Fr. Peter Teresa McConnell, FHS, remembers the summer about a dozen years ago at a Catholic youth camp in his home state of Pennsylvania when God gave him a vision that would eventually lead him to the priesthood.
“I was living the typical college life. I had gradually lost touch with the Church and was only working at the camp because my dad had a role there.”
Fr. Peter Teresa was a counselor at the camp, operated by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
“Every night, we would have guided meditation. One night, during meditation in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I saw myself as a vested priest, elevating the host. I thought, ‘God, that was not on my radar at all.’ But the image the Lord showed me was too real. I knew in that moment God was real and that He loved me.”
Fr. Peter Teresa — named by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted for the apostle and first pope of the Catholic Church and the foundress of the Missionaries of Charity — was ordained June 1 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral along with Fr. Christopher Gossen. He was among several hundred men nationwide to enter the priesthood.
The camp experience was but one of many confirming God’s will for Fr. Peter Teresa.
As a boy, he loved sports, especially basketball. His father, who at one point worked as a Division I college coach, did a good job of melding faith with athletics.
“I grew up in gyms with a ball in my hand. I loved the game and being part of a team. I think that informed my desire for religious life,” he explained. “My parents tell a story — I don’t remember it — but we were driving back from Mass one Sunday, and I asked if you could play in the NBA and be a priest. I guess there were seeds I wasn’t aware of. The Lord was obviously doing something there — informing my heart.”
After his camp experience, as Fr. Peter Teresa began exploring different kinds of priests and orders, he was soon drawn to the Franciscans.
“I became captivated by the person of St. Francis: the humility, simplicity and the radical following of God — abandoning everything.”
He had already known Fr. Athanasius Fornwalt, FHS, well before the latter became a priest and fellow member of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit. The two had worked at the same summer camp that pivotal year. In late 2015 and early 2016, Fr. Peter Teresa visited then Br. Athanasius and five Franciscan priests who would move to Arizona from Pennsylvania in 2016 and establish the new community, still very much interested in the priesthood but seeking God’s direction.
Confirmation of God’s call came shortly after his first trip to Phoenix.
“I had been working with the Missionaries of Charity, reading St. Teresa’s writings and praying to her.”
When he visited, the friars took him to Mt. Claret Retreat Center, where he found a Bible signed by Mother Teresa in the lobby and a beautiful mural of her in the dining room.
“For me, it was this confirmation she was with me, praying for me and helping me with discernment. It gave me a lot of peace,” he explained. “From there, it was falling in love with Phoenix and the life the guys were trying to build, and I felt the Lord very much calling me to this. In the last three years, this has been reaffirmed by other different experiences.”
One of six brothers and sisters, Fr. Peter Teresa saw most of his siblings along with his parents attend the Ordination Mass. A big family developed an importance in relationships he said he also has experienced with the camaraderie and support of his fellow Friars.
Established as a “public association of the faithful,” — that is, a religious community under the auspices of the Diocese of Phoenix with Bishop Olmsted as their superior — the friars currently have three seminarians, and more novices are discerning a vocation with them. The friars live next to St. John the Baptist Parish in Laveen and minister to the missions on the Native American reservations.
“Fr. Peter Teresa is a wonderful man,” said Fr. Antony Tinker, FHS, the friars’ community servant, who’s known the new priest for about eight years while he was discerning the priesthood. “He’s dedicated — when he puts his heart and mind to something, he doesn’t hold anything back.”
Fr. Peter Teresa will serve as parochial vicar for the Native American Ministries, which includes 11 parishes and missions throughout the diocese. He will administer the sacraments, perform house blessings, serve as chaplain for St. Peter Indian Mission School, celebrate Masses, work with the reservations’ youth groups and carry out other assignments as needed.
“I am very happy and grateful to God for the ordination of Fr. Peter Teresa,” said Sr. Anthony Mary Diago, RSM, director of the diocesan Office of Consecrated Life. “I think his consecration is one that will bring much fruit and love to all those he serves on the Native American reservations and beyond. The diocese is very blessed by his vocation and priesthood.”
Fr. Benedict Mary Lieb, FHS, the newly appointed director of Holy Spirit Newman Center at Grand Canyon University, described Fr. Peter Teresa on his ordination day as “very prayerful and very sincere” and as a “man of integrity.”
“He has a listening heart. He cares very deeply for people’s well-being, especially those who seem to be forgotten,” Fr. Benedict Mary said.