It was always difficult for Father Michael Rieder to pin down his congregation at St. Therese of Lisieux Church in Montauk. Because they are a mix of year-rounders, summer residents, weekenders and snowbirds, figuring out who he was serving and how to gather them was always the issue.But on Sunday, they all gathered, much as they did when he asked them to pull together during times of heartache and times of need. This time, though, they were celebrating his five years at the parish, and saying their goodbyes as he leaves for another post.
Ahead of him waits a new opportunity overseeing the St. Joseph Church and school in Ronkonkoma—but behind him, he leaves a congregation he came to love.
The 52-year-old said he knows it is time for him to leave but still finds it difficult to say goodbye.
“In the broadest picture, I have no problem moving as much as priests have to move, but while it’s happening, it hurts,” he said in his office on Monday. “It’s extremely heartbreaking.”
He said Sunday’s picnic was like living through his own wake, as many people told him the various things he had done for them. But for Father Rieder, it summoned many memories about how they’ve helped the church and how they’ve helped others.
Both the Spanish-speaking members and the English-speaking members sang together at the picnic in his honor. He said that’s when he came to a deeper understanding of what he was called to do.
“I guess I’m realizing that I’m a light to a match—those who choose to be on fire [for God],” he said. “That’s what’s happening.”
He said over the course of his five years at the parish, he has witnessed amazing moments, from teenagers preparing for their First Communion by washing others’ feet, to represent the importance of serving others, to providing shelter and ultimately housing for a homeless man.
He said the weekend after the fatal shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, painted a pretty good picture of who he’s been serving in Montauk. It was a somber time that needed a little Christmas spirit.
That weekend, when the church’s Nativity scene was set up, he led church members in putting hay in the stable out front, saying that while they could not change where Jesus was born, in a manger, they could make a place for him in their hearts.
“Everybody did it,” he said, holding back tears. “They all brought up hay after three masses. There was so much hay that you couldn’t see the animals. It was the most beautiful mess I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
Just spending minutes with Father Rieder, one can sense the importance he places on putting others first and expressing love and gratitude.
He’s spent years trying to bring church members together, to make them get to know one another, he said. The church has started a “ministry of hugging,” where after Sunday Mass, instead of simply shaking hands or just parting ways, parishioners hug one another and get introduced that way. Father Rieder said it has gone over well.
One year, a churchgoer shaved her head for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization that contributes to children’s cancer research, and every year since then, the church’s congregation has taken part.
The Blessing of the Boards has also become a St. Therese staple, where surfers and builders alike bring their respective boards to be blessed by the priest.
He said under his watch, the Montauk Food Pantry was overhauled by the community for free. Where, before, those in need couldn’t get in and out of the freezing cold to get their supplies, because the church’s outreach house was moldy and aging, now they can come in and get warm.
“They are treated like human beings,” he said of the people who use the food pantry. “It went from being an old sacred space to a new sacred space.”
Father Rieder said he fully expects the new incoming priest, Father Tom Murray, to pick up where he left off in terms of connecting the congregation and transforming the church into a newer sacred space. Father Murray is leaving his post at St. Agnes Church in Greenport this week to move to Montauk.
“He’s going to fit right in,” Father Rieder said. “He’s said he never wanted to go west of the Riverhead traffic circle, but now he’ll probably say he’ll never want to go west of the Shinnecock Canal.”
Father Rieder said he’s enjoyed Montauk, working just two blocks from the ocean, and now he’ll be two blocks from Lake Ronkonkoma.
“The worst thing is, I’ll lose out on a lot of beach time,” he said, jokingly. “There’s been penance, though, with traffic in the summer.”
More seriously, he said that moving for a priest is tough, because they go through a period of mourning the loss of a community they served and came to know. “The things I wanted to do that I never got to do, I think he’ll do,” he said of Father Murray. “I tell people he’s going to be a great pastor for you.”
Chris Murray, a parishioner who works at the church, said Father Rieder will be missed. “He’s been like a spiritual mentor to the community for the past five years,” Mr. Murray said late last week. “This one here, he’s full of vim and vigor and energy.”
Yet when the congregation heard that Father Rieder was leaving to tend another flock elsewhere they understood, he said.
Father Rieder will be at St. Joseph Church for at least six years. He said it is a large parish but is not doing well financially. This year, there were 27 in his First Communion classes at St. Therese—at St. Joseph, there were 280. “I’m kind of ‘whelmed,’” he said, smiling. “It’ll work.”
The priest said when he had been working as a high school chaplain, most recently at Bishop McGann Mercy High School in Riverhead, he learned to give things over and relax.
“I learned if anything goes wrong, God shows up,” he said. “People would say it to me, and I started to internalize it. It’ll get done. God’s going to show up.”