At exactly 6:05 p.m. last Sunday, I stumbled into the Chapel of De La Salle and His Brothers, rushed past the members of the music ministry towards the open sacristy door.
There stood Father George Hill, donning his usual fleece sweater vest over his habit, the iconic attire of any Roman Catholic priest.
“Anthony, there you are,” he said with a smile as he began showing me around the quaint office that exists next to the altar of the chapel. There are drawers and closets full of robes and dressings that are not only used for the liturgical celebrant, but for the altar as well.
I wasn’t in the chapel five minutes before the Hill started putting me to work.
“Half the reason I asked you to come at six was to help us out,” said Hill, who has acted as Manhattan College’s chaplain for the last seven years.
Hill, a licensed mental health counselor in the state of New York, spent the previous 15 years providing therapy out of an office at St. Bernard’s church in Greenwich Village. During the same time, he also spent seven years as a chaplain for HIV/AIDS victims at the Bethany house.
“Whenever you come to a new place, you bring all of that stuff with you,” he said as he dressed the altar in a white cloth.
I had come for a special mass, Nov. 2 is the Feast of All Souls. Father George dressed himself and the entire church in white in preparation for the holy day.
He walked me around the chapel, showing me all the different books, which contain the different readings and prayers of the mass. Mass was to be bilingual and Lois Harr, MC director of campus ministry and social action, had come to deliver the homily instead of Hill.
The native of Worcester, MA, which still serves as his home diocese, is known around campus for his weekly meditations on the first floor of Horan Hall.
“I used to work at an abbey near Geneseo, NY
and they don’t talk there, so I learned a lot about meditation,” Hill said to me as he explained how he likes to mix prayer, psychology and some hypnosis into his meditation sessions.
It wasn’t long before Lois arrived and my interview with Hill took a backseat to watching two of the most influential people in all of campus ministry work together to iron out the kinks of a bilingual mass. In addition to all of the usual books, readings and prayers, Harr brought the Spanish translations with her along with her own speech.
Andy Bauer, the director of music, interrupted their discussion to clear the music set list with the celebrant and guest speaker.
After making sure the church was ready, Hill made his way to the front entrance, where he began to put on his white robes for the evening. As students began to file in, he somehow found the time to try to greet each of them, assuring his congregation that he knows and loves them.
“I have always believed in a ministry of presence, I am almost never in my office because I like to make myself visible to the students if they ever need anything,” Hill said, who likes to spend hours situated in the same section of Locke’s Loft, where anyone can find him.
“Usually I sit and talk with the athletes,” Hill said, who runs a second meditation meeting exclusively for the men’s baseball team at MC.
The liturgy went smoothly, and Father Hill concluded the mass by asking students to write the name of a person who had passed away in their lifetime on a sheet of paper and bring it to the altar.
The students lined up and suddenly the congregation seemed to double in size. Almost 200 Jaspers dropped the names of their deceased loved ones into a basket and took turns lighting candles that were set up on the high altar, in front of the portrait of De La Salle and his brothers.
Indeed, Hill’s “ministry of presence” was apparent that night, as almost everyday of his tenure here at Manhattan College.