By Liesl Fores
The journey to episcopal ordination began for a young boy from Jersey City when he was given an oral composition assignment by his second grade teacher to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Thomas Donato’s response to Sister Jeanette DeSena, M.P.F. was that he wanted to be a priest, just like his older brother Nino was going to be.
It turned out Nino did not become a priest, but Thomas did. And he considers this moment, as well as the love, values and support given to him by his family and the community of Holy Rosary Parish, Jersey City, the crucial first stepping stones on a path that has led to his being appointed an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark.
Bishop-elect Donato was born in 1940 to Antonio and Rosa Donato, Italian immigrants who made their way to the United States in 1923. He is the fifth of six children, starting with Mary, Rose, Constantino (Nino), John and, the youngest, Robert.
His close-knit family has grown to include sister-in-law Christine, wife of Constantino; nephew Anthony and his wife Donna; niece Toni Ann and her husband Mike, and two grandnieces, Gianna and Nicole.
Though his parents have passed away, all of his siblings, except Constantino, live together in a house in Cliffside Park.
Named Gaetano for his paternal grandfather, Bishop Donato has always gone by Thomas. He was baptized at Holy Rosary by Father Gerard M. Santora, who ministered at the parish from 1939 to 1968, 14 of those years as pastor.
Msgr. Santora, who has been pastor emeritus of Holy Rosary since 1968, recalls the young Thomas as “always with the school and the Church,” serving as altar boy among other things.
He explained that he knew Thomas would one day become a priest by “his piety and his service to the Church.”
Having celebrated many of Bishop Donato’s childhood and priestly milestones, including his First Holy Communion, his first Mass after ordination at Holy Rosary, and numerous others, the senior priest said of his accomplishments throughout the years, “We expected it,” adding that he was proud of his former parishioner—someone he’s known since he was a baby.
After attending Holy Rosary Elementary School and St. Michael High School in Jersey City, Thomas Donato entered the College Seminary at Seton Hall University, graduating in 1961 before beginning major seminary studies at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington.
Reflecting on that day in Sister Jeanette’s class in the second grade, the bishop-elect says, “From that point, I always felt that was God’s calling to me, and this was confirmed more and more through my affiliation with the parish community, priests, Religious and laity.”
His six years at Immaculate Conception were tough—much different from the post Vatican II approach to seminary training—but Bishop Donato describes himself as someone who adapted easily to seminary life. “I enjoyed it very much. … I was very happy there.”
Speaking of faculty role models, he mentioned in particular the late Msgr. William F. Hogan, who was the spiritual director for the seminary as well as his personal spiritual director. He also worked with Msgr. Hogan for nine years as his parochial vicar at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Bayonne (his second assignment after ordination), where Msgr. Hogan was pastor.
Bishop Donato still maintains some of the friendships he formed at the seminary.
Father James M. Cafone, professor in the Religious Studies department at Seton Hall University and head of the priest community there, knows Bishop Donato from their college days at Seton Hall. They entered Immaculate Conception Seminary the same year and have been friends ever since.
During their time at the seminary, they would take long walks and talk a lot, recounted Father Cafone, adding, “He has a gift for friendship. That’s why he has so many friends. … He’s very trustworthy and can keep a secret. … He carries an honor with him. … Honor is very important to him.”
Upon ordination in 1965, the two gave each other crucifixes. When Father Cafone learned of his former classmate’s recent appointment, he had the crucifix that his old friend and fellow seminarian had given him nearly 40 years ago set in wood and made into a pectoral cross as a gift to the new bishop.
Another friend from seminary days is Msgr. Joseph Ciampaglio, now a retired priest from the Diocese of Paterson.
Remembering when they first met, Msgr. Ciampaglio, who was three years ahead of the new seminarian Donato, says he was impressed by his “combination of shyness and friendliness.”
“We struck up a friendship that has lasted 46 years,” commented the monsignor, noting the various trips they have taken together and the sharing of special milestones. “I preached at his first Mass at Holy Rosary, and when both his parents died, I concelebrated those liturgies,” he said.
Taking into consideration the breadth of his friend’s ministry, Msgr. Ciampaglio asserted, “He has a wonderful pastoral sense and a very gentle and caring way with people. … People seem to naturally take to him.” He observed that because the man was so approachable, parishioners felt they “could come in and discuss their problems and concerns.”
He continued that the bishop-elect is “a good liturgist and celebrant” and has an “artistic sense” for church environment.
“There’s a dignity about him that speaks of one being [named] a bishop,” concluded Msgr. Ciampaglio.
On May 29, 1965, the seminarian was ordained Father Thomas A. Donato by Archbishop Thomas A. Boland. His first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist Parish, Hillsdale, where he served from 1965 to 1973.
Judi D’Andrea, a parishioner at St. John’s formed a close friendship with the new priest that would last 38 years and still counting.
D’Andrea and her husband had a son with mental and physical disabilities. Then-Father Donato baptized him and eventually buried him, she reflected.
Father Donato would visit her home on a regular basis and “was always there” for her family. “He was a great comfort,” she said, noting that even after he left St. John’s, he always sent her son a birthday card—for 23 years.
When asked what she thought of his being named bishop, she remarked, “I just knew there was no way but up for him.”
Father Donato’s next assignment was at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Bayonne, also as parochial vicar. He was there from 1973 to 1982.
Rosemary and Arty Olvesen were parishioners at St. Vincent’s when they met Father Donato. They remain dear friends today.
He was “always a people’s priest,” says Rosemary Olvesen. “He reached out, made himself available, made time for people.”
She continued that evangelization was very important to the parochial vicar, as well as building “a strong parish community.”
Arty Olvesen explained that the Cursillo movement at the parish got started through Father Donato, and Olvesen’s wife worked with the priest in the CCD program.
Remembering the first time he saw him, Mr. Olvesen described a scene outside the church where a young man was directing traffic. Not recognizing him as a priest, he thought Father Donato was a crossing guard.
“He was always interested in helping, no matter where the help was needed,” Mrs. Olvesen pointed out.
Father Donato received his first assignment as a pastor in 1982 at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, Bayonne.
Reflecting on the leadership experience of the first-time pastor, parishioner Christina LaGatta indicated that Father Donato started ministries that still exist in the parish, mentioning in particular his bringing extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and lectors into the Mass. He brought “a new outlook to the liturgy,” she said.
LaGatta has a fond memory of the bishop-elect and group of parishioners that would meet up to celebrate birthdays. One year, on her own birthday, he drove them to an unknown destination. “To our surprise, we arrived at his family’s home, where we were warmly greeted by his family and a delicious Italian birthday cake. … This little story is so typical of Father Tom’s warmth and personality,” she noted, adding that they all became fast friends and still get together.
Stephen D’Alessio, another parishioner from Our Lady of the Assumption, described his former pastor in this way: “First with him is God—God is number one.”
Pointing out that Bishop Donato is “very spiritual” and “sensitive,” D’Alessio also observed his openness to everyone. “He was available to the young and old. … He was friends with everyone.” He remained at the parish until 1988. D’Alessio still keeps in touch with him.
In 1988 Father Donato received a new congregation to head: St. Paul Parish, Ramsey, where he ministered until 2001.
Bertha Stronach, parishioner since 1972 and the interim secretary at the rectory when the new pastor arrived, recalls speaking with him for the first time on the phone.
“From the minute he said hello, I made an immediate friend,” said Stronach, explaining that she could perceive his sense of humor, warmth, and enthusiasm for his new job. “That’s hard to tell over the phone.
“When we met for the first time, I knew my first impression was right,” she stressed.
“Everyone that came into the rectory was important,” she continued, adding to that list every caller and every person who wrote. He made sure he followed up with all of these people, she pointed out.
She claims her most important job was to make sure the lollypop jar was always full for the children who would come to the rectory. On the opposite end of the spectrum, “the elderly and sick were so much of his concern,” Stronach emphasized. “He visited and called them, and followed up with any problems they had. This was really appreciated.”
She also discussed Father Donato’s “very special interest” in the RCIA program, recounting his involvement in meetings and lessons. “He wanted to get to know each person,” she said, adding that after they were received into the faith, he always “followed through to make sure everything was all right.”
Stronach still speaks with the bishop-elect. “On my birthday, I can always count on a call from Father Tom. And when you’re 79 years old, that is very important.”
In 1996, Pope John Paul II named Father Donato Prelate of Honor with the title of Monsignor.
After 35 years working in parishes, Msgr. Donato was granted a six-month sabbatical to attend the Institute for Continuing Education of Clergy at the North American College, Rome. Throughout the years, he has had other academic achievements, including earning a master’s degree in divinity at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology, participating in various workshops and doing his own theological reading for personal and spiritual enrichment and education.
Upon his return from Rome in 2001, Msgr. Donato was appointed administrator, then pastor, of St. Raphael Parish, Livingston. There, according to parishioner Catherine Martin, Ph.D., he was dedicated to developing and fostering ministries in the parish.
“He was a true leader with a vision for the parish as a place of Gospel value, and he could get things done,” Martin asserted.
“Secondly, in line with his vision, he was very collegial,” she continued, explaining he used a team effort approach and “the role of laity whenever possible.
“He was very appreciative of people’s talents and gifts and was able to call forth those gifts to coordinate … so the parish could grow as a community,” she said, citing herself as an example.
Martin was the director of religious formation when Msgr. Donato was sent to St. Raphael’s. “Not too long after he came, he invited me to rethink my position,” she remarked. He encouraged her to develop her talents and skills to help form small church communities in the parish.
Martin says she was impressed with Msgr. Donato’s insight into how these sharing groups would help people develop their faith and build relationships with each other—something, she stressed, that is “so important at a large parish.”
Martin, who is now chairperson of the Department of Theology and Philosophy at the College of Saint Elizabeth College, Morristown, is still in contact with the bishop-elect. “He’s a wonderful friend,” she declared.
Other duties that Msgr. Donato has carried out during his time ministering in parishes include serving as the regional director of religious education for Bergen County North; serving for three terms as a member of the Archdiocesan priest personnel board; working as a member of several committees in the archdiocesan offices of Catechetics and Divine Worship, and serving as Episcopal Vicar of Bergen County West. He is currently the Episcopal Vicar in Hudson County.
In 2003, Msgr. Donato was asked to take a position that was completely different from the work he had been doing since he was ordained. He was appointed spiritual director at Immaculate Conception Seminary.
“I was so happy in pastoral work that it was hard to accept the invitation from Archbishop Myers to become spiritual director at the seminary,” confessed Bishop Donato.
“I said yes because I thought this is what I could offer to priests,” he observed, pointing out that his years of experience working in parishes could help seminarians in their formation.
In using this “pastoral approach,” Bishop Donato says he received “great affirmation from the formation faculty and the seminarians.” He admitted that it will be difficult to leave this ministry and the people with whom he has worked for the past year.
Now the bishop-elect awaits his episcopal ordination, to take place Aug. 4. Recalling the recent day he was informed of the Holy Father’s decision to name him a bishop, Bishop Donato acknowledges he was completely overwhelmed and shocked. “I couldn’t say yes immediately.”
He took 36 hours to discern whether “God was calling me to this.” Relating that he prayed and sought spiritual advisement during this time, he says he finally came to the decision that this was what God wanted for him, and he accepted the honor.
Looking toward the future, Bishop Donato will have many new responsibilities, again as a pastor—this time around at St. Henry Parish, Bayonne—and also as Regional Bishop for Hudson County. But he is “happy for the challenge.”
Having served 15 years in Bayonne in two different parishes, he expressed his love for the city, saying, “I’m happy to be back.”
However, he noted that in his 16-year absence, “things have changed.” One of these changes, he explained, is a decrease in the number of active Catholics in the area and the reconfiguration of parishes, which is being addressed by parish leaders and the archdiocesan-appointed New Energies Task Force.
As the spiritual leader of Hudson County, Bishop Donato will have to provide guidance and support for his flock during this trying process in which 18 parishes will be affected.
However, he trusts in God that everything will work out. Bishop Donato says he will pray for inspiration and wisdom “to know in what ways the Church of Hudson County can make progress in the third millennium,” adding that as a pastor and as a bishop, he will “work with the people in the county as well as the parish, to continue to move forward.”
Friend for 43 years, Father Michael A. Hanly, Pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish, Verona, believes Bishop Donato will bring a true pastoral awareness to his new role. “He was always present to his people, and he was always patient,” he said, explaining that these essential qualities will serve him greatly as a bishop. “He’ll be very pastoral as a bishop. He’ll be a parish priest bishop—that’s what we need.”
And so now begins a new adventure for this boy from Jersey City, this son, brother and uncle, this priest and pastor, this leader of seminarians, this friend to so many, and soon to be Auxiliary Bishop of Newark.