Kurnath, Father Joseph

Interviewer: Jean McMillen
Place of Interview: Scoville Library
Date of Interview:
File No: 7 Cycle: 3
Summary: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

Interview Audio

Interview Transcript

Father Kurnath‘s Interview relating to St. Mary’s roman Catholic church:

This is file #7, cycle 3. Today’s date is Nov. 8, 2017. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Father Joseph Kurnath of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. He is going to talk about his career and anything else he wants to talk about including opera! We’ll start with the genealogical information.

JM:What is your name?

JK:My name is Joseph Gerard Michael Kurnath. Gerard is my middle name given to me at baptism. Michael was my confirmation name which I chose.

JM:When were you born?

JK:May 21, 1954.

JM:Where were you born?

JK:I was born in Waterbury, Ct. at Waterbury General Hospital.

JM:What is your father’s name?

JK:Joseph Thomas Kurnath.

JM:And your mother’s name?

JK:Agnes Elisabeth Janosik.

JM:You are a special child; you are an only.

JK:I am.

JM:What kind of a background did you come from? You were talked a bit about your mother.

JK:I’ll go back to my grandparents. Both of them were from Austria-Hungary which was then Czechoslovakia which is now Slovakia. My grandmother came from Kurima and my grandfather came from Slovinky, both in Spis and Saris. Both of those are in northeastern Slovakia. They met by yodeling. They yodeled across the mountains in Slovakia and that is how they first met. My grandfather moved here and then went back and then came back again with my grandmother.

JM:When did he actually move here with your grandmother?

JK:I do not know that. If my mother was born in 1921, then it had to be when Austria-Hungary was still Austria-Hungary. I think they came here circa 1910. I am actually doing for me one of those tests to find out my ancestry. (Ancestry DNA test Ed.) Mom had Aunt Lol, Aunt Mary so she had two sisters and two brothers Uncle George and Uncle John. Uncle John left suddenly and no one ever saw him again because there were really differences between him and my grandfather who was a European father. He was not very easy to get along with. His word was the absolute law.


I remember once my mother told me, my mother was the peacemaker of the family so this especially got to her. Because of her upbringing she was so good at doing this for the rest of her life. That is where I get a lot of this myself. If you really listen to your parents and get the best out of them that you can, then you are good to go. You are good forever. I love that there weren’t any major problems in the family, but he was tough.

They were once sitting at a dinner table which of course at that point was de rigueur; everybody did it. Today they look at you as if you had four eyes! There was a family of at least 7 or 8 and the neighbors came. We had a big family; Slovaks usually have large families. She was sitting there. Her aunt, her father’s sister had just died and he said, “Well how about spiritual bouquets?” Mom said, “Well, that will probably be $5.00” (At that point $2.00 for a Mass) “No, no, no nyet! Spiritual bouquets, flowers” She says, “With all due respect, dad, spiritual bouquet means Masses” so he picked up a spoon and threw it at her and missed her eye by about an inch. So this is the kind of stuff that went on all the time. That is why my Uncle John left; I never met him, a total mystery man. He was a good looking guy. I don’t know whatever happened to him. Mom was a peacemaker; that is where I learned that.

My aunt Lol was an interesting individual. She married a guy who was into railroads and so they were comfortable. They lived in Roselle, New Jersey. I used to visit them. It was like a different life because as an only child it really is different.

JM:Where did you get your seminary training?

JK:St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.

JM:Did you always want to be a priest?

JK:Yes, I used to have mass for my grandma in Slovak and English. At that point I could speak it, but unfortunately I have lost a lot of it. She used to come down the hallway for Holy Mass. In our tradition having a grandparent is a wonderful thing. It is like next to God- like the Asians. I had a bulletin, I used to preach and I had an entire altar set up so I did that for years. When she died, that was very tough for me. I left the religion, but I never left God for a while because I was angry. It kept on and kept on. I was ordained in 1991. In 1984 I went to St. Mary’s in Baltimore. It was a 6 year program because I had not had enough college credits. I went to the Hartford Conservatory of Music, but that did not count. It counted in my life, but it did not count for a priest. I got through the 6 years. I was ordained in September 6, 1991. My first assignment was at St. Mary’s in Newington, Ct. as parochial vicar. In the old days it was assistant pastor. The terms have changed, but nothing else. I stayed there for 6 years. I then went on discovery time. I did not have one parish; I helped in over 22 parishes as needed. I was Chaplain at St. Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury, ironically, for about 6 months. I got a lot of experience and met a lot of different people. I also heard a lot of good and bad things about what was happening because I wasn’t the pastor. They felt they could tell me things; they felt very comfortable.

JM:When did you come to our St. Mary’s church?3.

JK: I came in 2005. The way we work it is the first month I was temporary administrator. At the beginning of the second month I was made administrator for one year. Then a year later I became the pastor. It is usually 6 years plus one term so 12 years total as pastor. So I have just completed my pastorate. That is when all the changes in the Archdiocese happened.

JM:They are merging and consolidating, closing churches. (Recently more emphasis is falling on St. Joseph’s in Canaan and less on St. Mary’s. Our church may close in the future. Ed.)

JM:When you came here, what was your goal for the church? What did you want to do to change or improve the church?

JK:First of all listen and do nothing else but listen. Obviously I did the masses, but no changes at first. I did that for 6 months at least. There was a lot of pain and anger, heartache and a lot of sadness: based upon that I felt what I should do is try to be a peacemaker which I tried to do, keeping all the lessons I had learned at home and the seminary. I wanted to bring people together. If I could bring people together and not just Catholics because I don’t view Catholicism as just responsible for our own church. I think any good priest should be bringing in other people, not to change them from their religion, but to be with them and to work with them. If you are in a community, especially a smaller one, you have to get to know the people in the community and get active in some way. You do not have to do everything, but you can do the things that you do best which hopefully will be up building for the community. That is what I tried to do. That was my plan to bring people in, listen to people still after that 6 month period, and be a healing agent. I think listening is healing.

JM:What was the size of your congregation?

JK:When I got here it was about 350 families.

JM:I know you have done several special programs; what are they?

JK:I brought music in, but I waited at least for three or four years before I started doing that because I wanted to make sure that it would work. I am a New Englander; I know nothing happens overnight. You have to wait until it is peaceful and calm and until I did not hear such scurrilous things about the former pastor. When that was done, we moved on and I started to reach out. First was listen, second was reach out.

Having been an actor and my mother having been an opera singer, my father played the drum, my grandfather played the violin. I know my grandmother sang so we had a very musical family, mainly in Slovak, but also in English. What I did was try to get local musicians. For the first few years the attendance was great about 120 people per event during the summer. We used to do it near the garages on our parish and we had picnics. I had live music with friends of mine that I had met having been up here. Like minds attract. We did concerts with Wanda Houston the first two or three years and they were well attended. Part of that was “Let’s see what the new kid in town can do.” After a while the attendance went down each year. It was a lot of money to bring in a quartet to do live music. OK so let’s


do something else. I felt hum that is interesting, but in a way I was also settling into the community. You have to try something you can’t say, “Well I do not want to do that because it might not work.” You just have to do it and then say, “OK how can we do this better or chuck it.”

JM:Did you use Christine Gevert at all? (See tape #137A Christine Gevert)

JK:No unless she was a fill-in organist at a funeral or a wedding at first. I started using her the last few years. Crescendo has got concerts there. We had a concert for Wanda Landowska’s anniversary. That was a Saturday I believe before Mass. We had a 4:00 Mass and the concert started earlier which is telling Catholics like the Second Coming. Once they get into their habits, as most people do when they attend church services, it is tough but they stayed and it was well attended. They did Mendelssohn and I fell in love with the group. Christine is a phenome as far as I am concerned.

JM:Oh yes, we are so fortunate to have her.

JK:We have been coordinating since then. This past year was the first time that this has been done in this area. We had a joint Tenebrae service on Good Friday evening. Tenebrae is Latin for shadows. Some catholic churches like mine do it because it is an excuse to do good readings and good music. I was doing it for about 4 or 5 years, but all the while it was keeping my nose out, looking and hearing things. What can we do? I thought, “Well let’s try this.” It was a resounding success. We must have had almost 100 people which for a Good Friday evening was wonderful.

JM:You do Catechism for the children. When do you have it?

JK:I don’t know the schedule right now. (He has just retired. Ed.) When I had it, it was Sunday mornings between 9 and 10 for grades 1-8 in the Parish Hall. Then the confirmation class was in the Rectory at the same time.

JM:About how many children attended at that time?

JK:I’ll say 50. That number has gone down. This unfortunately is not an area where people stay, especially after high school, they leave.

JM:They have to find work.

JK:Yes, that is right.

JM:What were your ordinary weekly services?

JK:Using Sunday as the first day of the week the services were at 8 and 10:15. The 10:15 was with music. We had a choir; we still have a choir and organist. Wednesday at 10 at Noble Horizons and parishioners used to come to that. Thursday was at 9 in the Rectory; we had Mass and coffee plus and then Scripture Study until 11, sometimes it went until 11:30 or 11:45. It was nice because the Rectory was very comfortable, intimate and very cozy. After a while people got to know one another. I was


doing this before I came here full time when it was held in the church hall. Our old church reminded me of “Murder in the Rou Morgue”. I am so happy that we have a brand new church hall which was quite expensive; we spared no expense. It is bright and light and cheerful. Friday the Mass was at 9 at the Rectory. Saturday had the Vigil Mass at 4:00. I would do baptisms at any time convenient for people. There was on one time for baptisms.

JM:Does the clergy rotate in the Catholic Church?

JK:At the pleasure of the Ordinary which is the name for the Bishop or Archbishop. It would be 6 years as pastor and another 6 years for a term. But he could change that.

JM:What do you do for outreach programs from the church?

JK:I include that as an outreach program whenever there was somebody needed, the old name was Last Rites, now it is Sacraments for the Sick at Noble. They would call me first and I would be there. If I couldn’t do it, another priest could do it. I would view outreach as our music programs as are our liturgies is for Holy Week which I was very proud of for people that have never come. Christmas liturgy was also outreach.

We did not have a parish council because the first few meetings wonderful people had wonderful ideas. I say, “Well, Ms. Smith, that sounds good to me, so you take it and run.” “Well, unfortunately I have to be in Brazil on Monday.” This is only St. Mary’s. People are here today and in Asia tomorrow. That is not going to work. So I disbanded the parish council. People pretty much knew this is an independent area. That is why I also sense that the outreach had to be specifically tailored to this area. That was challenging. I found when I looked around and was always active in the Ecumenical and interfaith group basically they did the same thing. Whatever they did, they have done for 500 years. You have to keep that in mind. If something does not work, it is not because it wasn’t a good idea; it is because it didn’t work here. In any parish you should listen to the people and not have your own AGENDA.

JM:Good point. Do you have anything you would like to add about St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church that I haven’t asked you about?

JK:St. Mary’s is kind of like this area. At first it could be cool. When people say it is a warm and welcoming church all that goes to a certain point. It takes a while to gestate and to grow. St. Mary’s is filled with wonderful people who are actively on a daily basis trying to get closer to God and doing it in their own way. Just because something didn’t work in Lakeville that worked in Newington casts no aspersions on Lakeville. Once again I say every church is different and every parish is different. In my church that is something that needs to be addressed.

JM:Thank you so much. I very much appreciate you time and your knowledge.

JK:My pleasure.