9/11 Attacks Set FDNY Captain on Long Path to Priesthood

Retired FDNY Capt. Thomas Colucci was one of 15 men ordained to the Catholic priesthood at St. Patrick’s Cathedral last month.

Newly ordained Father Thomas Colucci
Newly ordained Father Thomas Colucci (photo: Courtesy of Father Thomas Colucci)

NEW YORK — A priest, a monk and a fireman walk into a café — and yet he was all alone.

What sounds like a brainteaser beautifully reflects the incredible road of Father Thomas Colucci.

Father Colucci, 60, achieved the rank of captain in the New York City Fire Department after spending 20 years with the force.

After a life-altering accident and seemingly miraculous cure, the man who retired from a life of rescuing people from physical death has now dedicated his remaining years to saving people from eternal death as a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

On May 28, retired FDNY Capt. Colucci was one of 15 men ordained to the Catholic priesthood at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Father Colucci was assigned to St. Mary, Mother of the Church in Fishkill, where he will begin on June 18. It is the largest parish in Dutchess County, N.Y.

According to St. Mary’s pastor, Father Joseph Blenkle, the parish has a total of 3,500 congregants, in addition to 300 children in the associated parochial school. Another 800 children are involved in the parish’s CCD program.

Father Colucci spoke to Register correspondent Angelo Stagnaro over coffee in an Italian café in Manhattan, where the former fireman and his fireman buddies liked to stop for cappuccinos and gelato. He was fresh from the first private Mass he celebrated at St. Francis of Assisi Church in West Nyack.

“I want to help people,” explained Father Colucci in his thick New York accent. “My life is a gift from God, something for which I’m happy. Now I want to give back. I want to be involved in people’s lives — and being a Catholic priest is the best way to accomplish all that.”

But what life-changing event led to his path to the priesthood?

In 1995, he survived a gas explosion while on duty at West 38th St. and 8th Ave. The accident left him with a cerebral blood clot, which imperiled his life. Two delicate brain surgeries later brought him out of danger, and he felt his new lease on life had a Divine cause.

In gratitude to God, Father Colucci spent eight years at St. Savior Benedictine monastery in Elmira, taking the religious name Brother Thomas Bernadette in 2004.

“I initially went to the monastery simply to discern and recover, because I had to retire because of my accident and subsequent brain surgeries,” Father Colucci said. “I had considered becoming an archdiocesan priest then, also, but the idea of studying for six years made my head hurt more than the brain surgery, so I decided to be a monk instead of a priest.”

But since God is the Author of all of our autobiographies, this wasn’t going to be the last chapter for the ex-firefighter.

“I was solemnly professed as a Benedictine,” said Father Colucci. “After a few years, my abbot asked me to consider ordination as a Benedictine priest, so that I could serve my monastic community. I enrolled in St. Vincent Seminary, but though I was drawn to the priesthood, I no longer felt I had a vocation as a monk. Instead, I really felt drawn to leading people to Christ.”

 “I see God’s plans in my life,” Father Colucci said. “Three years as a gym teacher, eight years as a Benedictine monk and then six years in Dunwoodie, the New York Archdiocese’s seminary — all of that got me to this point.”

Though Father Colucci had first considered becoming a priest at the age of 20, he forestalled that decision to go into firefighting.

In addition to his injuries, it was his experience at Ground Zero on 9/11, after 15 years on the job, which propelled him on his way to the priesthood.

“What I saw that day is more than I can explain,” he said. “The worst was all of the funerals afterwards — all 343 of them. Ninety-five percent of NYFD’s fighters are Catholic. It’s not surprising to think that most of those people who died protecting New Yorkers that day all had funerals in Catholic churches.”

It was almost too much to bear, but “Christ was there that day,” he added. “He was in the faces, the hollow eyes, pained expressions and calloused hands of those in downtown Manhattan that day. Christ is present to us at our worst — that’s what gives us our humanity.”

“I think God gave me the grace to be a firefighter, and I did the best I could,” Father Colucci said. “Now, he’s giving me the grace to be a priest, and I’ll do the best I can.”

When discussing his so-called “delayed vocation,” Father Colucci admitted that most Catholic dioceses and religious communities are grateful when older men and women who know how to balance a bankbook and cook a meal approach them.

“God’s gonna call ya when he calls ya,” he explained. “Sometimes when you’re ready; sometimes when you’re not. Either way, you got to answer the call to be true to yourself. I trusted in prayer and trusted in God.”

Father Colucci said he was told by the New York Archdiocese that he is the only retired firefighter to be ordained a priest in the archdiocese. There was an additional (unnamed) firefighter in the 1960s who left the service before retirement in order to get ordained, but he joined a religious community and worked in foreign missions.

Even as a firefighter, Father Colucci was devout. He prayed the Divine Office three times a day and attended daily Mass. He was an active member of the St. Florian Society, a fraternal Catholic organization for firefighters and EMT workers. He always wears his St. Florian medal, as Florian is the patron saint of firefighters.

Father Colucci also said that the archdiocese’s four fire chaplains he knew, including Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, who was killed by falling debris at Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001, also affected his vocation.

He remembered that those four men would be present at New York City’s most serious fires, strengthening the firefighters with their presence and prayers, visiting convalescing firefighters in hospitals and offering counseling when asked.

“I was attracted to the role of the priest in humanity’s direst moments,” said Father Colucci. “I witnessed a lot of good priest-relationship models in my time as a New York City firefighter.”

When asked what kind of priest he wants to be, Father Colucci was very frank.

“I want to be available to those who need me,” he said. “I don’t need a lot of attention. I only hope and pray I can be a holy, humble and prayerful priest. I want to be a people’s priest.”

When reminded that there’s still something special about being a firefighter-turned-priest, Father Colucci seemed uncomfortable with the attention.

“I’m just a man who answered the Lord’s call,” he said. “We all have to answer it when he calls us. Just trust in the Holy Spirit. Trust in prayer. Trust in the Lord’s guidance. Be humble and thankful in how he has led you in life.”

Father Colucci mused on the many similarities between being a priest and being a fireman — a topic he has been asked about on more than one occasion.

“Well, you gotta put other people first in both professions. Both professions reach out to help people. Ambulance calls and priest calls are similar, in that both are reaching out to those in need. We’re both sometimes in bad situations, whether because someone is stuck in an elevator or stuck feeling like he’s not loved by God,” he explained. “Priests help people spiritually, while firefighters help them when they are in physical danger. But both save lives — just in their own ways.”

Angelo Stagnaro

writes from New York.