From Writing Jokes to Sacred Songs

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.

Joan Rivers 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 Quinlivan.

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 fellow priests.

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 to you.’”

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 family.

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 City.

“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 to be.’”

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.

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.


Place of Light

English St. Odilia was martyred in Germany in the fourth century. But she is remembered on her feast day, July 18, and at the Shrine of St. Odilia in Minnesota.