, and you wanted to be with them.
“And I think the seeds of religious vocation, for me, were planted as a result of going there.”
But the teenager wasn’t ready to let them grow, he said. First, he dabbled in the performing arts, studying theater at Brooklyn College during the day and working a full-time job on Wall Street at night. Looking in from the outside, it seemed like he had it all, he said. But the schedule was grueling and, on the inside, he felt unfulfilled.
“There was this dissatisfaction, this deep down restlessness that this wasn’t it,” he said, “that I couldn’t give my life to either one of these completely.”
And so, Beck reached back out for the place that made him feel most connected — St. Gabriel’s Retreat House — and asked if he could visit. A priest asked him to come out that weekend for what he assumed would be another group retreat. It was the winter of 1977.
“But there was no retreat on,” he said. “There was just me, and five of them, on an island.”
For the weekend, he lived as they lived. He ate with them, prayed with them, worked with them and, above all, watched them.
“That same sense, that they carried something around with them that I didn’t have, returned,” he said, “and it really was the turning point of saying, ‘Maybe, sometime in the future, I might want to do this with my life.’”
By the fall, Beck had moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, to begin his studies at Assumption College, where he shared a house with other young men who were considering a Passionist religious life, a sect that promotes the memory of the passion of Jesus Christ through words and action. They also live in community, where all is held in common, and often assist diocesan priests with masses and hearing confessions.
After graduating in 1980, he entered the Novitiate, or the Passionist monastery, and took his vows a year later, going on to earn his master’s degree in divinity before he was ordained in 1985.
“For me, it was a calling to do something that would be going to go deeper in people’s lives,” he said. “Since I was drawn to it and spirituality and the mystery of the otherness, that maybe if I could help people access it as I was learning to access it, that it could make a difference for them, too.”
After 15 years of practice, Beck took a writing sabbatical in 2000 and signed up for a memoir class at New York University. He thought the discipline of daily writing would help him excavate his experiences, feelings and memories of growing up — and one of his classmates agreed, urging him to send his pages to a literary agent friend of hers.
Within a week, the agent had signed him. And a week after that, he had a book deal — followed by two more.
“It just kind of fell into my lap,” he said, as did his role as a media contributor on issues of faith, religion, morality and ethics.
What started as a publicity spot for his third book, “Soul Provider,” on ABC’s “Good Morning America” launched him onto CBS News, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC Family Channel, and HLN — up until his current contract as a religion commentator with CNN that has allowed him to address millions.
But it’s working on the ground in religious communities that grants Beck a certain closeness that he never expected as a once newly ordained, 25-year-old priest. He enters people’s lives in unexpectedly deep ways, in relatively short periods of time, he said, like during the sacrament of reconciliation.
“It’s instant intimacy with people,” he said. “They walk in and suddenly you’re privy to their deepest hurt or pain or fear or mistakes, simply because of who you are, sitting across from them. It’s a tremendous privilege.”
Living a Passionist life for the last 36 years has undoubtedly changed Beck, he said. It has made him, he hopes, a more empathetic person — and has heightened his awareness of the innumerable challenges that people face.
“To have seen a lot of that up close and journeyed with people in that, I think it has opened my eyes to the great struggle that so many have, irregardless of geography or socio-political station or occupation. It transcends all of that. And I think it’s made me much more compassionate and far less judgmental as I’ve gone along — and far less sure of anything, as well.”
A Pilgrimage To Montauk
In the winter of 2020, Beck was living in Los Angeles on another writing sabbatical, this time working on his second play — which was set in the City of Angels — as well as a new media project for the Passionists when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, grounding both to a halt.
Simultaneously, that spring, the Rockville Centre Diocese asked Joerger to be the pastor of St. Therese of Lisieux Church, which Passionist Provincial Father James O’Shea approved with one stipulation. In order to maintain community, not to mention combat the isolation that often comes with living in Montauk, another Passionist would have to be stationed with him.
Once the diocese agreed, Beck’s phone rang.
“It was kind of out of the blue,” he said, “and so many things in my life that have been great opportunities, that have been wonderful surprises, have come that way.”
Without question, he packed up his belongings, said goodbye to his home of two years, and moved cross-country, arriving in Montauk on Labor Day weekend alongside Joerger for what he thought would be, at minimum, a six-year stay — as per the conditions of the pastor’s contract, which was renewable.
And so, while he was not named an associate pastor, he was granted residency and faculties to assist with priestly ministry as needed, which extended beyond the Montauk church to communities in Amagansett and Southampton — who all welcomed him with open arms.
Very quickly, the two men became known as “Father Bob” and “Father Ed.” In Montauk, mass attendance doubled as word spread about Joerger, who symbolized the end of instability in the church, which had grown accustomed to a “revolving door of priests,” according to Jerry McKeon, a trustee at St. Therese of Lisieux Church.
“People started to come just to hear him,” he said. “It was really a love affair between the parish and that priest.”
Then, the “nightmare” began, he said.
On July 28, Beck received a letter from Auxiliary Bishop Richard Henning, the new Vicar for Clergy, who thanked him for his work with the parishes and, simultaneously, noted that his assignment in Montauk would end August 31.
“I said, ‘What is this?’” Beck recalled.
Assuming this was a misunderstanding, the Passionist Provincial office reached out to the Rockville Centre Diocese requesting hospitality and faculties be extended to Father Beck beyond August 31 — which was denied by Barres, without reason. When O’Shea reached out again, asking to discuss this issue, he was met with the same letter that, by way of explanation, stated, “It is simply the case.”
According to Sean Dolan, director of communications for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, a letter on September 22, 2020, noted that Beck’s term ended the following August.
“The decision of the Passionist Community to remove Father Robert Joerger C.P. prematurely from his office as Pastor of Saint Therese Church in Montauk is unfortunate, and we understand that it is causing disappointment among many parishioners who deeply appreciate his service to their parish, as does Bishop Barres and the Diocese of Rockville Centre,” he said in a statement.
“However, the Church of Saint Therese has historically been staffed by diocesan priests and now the parish is returning to the care of diocesan priests. We are grateful that Father Joerger sought parish ministry and was able to offer coverage of the parish for a time.”
Barres declined to comment directly on Beck’s removal, which McKeon said does not fall in line with the common practice of assigning a priest to a parish as a resident for, typically, a one-year term that is “routinely renewed from year to year,” he explained, until the pastor’s contract is up.
To fight the bishop’s decision, over 650 parishioners signed a petition, “Save Montauk’s St. Therese Parish.” They called, sent emails and wrote letters. Not a single one was answered, McKeon said.
“Barres put up a wall of silence,” he said, adding, “They tell us that we’re the church, the people are the church — I guess that only counts when you’re raising money because we were completely dismissed and ignored with disdain.”
On September 17, O’Shea informed the diocese via letter — and the St. Therese leadership in person three days later — of his decision to withdraw from the parish, effective October 19, as a direct response to Barres no longer allowing a Passionist community to live at the rectory. He described the move as a “painful transition for Father Joerger, who has been a highly effective and faithful pastor,” attributing a newfound spirit of hope, collaboration and hospitality to him.
The next day, the parish leadership wrote its own letter to Barres, expressing their anger and disagreement with his decision. The bishop did not respond to either.
“O’Shea said, ‘Well, you basically destroyed the community, which is a necessary part of Passionist life, so I have no choice but to withdraw Father Joerger from Montauk,’” McKeon said. “That was devastating to the parish. I’ve never seen a reaction to a priest leaving like this time around.”
An Outpouring of Faith — And Support
On October 11, hundreds of parishioners from St. Therese of Lisieux Church and beyond gathered at the Montauk parish, toting colorful signs in protest of Beck and Joerger leaving.
“Please keep them in Montauk,” one read. “Enough! 30 plus Priests in 2 years,” another said. The messages continued: “Stability please!” “We love Father Edward and Father Bob, let them stay!” and “Why? Why? Why?”
Over the course of nearly an hour, congregants delivered heartfelt speeches in both English and Spanish, speaking on how their religious communities have reawakened and reconnected since the two priests arrived — one comparing them to “water in the desert.”
At the end of the rally, they encircled the church and linked arms to form a human chain, as they stood in silent prayer for one minute.
“People said to me there, ‘We have never seen in Montauk a show of support like this and an outpouring like this for anything, never mind the church,’” Beck said. “That was pretty stunning to me — that in one year, people were able to feel that connected and that angry and upset about what was happening that they gave that kind of support.”
A week after the protest, lifelong Catholic Marion Boden said the gifts and talents of the Passionist priests had inspired her — and their imminent departure had broken her heart.
“Remaining Catholic has not always been easy for me, but periodically, I have been blessed with the presence of special priests in my life,” she said. “I can assure you that Fr. Beck and Fr. Joerger were two of the best, and I believe the diocese has made a tragic error here. I also believe the parishioners of St. Therese, the two priests and the provincial of their order deserved more respect from Bishop Barres.”
In the wake of the bishop’s decision, the community — along with Beck — is left to grasp at straws at the reasoning behind it. If the priest were to guess, he’d point to an opinion piece he wrote for CNN that criticized the Catholic bishops who called for President Joe Biden to be denied reception of communion because of his pro-choice stand, an issue they’re scheduled to discuss among themselves next month.
“If it’s not that, it could just be that they don’t want someone with as visible of a media presence as I have doing it from their diocese,” Beck said. “Maybe they don’t agree with a lot of my perspective on things. Bishop Barres is known to be a very conservative bishop; he has ties to Opus Dei, which is a very conservative Catholic organization. And perhaps he just doesn’t want someone who’s a CNN religion commentator living in his diocese. I have no idea.”
Without a word from Barres, on Sunday morning, Joerger delivered his final mass to the St. Therese of Lisieux Church — and, a day earlier, published his final bulletin to the parish. In closing, he wrote:
“I was told when I got here — and have found it to be true — that Montauk is a unique place that takes care of its own. I have found that to be so and will always be grateful. Please pray for me wherever the journey takes me now. And I will pray for you.”
The Diocese of Rockville Centre has now appointed the Reverend Liam McDonald to the Montauk parish, after serving as the chaplain to Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville. He was ordained in 2017 and “is noted for his humility and pastoral zeal,” according to the statement from Dolan.
McKeon anticipates that McDonald will be met with sadness from the Montauk parishioners — though there is still underlying anger toward the diocese, he said, which will take a “long, long time to heal.”
“I feel sorry for the new priest coming in,” he said. “He’s a young guy and he’s coming into what could be a hornet’s nest for him. But the people, I think, are resolved to work with him. But it’s gonna be hard. It’s really gonna be hard. He’s got to follow a class act who people loved. And that class act was yanked away from us, without a satisfactory explanation.”
On Tuesday morning, when McKeon swung by the church, his heart sank as he watched a moving truck pull into the driveway.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re about ready to get on the road right now,” McKeon said. “I’ve had a hole in my stomach for about five days and when I see them, I get very emotional. They do, as well. And we’re resolved to keep in touch. Lots of people are gonna invite those two priests out to Montauk to stay in their homes.”
In the interim, Beck and Joerger have returned to their Passionist community in Pelham, New York, where they will carry on until their next ministerial assignments.
“Our lives will continue,” Beck said. “I think we go with our heads held high. Having loved this and benefited from being here, it’s just sad in the way it ended.”
As published in the East Hampton Press