SIMPSONVILLE — Jesuit Father Herbert K. Conner has been pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Parish for so long now that parishioners know a generous and caring man lies beneath the sometimes gruff exterior.
They like him so much that they are planning a huge gala for the occasion of his 75th birthday at Greenville’s Poinsett Club. His birthday is Oct. 30; the party is Nov. 4.
“He’s an awesome man of God,” said Mary Seale, 84. “He does marvelous things in our parish promoting ministries. We are blessed to have him.”
Mary Magdalene has 51 parish ministries, and the pastor was recruiting more at a recent Sunday Mass. In his strong, mellifluous voice, he asked the congregation to devise new ministries to serve God and fellow human beings. Then he spoke about the ministry of altar servers.
“Father Robert (Falabella) and I served from our earliest days and decided to stay close to God at the altar all of our days,” Father Conner said. “It’s not such a bad job.”
One of the newer ministries he promoted is Catholic Scouting. The Scoutmaster of the parish troop of the Boy Scouts of America said that Father Conner was instrumental in the group’s formation.
“If not for Father Conner, we would not be able to support our troop,” said Michael Varriale.
With a licentiate in sacred theology from St. Louis University, the Jesuit priest taught in high school and college for 10 years before finding his true passion in parish work. He came to the Diocese of Charleston in 1976 and never left. He built two of the largest parishes in the state, Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant and St. Mary Magdalene.
“I love parish work,” Father Conner said. “This is where the action is. The priestly life is the best: all this and heaven too.”
Two years ago, when the 1,800-family parish threatened to overwhelm his energies as the only priest, the Jesuit called upon an old friend for assistance. Enter Father Falabella.
“We met as students at Spring Hill College in Alabama in 1952 and have remained friends,” Father Falabella said. “Father Conner has the great gift of knowing how to delegate responsibility so that Christ can come into the lives of people through others.”
He said that Father Conner also has the courage to remove people from positions of authority with respect and love when they don’t work out.
“He has a warm heart and is sensitive to people. He’s kind and generous and open to new ideas,” Father Falabella said.
Scott Schwarz, a parishioner for 13 years, thinks that generous nature is manifest most obviously in the celebration of the Eucharist. Schwarz said that the pastor’s dedication to Christ comes through in the Mass and in everything he does.
Father Conner’s other talent and love is building churches — not faith communities alone, but the buildings and campuses to house them all. That includes the 1,200-seat church and the latest structure, an all-purpose building that will serve as a school when the burgeoning Catholic population of the lower Upstate demands one. Parishioner Dave Milner said that the parish holdings reflect both the pastor’s foresight and his commitment to the youth of the parish.
“This is his monument, his legacy,” Milner said. “He built this whole place. Not only that, it is the friendliest parish in South Carolina.”
Father Conner grew up in a Jesuit parish in neighboring Augusta, Ga., and to this day holds the Society of Jesus in high regard. He is part of the New Orleans Province.
For all his education, experience and authority, Father Bert Conner is also deeply concerned for what Father Falabella calls God’s little creatures, animals. He participates in a large blessing of the animals every fall on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and is a contributing member of Concerned Citizens for Animals.
So he may appear to be gruff on the outside, sometimes even aloof, but his exterior hides a gentle heart. The people of St. Mary Magdalene see just that.