The Rev. Michael L. Dunn’s warm smile welcomes visitors to St. Francis of Assisi Church in Weston and lets them know he is available should they need his counsel.
Father Dunn, a 1986 graduate of Sacred Heart University, is the new pastor at St. Francis, succeeding Monsignor Nicholas Grieco, who retired after nearly 20 years in the post. Father Dunn was appointed on July 1 by the Most Rev. William E. Lori, S.T.D., bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, who installed him on Sept. 5.
“We celebrate Father Dunn’s ministry as a Danbury native and a product of Catholic school education including his undergraduate work at Sacred Heart University,” said Bishop Lori. “He is truly one of our own and we welcome the vitality and vision he will bring to his new assignment.”
Bishop Lori continued, “In the short time that his parishioners have come to know Father Dunn, they have discovered in him a dedicated and talented priest, an energetic leader, and a man of prayer who devotes his whole life to the services of the Lord and his Holy Church. In his ministry, he has shown a particular capacity to make the Gospel come alive in the minds and hearts of young people.”
Father Dunn, 46, was born in New Hyde Park on New York’s Long Island. He grew up in Danbury and attended St. Gregory the Great School and Immaculate High School. He worked as a counselor for troubled teenagers at VITAM in Norwalk while going to graduate school at night pursuing a master’s degree in counseling before his call to the priesthood. He attended St. John Fisher Residence and Immaculate Conception Seminary, graduated with a master’s degree in theology and was ordained in 1994.
Early on, Father Dunn, who followed his sisters to Sacred Heart University, was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. He enrolled in SHU as a Criminal Justice major, with a minor in Religious Studies. He considered pursuing a law degree or becoming a police officer, and even took the police test in New Canaan. Although he did not choose law enforcement as his career, he will be sworn in as chaplain of the Weston Police Department in October.
It wasn’t until after a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, where the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed to appear and give messages of peace and love to the world, that he was called to the priesthood. Perhaps serendipitously, his two travel mates pulled out of the trip at the last minute; he was on the edge of canceling too because he did not want to go alone. But then his parents offered to take the friends’ places.
“I went with the attitude and prayer of, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ I came back with a real sense of peace, and from that point on, I lost interest in everything but God and the priesthood.”
All facets of his life – school, social, financial – were going well for him at the time he returned from Yugoslavia. “But I just wasn’t happy.”
When he entered St. John Fisher House, where men go to see if the priesthood is indeed their calling, he said his “bags remained packed for the first two weeks. I almost came home in the first couple of weeks. Then very quickly, almost overnight, I got a real sense of peace there. I got comfortable and knew this is where I was supposed to be.”
It was not the first time that becoming a priest entered his mind. When he was in the sixth grade, a nun gave a talk at his school about religious vocations and the priesthood. “She began her talk by saying, ‘God is calling some of you right here, right now.’ And then she kind of paused and seemed to stare at me for a while, which was kind of eerie. And I remember going home that day saying, ‘You know, I think God is calling me.’
“But then I said, ‘I don’t want to do that. That’s the most boring thing,’” he added with a chuckle. “For a sixth-grade kid, you think a priest saying Mass and praying all the time is boring. But I didn’t think much of it after that day, I put it away, and it wasn’t until after the pilgrimage that I really started to think about it again.”
Prior to being assigned to St. Francis, he had posts at St. Catherine of Siena Parish and St. Theresa Parish, both in Trumbull, and St. Mary Parish in Bethel. He also was spiritual director at Notre Dame Catholic High School in Fairfield. He was at Notre Dame for a year and, in his chaplaincy there, he counseled the students and helped to organize their spiritual
activities and their service projects.
As for his appointment to St. Francis, he said he is very excited. “I felt I was ready, I was excited about it, and very excited about coming here to St. Francis too. My parents and brother live close by and this is the first parish I have been assigned to that they can come every Sunday to Mass.”
His smile gets wider when he talks about the reception he has received since July. “It is a beautiful area and a beautiful parish. And the people have been incredibly warm and welcoming and supportive. I have really been blown away by how kind they have been.”
He continues to get to know the community. He visits Peter’s Market at Weston Center often for his meals, as there is no cook at St. Francis, and has been to the homes of some parishioners for dinner. He has met with senior citizens, including recently stopping by the weekly luncheon at Norfield Congregational Church.
“The potential here is great,” he said of the parish. “The most important thing at St. Francis is not so much my ideas but what are the needs and desires of the parish. Everyone has their own ideas, but I think it is important through speaking to the people and through your own prayer to determine what are the needs, what people are hungry for and what they want.”
He already has discovered that the senior citizens are looking for more activities and programs and the adults are seeking support in Christian parenting and community bonding and building. The youth, whose programs already are plentiful, are looking for more. A teen Mass now will take place at 5 o’clock on Sundays. “It is geared toward them and they are in full charge of it. They take care of the music, the lectors, cantering, the Eucharistic ministers, ushers. It is their Mass.”
He added, “They love it. The more ownership they have, the more interested and happier they are. I think it is very important to give them full ownership of it.”
Father Dunn also wants to build up the parish council with more laypeople. “I need more involvement because we don’t have enough of it,” he said, noting that there are no associate pastors at St. Francis. “I want to establish a big network. I want to make this a vibrant and active parish.”
When he is not crunching numbers or ministering to his congregation, Father Dunn likes to be outdoors exercising or hiking. He also enjoys watching and playing sports. He is a diehard New York sports fan and follows the Yankees, Giants and Knicks. He has played point guard on some basketball teams and would not mind starting a team in Weston. “At other parishes, we had a Sunday night open gym and had guys who just came for the basketball. But then we started talking, just having conversation, and the next thing you know, you see them at church on Sunday. The social and community building activities are very important.” Toward that end, he recently accompanied 120 parishioners to a Bridgeport Bluefish game.
Father Dunn is ready to take on the challenges at St. Francis and views his new assignment as one in which he helps people. “Although pastors have to do the administrative and the financial stuff, that is not what you are interested in, but unfortunately that is a big part of it.
“But I love the pastoral, the spiritual, meeting with and being with the people, the sacraments, visiting the homebound and the elderly, running the programs. I want to be with the people and address their needs.”