Learning from Jesuits led to a vocation for Father Herbert Conner

SIMPSONVILLE — Though it seems to take many of us until our high school or college years — and sometimes later than that — before figuring out our vocation in life, Jesuit Father Herbert K. Conner knew he wanted to serve God almost from the get-go.

Now, some seven decades later, the Augusta, Ga., native and longtime pastor at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville, is celebrating 60 years as a Jesuit.

“From the first day I entered elementary school, the attraction in my life was the priesthood,” Father Conner said.

Father Conner was a “Depression baby,” born in 1930, a year after the historic stock market crash that sent the United States into an economic decline that lasted until the start of World War II 10 years later.

An only child, the Jesuit’s father, Herbert senior, was a Methodist while his mother, Jennie Kuhlke, was a Roman Catholic. They were members of Sacred Heart Church in Augusta. Father Conner said it was his family’s association with the Jesuits there that put him on the road to the priesthood.

Father Conner entered the Society of Jesus on July 30, 1948, after graduating from Boys Catholic High School in Augusta earlier that year. That school is still open, though it is now co-educational and the name has changed to Aquinas High School.

He spent the next four years in Grand Coteau, La., a small town about an hour’s drive west of Baton Rouge and home to the Jesuit Spirituality Center on the campus of St. Charles College. From there, the young man headed south to Mobile, Ala., where he attended Spring Hill College for three years.

He went on to teach at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Fla., for two years in the late 1950s, and then at Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola in a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Father Conner attended a theologate program at St. Mary’s College in St. Marys, Kan., and in 1961 returned to Spring Hill, where he was ordained as a priest on June 14 of that year.

Following his ordination, the new priest spent a year in tertianship — the third and final year of novitiate in the Society of Jesus — before returning to Louisiana as Minister of the House at St. Charles College.

He would teach for another five years at Jesuit High School in Tampa before beginning his parish ministry at St. Ignatius Church in Mobile.

Father Conner came to South Carolina in 1976. His first assignment was to St. Joseph Church in Columbia. He spent 10 months there before being assigned as pastor at Christ Our King in Mount Pleasant for the next 12 years. While there, he oversaw the construction of a new church and rectory, and the purchase of a convent for sisters at the parish.

That parish-building experience was helpful later when he became pastor at St. Mary Magdalene in 1991.

“There was a small church under construction when I arrived here, but we quickly outgrew that and had to build a second church,” he said.

That 1,200-seat worship space was completed in the late 1990s, followed by construction of the Conner Ministry Center on the church grounds and a new rectory that opened two years ago.

When he arrived at St. Mary Magdalene, the church was surrounded mostly by open farmland on a two-lane country highway. Now, 17 years later, the two lanes are five, St. Mary Magdalene is surrounded by new subdivisions, and the 160-family parish is home to 2,700 families.

Given his affection for teaching, Father Conner is especially proud of the Ministry Center at St. Mary Magdalene. The center includes 16 classrooms and a Child Development Center for 2- to 4-year-olds.

“We have a CCD program that this year will have about a thousand students,” he said.

Since his arrival in South Carolina, Father Conner has served under three bishops: Bishops Ernest L. Unterkoefler, David B. Thompson and Robert J. Baker.

One of the more memorable moments of Father Conner’s assignment in Mount Pleasant came in January 1980 when Bishop Unterkoefler invited Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros to the dedication of the new church at Christ Our King.

“Cardinal Medeiros was a classmate of Bishop Unterkoefler,” Father Conner said.

Though the country was going through some difficult economic times very early in his life, Father Conner said his family made it through in fairly good shape.

“My father had a city job and we were pretty well blessed,” Father Conner said. “I was too young at the time to really realize the hardship many people were going through.”

He was still in grade school when the United States entered World War II in the early 1940s, but his adulthood experiences weren’t without conflict. While an assistant principal at Jesuit High School in New Orleans in the early 1960s, Father Conner had to deal first-hand with integration and the tense emotions stirred by the change,  especially in the South.

“The first day of school that year marked the first day it had been integrated, and people were outside picketing for our school to remain segregated,” he said.

The priest said he still has vivid recollections of another difficult period in U.S. history that started on November 22, 1963, when then-President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Father Conner was in New England on that day, in the middle of a 30-day retreat as part of Jesuit tertianship.

“Our instructor at the retreat let us follow all of the events surrounding President Kennedy’s death on television,” Father Conner said. “It was rather extraordinary to be in New England at the time, since Kennedy was from Massachusetts. It made the events more personal.”

Throughout his time as a Jesuit priest, and in the years leading up to his ordination, Father Conner has been a strong supporter of using the vernacular in the liturgy. In the early 1950s, Father Conner participated in a debate on that topic in Grand Coteau, arguing for use of the vernacular.

The issue of Latin vs. the native language in the church took on a very personal role when he was celebrating Mass at a retirement home in 1961. One of the residents was Father Conner’s grandmother, who was of the Methodist faith.

“Of course, the entire Mass was in Latin,” Father Conner said. “Afterward, my grandmother came up to me and said ‘I thought there would be at least one word in English.’ ”

But four years later, the Second Vatican Council finally settled that argument, much to the delight of the Jesuit.

“At the time, I never thought I would see the reality of it,” he said.

Father Conner succeeded Father Tom Gillin, SJ, at St. Mary Magdalene. Father Gillin established St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in nearby Mauldin in 1972. When Father Conner came to Simpsonville in 1976, he was joined by Father Austin Park, SJ, who served at St. Mary Magdalene and also at Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville.

During the 1980s, Father Conner chaired the diocesan liturgical commission, and he served on the diocesan finance council.

At one time there were eight Jesuit priests serving in South Carolina, now there is only one other than Father Conner. Father John O’Holohan, SJ, is pastor at St. Catherine Church in Lancaster, St. Joseph Church in Chester, and St. Michael Mission in Great Falls.

The other priest at St. Mary Magdalene is Father Robert Falabella, a classmate of his in philosophy.

“We all see the need for vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life, and we pray that we will have many vocations here at St. Mary Magdalene,” Father Conner said.

He rarely returns to Augusta these days, although he has an older cousin who still lives in the area. The Jesuits left the city in the early 60s and the parish ultimately closed, though the building still stands as the Sacred Heart Cultural Center.

When he is not working, Father Conner spends much of his “off-duty” hours watching television and reading. One of his favorite authors is the late Flannery O’Connor, a Southern writer and devout Catholic. He’s currently reading “My Life with the Saints” by Jesuit Father James Martin.

Father Conner has spent the past 30 years as a Jesuit in South Carolina, and there are no signs that his streak will end anytime soon.