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In his job-hopping, soul-searching pre-seminary days, Father Bill Quinlivan was something of a funny man, penning a movie script, pitching a sitcom and schlepping jokes at $10 a pop to Joan Rivers (one of them delivered on “The Tonight Show”). Now he’s focusing on sacred music; his latest CD, which celebrates the priesthood, is apropos for the Year for Priests.
BY ANTHONY FLOTT
kept asking Bill Quinlivan when he was going to be ordained.
Yes, that Joan Rivers. The
raspy-voiced, sharp-tongued comedienne-actress turned fashion expert/jewelry
designer/cosmetics hawker. The same Joan Rivers who owed part of her success to
Okay, a very small part.
In his job-hopping, soul-searching
pre-seminary days, Quinlivan was something of a funny man, penning a movie
script, pitching a sitcom and schlepping jokes at $10 a pop to Rivers. (One of
them was delivered on “The Tonight Show.”)
“She purchased just about every
time,” Quinlivan recalls. “Until the last time, when I was in the seminary. She
didn’t buy one.”
As Quinlivan approached the end of
his studies at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y., he made it to a Rivers
concert at Shea’s Buffalo Theater. He talked his way backstage, and the two
jokesters finally met. Quinlivan mentioned his new vocation; Rivers said three
times, “Make sure you tell me when you graduate.”
When the big day came in 1995,
Rivers sent Quinlivan her own lines. “I’m probably the only seminarian in the
history of Christ the King Seminary that ever got a congratulatory telegram
from Joan Rivers,” he says.
‘Priest of Mine’
Father Quinlivan may have left show
business, but show business hasn’t left Father Quinlivan. Now pastor of Blessed
Sacrament Church in Tonawanda, N.Y., the 48-year-old priest is well known
throughout the Buffalo Diocese for his music ministry with parishioners and
Most recently, he recorded his third
CD, “Priest of Mine,” 10 original songs to encourage priests, promote vocations
and foster laity support.
Like a well-rehearsed Rivers zinger,
his timing couldn’t be better, given the Year for Priests declared by Pope
Benedict XVI that began in June. Support for priests is needed, says Father
Quinlivan — something he knows firsthand.
“My ordaining bishop, Bishop Edward
Head, said the priesthood is the greatest fraternity in the world,” he says.
“My first year, when I would get discouraged, I would say to my priest friends,
‘Where’s the greatest fraternity in the world?’ One day I challenged myself:
‘What are you doing to be brother? You’re waiting for someone to be a brother
He began writing to a different
priest during each of the 40 days of Lent to tell them he was thinking of and
praying for them. He also began providing music at priest retreats, working
with the Ireland-based Intercession for Priests in collaboration with
Vincentian Father Kevin Scallon and Poor Clares Sister Briege McKenna.
Now there’s his CD.
Not bad for someone who, though he
has a musical ear, was so long deaf to God’s calling.
Finding His Place
Father Quinlivan was Toronto-born
but mostly raised in Buffalo, N.Y., son of Jim, a U.S. civil servant, and Kass,
a homemaker. There were six children, and Kass tried forming her Irish clan
into American von Trapps with performances at grade school talent shows and for
When his siblings “fell away” from
music, Father Quinlivan stuck with it. He performed in Bishop Timon High School
musicals and a folk group. He later earned a degree in communications at
Buffalo State in 1982, then left to make his mark in Los Angeles or New York
“I went job hunting in both places,
but what I found was every time I was … driving by a Catholic church, I was
drawn in,” he says. “I kept telling the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament what I
wanted. He got the last laugh, because I didn’t get anything I was asking for.”
Not for lack of trying. He filed
records in a medical office, wrote early morning news for a radio station,
snapped portraits for a photography chain (“one of the longest years of my
life”), and helped the Internal Revenue Service for one tax season.
He also did some freelance reporting
and dabbled in jokes and scripts. One L.A. agent told him his work was boring
because his characters were too nice to each other.
“Every time I changed jobs I would
think, ‘This is the one,’” he says. “But within a couple of days of being
there, I would get this overwhelming sense: ‘This is not where you’re supposed
In 1988 his mother convinced him to
quit his photography gig. About that time, he began reading Sister Briege’s
book Miracles Do Happen.
“Something in there said, ‘Within
the mystery of the call to the priesthood God never forces his will, but the
man who’s called to the priesthood always has the freedom to say Yes and the
freedom to say No,’” he says. “I sat bolt upright in bed and said, ‘If I can
say No, then I can say Yes.’”
“All my life people had been telling
me, ‘You should be a priest.’ I started to resent it,” Father Quinlivan says.
“I don’t want them telling me what to do. I like to watch TV, so I’m going to
be a television writer. But that never quite worked out.”
So he said Yes. “What struck me very
profoundly was, unlike my first few days and weeks in every job that I had
tried, I felt, at last, ‘This is you, and this is where you’re supposed to
be,’” he says. “Although seminary years and formation and parish ministry can
have its difficult moments, I never doubted my vocation once. Never once. And
up until those times, I was doubting everything just because I was confused.”
Music Always There
Through it all and to the present,
music has been a constant. At seminary, he joined the choir and became a cantor
at Mass. At his first parish assignment, he taught school children songs for
Christmas performances. On occasion, he’ll use music in homilies, and he holds
monthly Praise Song nights with musicians of all ages. He co-hosts a
contemporary Christian music program, “Praying Twice,” on Buffalo’s Catholic
radio station, WLOF. He is friends with Irish singer Dana, performing most
recently on Eternal Word Television Network’s “Dana and Friends.”
Most importantly, perhaps, he began
performing 14 years ago with Voices of Mercy, the musical arm of St. Luke’s
Mission of Mercy on Buffalo’s East Side. The group recorded CDs, but eventually
Father Quinlivan branched out on his own.
While meditating on Pope John Paul
II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The
Gospel of Life) before the Blessed Sacrament one day, he was inspired to write
his first song. That led to more songs, then his first CD, “Paintbrush in the
Green.” Next came “Blanket of Stars,” a collection of Christmas songs.
Now there’s “Priest of Mine.” The
title track was penned to encourage his brother priests, written in the voice
of Jesus and addressing the lifespan of a priest.
“God gives us music,” says Father
Quinlivan. “Scripture tells us there’s music in the Kingdom. Music lifts the
heart and the mind sometimes to a different place. You can say something to
someone in a song and even lovingly challenge them that you couldn’t
necessarily say in spoken words without wondering, ‘Am I going to sound
judgmental?’ I love to sing about the vocation and the ministry and the
priesthood of Jesus Christ.”
And that’s no joke.
Flott writes from
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