Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

Msgr. William Carr recalls his mother, Martha, saying that she always knew he would be a priest. He, however, has no memory of discerning his vocation until about the 11th grade while attending St. Anthony Catholic School in Washington, D.C. 

He began thinking “more seriously” about the priesthood in the 12th grade. 

Benedictine Sister Cornelia Boyle, who was principal of St. Anthony during his school days, was “the most instrumental person” in Msgr. Carr’s discernment. 

He told Sister Cornelia that he thought he might be called to the priesthood and that he intended to go to the cathedral (St. Thomas More in Washington) to “sign up.”

“She said, ‘No, you have to go to Richmond because you live in Virginia.’ I didn’t want to and felt that it wasn’t really right for me because I had lived in Washington all my childhood. But the principal said, ‘They need more priests in Virginia anyway.’ So she directed me, and here I am,” said Msgr. Carr, who grew up in Arlington. At that time the Diocese of Richmond covered the entire state.

‘God decides’

Though he acknowledged the call to priesthood, he was unsure and told Sister Cornelia about his feelings.

“She said, ‘Well you just go and let God decide. You don’t decide. God decides. The Church decides. You just go and see what God has in mind for you,’” recalled Msgr. Carr.

One reason he was hesitant to go to the seminary was because of a stutter.

“I said (to Sister Cornelia), ‘I’m afraid I’ll get up in the pulpit and stutter and it would be embarrassing for everybody.’ She said, ‘You go in the seminary, and if God wants you to be a priest, he’ll clear it up.’ And here I am 50 years later,” Msgr. Carr said.

After being ordained on May 24, 1969, Msgr. Carr’s first assignment was as associate pastor at St. Bridget, Richmond, serving from 1969-1974. 

He then served as pastor at Church of the Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach (1975-1983), St. Augustine, Richmond (1983-1993) and St. Bede, Williamsburg (1993-2005).

In 2002, Msgr. Carr was hosting a dinner at the rectory at St. Bede at which Bishop Walter F. Sullivan was in attendance. People were bustling around preparing dinner, and Msgr. Carr found himself sitting in the living room with the bishop.

“He was talking and said, ‘By the way, the Holy Father has made you a monsignor, and I’ll send you a letter soon and we’ll have a ceremony,’” said Msgr. Carr, who was completely taken aback by the bishop’s announcement. 

“I was so shocked, in fact, that I tried to get him to say it again without me looking stupid,” Msgr. Carr said with a laugh. “It was a big surprise and a big honor for me and the parishes where I’ve served.”

Monsignor is a title bestowed on a priest who has distinguished himself by exceptional service to the Church. It is a title granted by the pope – typically, upon the recommendation of the priest’s bishop.

‘Like coming home’

He returned to St. Bridget in 2005, where he serves as pastor.

“Coming back was a surprise. In a way it was like coming home because I had such a good start here,” Msgr. Carr said. “I fit in quickly and felt very welcome when I came back.”

He described the church as beautiful and one of his favorite parishes, adding that it is “a spiritual home” for him. 

Despite originally wanting to be a priest in Washington, Msgr. Carr said he has been part of “some really good, strong, healthy parish life” and is glad to be part of the Diocese of Richmond and its history. 

“We’ve never had enough of our own Virginian priests to make it work, so we’ve had the pleasure of welcoming priests from other countries, first from Ireland and now from Africa and Asia,” he said. “I’ve worked with many people like that and always enjoyed it.”

Msgr. Carr’s 50-year vocation has been “more” than he ever expected, despite any questions, doubts or worries he ever had about himself, the Church or the priesthood.

“It’s the place that I think I should be. I always come back to wanting to be a priest and wanting to serve as long as God wants me and the bishop wants me,” he said.

Msgr. Carr feels God has allowed him to be part of some good work that has brought people together to form and reform communities of worship and to share their faith.

He noted that committees and councils are valuable because they provide a way to see if what he hears in prayer from different people is God’s will. 

“We can decide if a project is something we want to do and can plan to get it done,” Msgr. Carr said.

Strong leaders who were willing to be part of leadership at every parish he has served is how programs were started and how buildings got built.

“I’m encouraged watching people bring talent from the military, education and business, and then sort of be willing to put that to the service of the Lord in a church,” he said. “We’re not the same as the military, education or business, but you can take people with very obvious gifts and, in prayer, bring them together and be proud of them when they really do all come together as a community.” 

Msgr. Carr likened every parish to a regular family with its ups and downs – expected and unexpected deaths, celebrations of first Communion and marriage. He said that those celebrations, and even funerals, are “transcendent and beautiful” because they “keep you focused on the Lord.”

Bringing Mom into Church

Msgr. Carr’s family on his father’s side were all Catholic, but his mother, who had been so sure he would become a priest, was a Protestant.

“It was funny. She was a Southern Baptist, and for 70 of her years she was a rosary-saying, daily-Mass-going, envelope-carrying Baptist in a Catholic Church,” he said.

In her 70th year, Msgr. Carr’s mother asked him if he would receive her into the Church. 

“I asked her why she waited, and she said, ‘Well, I should have done it long ago. I just think I should do this,’” Msgr. Carr said.

He called her parish pastor to discuss it with him. Because she went to Mass, tithed and prayed the rosary, the pastor said to Msgr. Carr, “Martha is Catholic,” which Msgr. Carr had to refute.

On a Mother’s Day in the late 1980s, Msgr. Carr welcomed his mother into the Catholic faith.

“So she looked like (a Catholic) and finally became one in her 70th year,” he said.

Looking back on his ministry, Msgr. Carr said that the work has been hard, but it has been the good, holy work of the Spirit.

“I’ve always thought that if it’s easy, I’m in the wrong place. It’s certainly been worth it. Whatever little sacrifice I’ve made in the overall realm of things, it has certainly been beautiful to be part of the priesthood,” Msgr. Carr said.

Msgr. Carr will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving in honor of his golden jubilee on Saturday, May 25, 10 a.m., at St. Bridget Church.