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Tonawanda native finds gives up dream job for priesthood

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For Christopher Emminger, the road to priesthood wasn’t as long and winding as it is for some people, but it did take him to new places. Before entering the seminary, the 31-year-old was content to stick around and serve his Tonawanda home.

“I’ve learned essentially to trust in God, that He knows what he’s doing with me,” Deacon Emminger said, shortly before his ordination. “I grew up in the Town of Tonawanda and never really moved at all. Then, during my time in the seminary, I’ve been sent all over the diocese – Westfield to Wellsville to Orchard Park and now to Lake View for my diaconal year. They’ve all been brand new experiences, and yet, they’ve all enriched me in their own ways. I never would have thought my plans would have taken me to these places in the diocese, but they’ve been so rich and rewarding. A lot of the seminary has been learning how to grow, learning how to trust, and learning how to adapt to things.”

Deacon Emminger grew up in a very Catholic household in the Town of Tonawanda, where his father, Joseph, is now town supervisor. Both his parents were very active at St. Amelia Parish. The family always attended Sunday Mass, where Chris served at the altar. He also attended St. Amelia’s School and later St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute. But it wasn’t until after college that he started discerning a call to the priesthood.

“My father was the first one to bring up the priesthood to me,” Deacon Emminger recalled. “My great uncle, Msgr. Joe Hassler, was a priest in the diocese. He said, ‘He was a priest who led a great life. A lot of the traits that he had, I see in you. You should consider the priesthood.’ He told me this when I was in my 20s. I told him I would think about it, but I thought he was crazy because I didn’t see God ever calling someone like me to the priesthood.”

By “someone like me,” Deacon Emminger means someone who had other goals in life. He had plans to join the military, then to become a police officer for the Town of Tonawanda.

After graduating from Buffalo State College with a criminal justice degree, he began work in the Town of Tonawanda Parks Department while waiting to hear back on a job in his chosen field. He would often maintain the baseball diamonds alone, where he had time to think. “This was the first period of my life when I wasn’t dealing with any kind of classwork and I actually had time to think, what do I want to do?” he said.

Deacon Emminger started going to Daily Mass and began some spiritual reading. Then spoke to Father Leon Biernat, a family friend and former vocation director, who told him about the Response Group at Christ the King Seminary, where men can discern their vocation call. When he finally got the job offer he was waiting for from the New York State Department of Corrections, he turned them down to enter Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora. “I had to give the seminary at least one year to figure out am I called to the priesthood,” he said. “I never looked back.”

He had a couple friends at CKS, who helped him feel accepted, as God calls all different people to the priesthood.

“One of great blessings I had was Father Rob Contarin, who was ordained last year, he was already in the seminary a year when I decided to join, so he was a great mentor to me. So was Father Bob Owczarzak. They taught me that we all have our different personalities and God calls us to use our personalities and traits to minister. It’s such a big church that He calls a very diverse group of people.”

This year’s diocesan ordination was to take place June 6, but was postponed due to COVID-19, which is just as well, because Deacon Emminger himself was sidelined by the disease.

When the pandemic began in March, all the seminarians were sent home. Deacon Emminger moved back in with his parents. During Holy Week, both he and his father contracted COVID-19. “That was three weeks of my life,” he said, pointing out that he had a mild case. His father’s health was much worse. When the virus had cleared his system, Deacon Emminger moved into St. John Paul II Parish in Lake View where he spent his diaconal year.

“It was scary. My father and I were sick at the exact same time. He did several interviews because he is the supervisor of the Town of Tonawanda. One of the news organizations described me as his ‘31-year-old son who lives at home.’ I laughed, Can we get a little context as to why I’m at home right now,” he recalled.

Now, ready to face the next step on his journey, Deacon Emminger reflects back on something Pope Benedict XVI said during an early audience. “‘Each one of us is willed, each one of us in loved, each one of us is necessary.’ I come back to that a lot because I think it shows we all intrinsic value that goes beyond anything the world may sometimes say we have. We have value due to human dignity that comes with being a child of God.”

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