Priest knows firsthand the importance of Retired Priests Collection
Oct 30, 2019
On the weekend of Nov. 2 and 3, Catholics at parishes across the Archdiocese of Washington will be encouraged to contribute generously to the Retired Priests Collection. In 2018 – a challenging year for the Catholic Church and the priesthood -- local Catholics donated a record $628,000 to that collection.
Msgr. Donald Essex knows the importance of that collection, which supports the costs of care and housing for the archdiocese’s nearly 80 retired priests, because he serves on the Priest Retirement Trust Board, which oversees the assets of the priests’ retirement fund.
And like those priests, he himself is retired, after serving nearly five decades as a parish priest and an archdiocesan administrator. A little more than two years ago, Msgr. Essex – who is now 72 -- retired as pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. He had led that parish since 2012, and he now continues to celebrate Masses there and at St. Peter Church in Olney, and in other parishes.
“Most of us (priests) as long as we’re able to do it, we help,” he said.
A native Washingtonian, he was baptized at St. Anthony Parish and then attended St. Gabriel’s Parish and School.
“Next to my parents, probably the greatest influence on my life were the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary,” he said, noting he can still name the seven sisters who taught him at St. Gabriel’s School, and he continues to stay in touch with one of the sisters who is still living.
The priest has a younger brother, Tom, and a younger sister, Linda. Their father Arthur Essex worked in the Navy Yard and then as a contract specialist for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and he was a member of the parish’s Holy Name Society, and their mother Helen served in the Sodality.
“They were faithful churchgoers,” Msgr. Essex said of his parents.
The Holy Name sisters encouraged him in his aspirations for a priestly vocation, he said.
The future priest graduated from Cathedral Latin High School in 1965, and after attending St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, he was one of 12 new priests ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1973.
He first served as a parish priest at St. Andrew Apostle in Silver Spring, where he helped with retreats for youth and was involved in the Cursillo and Marriage Encounter movements, and then he was assigned to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, where weekend Masses were celebrated in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Haitian Creole.
“When I walked into Sacred Heart, I experienced the universality of the Church,” he said.
Msgr. Essex’s administrative assistance in those parishes helped lead to him being appointed as the assistant director of finance for the archdiocese in 1981. In 1982, he earned a master’s degree in administration from the University of Notre Dame, and from 1983-88 he served as the archdiocese’s director of finance and management.
From 1987-95, Msgr. Essex served as the pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Washington, D.C., which was founded in 1794 and is the oldest Catholic parish in the federal city. He led the parish during its bicentennial celebrations in 1994, and during his time there, the historic church was renovated and added adult education classes.
“We had three Masses every day, Confessions every day. It was a highly sacramental ministry. We were serving people from throughout the archdiocese who were (working or visiting) downtown,” he said.
Then Msgr. Essex served as pastor of St. Jane de Chantal Parish in Bethesda from 1995-2012, overseeing the expansion of the church there, doubling the building’s size. The veteran priest said he enjoyed celebrating daily Masses for the schoolchildren there and witnessing how parishioners faithfully volunteered to help people in need.
Then he was assigned to serve as pastor at Our Lady of Grace Parish in Leisure World.
“The parishioners there are so dedicated to the church,” he said, noting how 100 people attend daily Mass there, and the senior citizens who are the parishioners there “step up to do all the ministries,” including volunteering as altar servers, lectors, Eucharistic ministers and ushers.
And when he retired, Msgr. Essex continued living at Leisure World. “This is my home,” he said.
In recent years, with a healthier diet and regular exercise, he lost 120 pounds and has kept the weight off. Now in his retirement, he said he has more time to pray, and he enjoys praying the breviary from his cellphone.
“I say, priests don’t retire. What we retire from is administration. I’m happy not to be responsible for finances, personnel and buildings,” he said, adding that now his priestly life revolves around the sacraments, celebrating Masses, hearing Confessions, and sometimes presiding at Baptisms, weddings and funerals.
“I’m happy to be what I wanted to be in the first place, a parish priest,” Msgr. Essex said.