Sitting in his favorite blue easy chair, Monsignor Thomas F. Maloney looked around the small rectory office where he counseled hundreds of people as they dealt with some of the worst troubles of their lives.
"They come to you with serious problems, and you do your best to help," said the 74-year-old priest, looking back on his long tenure as pastor of St. Amelia Church in the Town of Tonawanda. "You can't always solve their problem, but you can give them a perspective that might help them deal with it. The very least you can do is let them know, 'I hear you, I'm listening, I understand, I empathize with what you're going through.' "
After 22 years of helping people through their best and worst times, Maloney said farewell to St. Amelia's parishioners on Sunday. Retiring as pastor of one of the region's largest Catholic parishes, Maloney was saluted by hundreds who attended a farewell Mass and a party in his honor.
Most pastors in the Buffalo Catholic Diocese retire at 75, an age that Maloney will reach in December. While saying he has truly enjoyed his time at St. Amelia, Maloney said he decided to retire because "I don't have the energy I used to."
Running St. Amelia is no easy assignment. The 3,200-family parish is the seventh-largest out of 161 in the Buffalo diocese, and its elementary school, with 630 pupils, is one of the largest schools in the diocese.
Maloney said he took delight in working with students, teachers and administrators at the school. He could often be spotted outside the school, greeting students as they arrived for classes, or having lunch with them in the school cafeteria. He also taught Latin to fifth-graders for the past 17 years.
"I feel that the time has come for new leadership. I'm retiring as a pastor, but not as a priest," Maloney said. "I still plan to be active in some role with parishes and students."
Lauded by Bishop Richard J. Malone as a priest who "exuded a quiet strength, joyful spirit and sincere love for God and His people," Maloney will be missed by parishioners, including Jeanne Phillips, Robert Wuensch and Joseph H. Emminger, who is Tonawanda's town supervisor.
Emminger called Maloney "a giant of a priest" and said his leadership of the parish and school has made the town a better place.
Phillips, who sings with the church's adult choir, said she always looks forward to Maloney's short but thought-provoking sermons.
"Father Tom is very well-read, and he is always able to relate something from current events to something from the Bible that happened hundreds of years ago," Phillips said. "You never feel like he is preaching to you. He's talking to you."
Wuensch made a similar comment, and those compliments brought a smile to Maloney's face.
"I put a lot of work into my sermons," he said. "I never speak more than eight to 10 minutes, and I try to draw people in by starting out with something they can relate to. You need to catch their attention, right at the beginning."
A South Buffalo native from a large family, Maloney said he began thinking about the priesthood when he was a young altar server at Holy Family Church. "When I was in sixth grade, we had Masses for six brand-new priests who had been ordained from our parish. That impressed me," Maloney said.
He also was influenced by Holy Family's pastor at the time, Monsignor John J. Nash. "He was 86, but still very involved with the parish and the neighborhood. He was a good shepherd," Maloney recalled. "At 9 o'clock every night, he would have the church bells rung. It was a signal to all the kids – 'Get off the streets and go home.' "
Ordained in 1968, Maloney served assignments in six Western New York parishes before his appointment as the St. Amelia pastor in 1995. During his 49 years as a priest, he was twice elected as president of the Diocesan Priest Senate, a group of 16 priests who advise the bishop. From 1983 to 1987, he directed the diocese's Renew Program, a successful effort to get Catholics energized about their faith.
"I'm very proud of what we did with Renew. We got 50,000 people to participate," Maloney said.
Maloney is also proud of his parish's school, which has won both state and national awards. "Believe it or not, we have students who come here from Lockport, Youngstown, Lewiston, Grand Island, Clarence, Orchard Park and even a boy whose father drives him every day from Niagara Falls, Ont.," said Maloney.
He credits longtime principal James Mule for much of the school's success. "He was the first lay person to be appointed principal at our school. Some people in the parish were very upset when that happened, but I think he's one of the best things ever to happen to this school," Maloney said.
Not generally known as an outspoken priest, Maloney surprised parish members in the early 2000s when he gave a sermon that blasted the nation's bishops over their handling of the scandal involving priests – including some from the Buffalo area – who molested children.
"I spoke out because the bishops had been warned 10 years earlier that there was a problem," Maloney said. "I could see that people in our parish were upset. It was in the media every day. You can't hide from an issue like that. I felt that we had to respond."
Maloney also is a very strong opponent of abortion, and he participates every year in the "Life Chain" protest involving thousands of local Catholics.
Maloney, who recently bought a small home in Tonawanda, reads two or three books each week and does a crossword puzzle every day. While Catholic priests are prohibited from getting married or having children, Maloney said he enjoys spending time with his 18 nieces and nephews.
"And although I could never become a father, I've had more than 600 kids in that school who called me 'Father' every day," he said. "It means a lot to me that I've had the chance to impact their lives."
Asked if he had any regrets from his nearly half-century of priesthood, Maloney said: "Just one that I can think of. I wish I had spent more time thanking and recognizing all the people who roll up their sleeves and do work as volunteers for our churches, every single day."