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A sergeant’s pathto the priesthood

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Harry Keaney

An Irish American cop was collared in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York before Christmas.

On Dec. 19, Cardinal John O’Connor ordained James Huvane, a 36-year NYPD veteran, who swapped the blue of New York’s finest for the black of the Catholic priesthood.

At Huvane’s age, most people would be thinking about retirement. Instead, the 64-year-old former sergeant is about to embark on a new career, armed no longer with his shield and standard police-issue firearm but with a maturity, a humility and a faith honed by a lifetime of trials and tribulations.

In his clerical garb, a Celtic Cross adorning the left lapel of his jacket, it is difficult to imagine the soft-spoken Fr. Huvane as a hard-charging cop in the rough and tumble of the world’s largest police department. But, according to friends and acquaintances, it was Sgt. Huvane’s gentle side that set him apart amid the harshness of the circumstances he often encountered as a police officer.

Former homicide Lt. Vernon Geberth remembered Sgt. Huvane as a cop brave enough to show his sensitive side.

"Some cops, in order to accept death, act very cynical; it’s a defensive mechanism, they don’t mean anything by it," Geberth said. "There was always a congenial and appeasing mannerism to Jimmy Huvane. It stood out."

Det. Jack Moore said his former colleague was concerned with people, and "very considerate."

Last week at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, where he completed his studies for the priesthood, Fr. Huvane exuded peace and contentment with his decision to become a priest. But he admitted there were times, at the beginning, when he was ambivalent.

"I loved being a cop, I loved the job, I didn’t want to leave," he said.

So he turned to prayer.

While in Mexico in July 1992, Huvane visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. "I asked the Blessed Mother for a sign to help me resolve my difficulties," he said.

In early August 1992, he applied for retirement from the police department with the intention of beginning his priestly studies at the St. John Neumann Residence in Riverdale.

"After I applied to St. John Neumann, I went through a year when I lost a lot of sleep," he said. "I used to wake up in the middle of the night asking myself, ‘What am I doing?’ "

However, the veteran police officer had a small escape gap.

During his lengthy career, he had accumulated about four months of accrued leave that he could use to begin studies and, perhaps, return to the force if things didn’t work out. Then he received notice from the police benefits office that the cutoff date for his return was Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.

"That was my sign, and that sign has sustained me all through the process," he said. "I got a great sense of peace and happiness, which has stayed with me."

Content, he went to Neumann.

Formative years

Visiting St. Joseph’s Seminary, where Huvane continued his studies, is like entering an Irish hall of fame, its walls adorned with the names and photographs of legions of Irishmen who have devoted their lives to the Catholic Church in New York. It’s a place where priests are, to use the vernacular of the institution, "formed." But Fr. Huvane, who never married, traces his priestly formation back much further, to his parents, his Catholic education and his New York-Irish upbringing.

In 1922, his father, John Huvane, from Irishtown, Co. Mayo, arrived in the U.S., on Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day, after a storm-battered voyage across the Atlantic. In New York, he drove a milk truck and then cleaned out tanks at the old Sheffield Farms Milk Company.

His mother was Anne Slattery, from Glenamaddy, Co. Galway.

In June 1933, they were married in Resurrection Church in Harlem.

James was the first of three children, born on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, in 1934. Fourteen months later came another son, John.

Then came Thomas, who died in Feb. 1960, age 20, having been sick for just two days with pneumonia. His death had a profound effect on James, who subsequently became a daily churchgoer.

Young James Huvane attended St. Simon’s Stock Grammar School and Cardinal Hayes High School, both in the Bronx.

Like countless other families at the time, the Huvanes occasionally traveled to Rockaway Beach in Queens. "A lot of Irish used to go there," Huvane recalled, adding, wistfully, that when the Angelus bell rang, everyone on the beach stood up.

Huvane was an altar boy, and now and again thoughts of the priesthood did cross his mind. "I always loved the church, I loved priests and cops, but I never pursued the priesthood, I went to the police department instead," he said.

In fact, as a student in Manhattan College, he often visited the chapel there to say the Rosary that he would pass the police department’s admission test.

He joined on June 13, 1956, the day after graduating from Manhattan with a degree in economics.

For six years he was a member of the traffic unit, riding in an unmarked car "chasing speeders and giving out tickets and the like."

Then, he moved to Precinct No. 4 in Manhattan, where he "basically did the same work in a regular marked radio car."

On June 5, 1969, he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the 40th Precinct, in the South Bronx.

In 1977, he went to the 50th Precinct in the Kingsbridge-Riverdale area.

In 1979, Huvane almost lost his other brother, who had followed him into the NYPD. A parole jumper who had been pulled over in a routine traffic stop on the Harlem River Drive fired at two cops. Officer Edwin Fogel was killed, John Huvane was shot in the stomach, chest and hands.

Sgt. James Huvane was working at the 50th Precinct stationhouse when the call came in. The first thing he said was to "get a priest."

Fr. Huvane himself has just been through a bout with colon cancer. In all, it’s easy to understand his affinity for the words of St. Theresa of Avila: "Life is short and death is sure."

Retirement or redirection?

Although, in retrospect, it may seem that James Huvane was always a priest in the making, he himself said that when he came to think about retirement, he had no idea what he really wanted to do.

"I had no desire to be a priest, I didn’t feel worthy enough to be a priest," he said.

But others thought differently, including some of his colleagues in the police department.

"A number of people asked me did I ever think about it, and so many said it to me that I thought, maybe, it was God working through other people," he said.

About a decade ago, he joined the Serra Club, a Catholic group that promotes vocations and which is named after Blessed Junipero Serra, who established many missions in California.

On a visit to St. Joseph’s Seminary, he heard Cardinal O’Connor give a homily about vocations. "That sort of touched me, that homily made an impression on me," Huvane said. "At the same time, people in the Serra Club were saying to me about being a priest.

"I think God plants a seed and if it’s his desire for you to be a priest, he will water the seed to bring it to fruition. You can ignore that too, but to be happy you must do the will of God."

About a year or two before he applied for the seminary, Huvane "consecrated himself to the Blessed Mother." "That changed my life, I think. I started leading a better life than I had been leading," he said.

In July 1991, he attended a Serra conference in Washington, D.C., where he took a test designed to discover potential vocations. The results were favorable. When he returned to New York, he received a letter from a Serra Club member in Minneapolis telling him he would make a good priest.

Struggle with uncertainty

But so unsure was Huvane of his vocation that on one occasion, while on patrol with another cop in the 50th Precinct, he visited St. John Neumann Residence to tell the rector, Msgr. James Sullivan, that he had "changed his mind."

Sullivan told him to come back in a month.

Then, just before Huvane was accepted at Neumann, he a chance conversation with Lt. Ed Shalvey. Both cops had occasionally talked about retirement.

"He was getting ready to go home, we started talking, and he asked me out of the blue, ‘Did you ever think of applying for the Neumann Residence?’ " Huvane said. "I said, ‘As a matter of fact I have, but that I have changed my mind, I am not going through with it.’ "

But Shalvey told him to "stick with it, go."

During an admission interview for St. John Neumann, Fr. Desmond O’Connor, one of a panel of three priests, asked Huvane to tell him in 10 words why he wanted to be a priest.

"I said I can tell you in three words, and I said ‘I don’t know,’ " Huvane recalled. "I went on to say I wanted to save my own soul and as many others as possible, and that God was calling me. About a week later I got a letter of acceptance and then I had the sad duty of retiring from the police department."

Huvane believes God was "working through the whole process."

Now, that he is at last a priest himself, he is eager to encourage more, much-needed vocations. "Maybe we could get some of those Irish lads in Woodlawn and Riverdale interested in the priesthood."

In relation to the state of the church in Ireland, Huvane believes it has been affected by American television, which he described as "pagan basically," and by the "secular nature of American culture."

And, while recent scandals have hurt the church, both in Ireland and the U.S., Huvane thinks "a lot of it can be attributed to the fact that priests stop praying."

"They do not stop working, but they stop praying, they become functionaries, doing a job," he said.

For Fr. Huvane, the priesthood is clearly more than a job; it’s a love that has pursued him throughout his life. Now that he has embraced it, he’s ready to embark on the first assignment of a new career as parochial vicar of Regina Coeli Parish in Hyde Park, N.Y., about 20 miles north of Poughkeepsie.

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