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  He Hears a Different Drummer
Nonconformist Priest Removed by Jesuit Leadership

By Laura Ungar
Hartford Courant [Connecticut]
June 13, 1994

Mansfield — A fragmented image in a cracked mirror reflects the Rev. Eugene Orteneau sitting cross-legged among his flock in his cluttered office. His long hair is tied back. His earring gleams. On the wall hangs a poster of James Dean.

Orteneau, one of three Jesuit priests at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel in Storrs, keeps the broken glass to show the teenagers he counsels that they can reconcile their many- sided personalities and grow into themselves. That they can remain true to who they are despite pressure from peers and authority.

The mirror also reflects Orteneau's own struggle.

His Boston-based regional superior has asked him to leave the parish. But he wants to stay.

Orteneau believes he's being removed because he doesn't fit the image of a proper Jesuit priest. His superiors won't comment on why he has been asked to move, but said he agreed to it.

His relationship with the church is much like a young rebel's with his parents. The specter of adolescence — that painful but sometimes-liberating process — has visited Orteneau for a second time.

"I can't please them any longer and live up to their expectations," says Orteneau, 42. "It's been very painful to maintain my self-identity, be it cutting of the hair, be it the earring, be it living in a Jesuit community. For 22 years the Jesuits were my home. Now I'm separating from them."

Orteneau must obey his superiors and plans to leave Storrs by July, without a new assignment. He soon plans to leave the Jesuit order.

Many parishioners are outraged that Orteneau is leaving their church. The teenagers he works with in the church youth group, and their parents, have grown to love the man who smokes Kools and wears no shoes during Mass. One 20-year-old former youth group member called him "Jesus with hairy palms and a nicotine habit."

In the Catholic Church, where a hierarchy of priests make the big decisions, the parishioners are fighting for a voice. Some have written letters to the New England Jesuit superior. They say they deserve to be heard; that the people are the church.

During a recent Mass, they showed their support for Orteneau by unlacing, unbuckling and slipping off their shoes. While Orteneau watched with tears in his eyes, 50 pairs of shoes appeared near the altar. Orteneau's flock had joined him in his barefooted praise of God.

Against tradition

Orteneau belongs to a Catholic order steeped in tradition. Begun in 1534 by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus emphasizes higher education and foreign missionary work, said the Rev. Gerald Fogarty, professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Jesuits who work together often share homes, living together in a small communities.

The image of a proper Jesuit priest is an amorphous one. But traditionally, Fogarty said, Jesuits have followed "common rules" issued by St. Ignatius. They should not draw attention to themselves; they should dress and act like clean- living Catholic priests.

Jesuits' lives are ruled by their superiors, who help make many important life decisions for them, such as whether to switch jobs and when to buy new cars. And priests are obligated to listen. Each takes a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience.

For Orteneau, the promise of obedience has been difficult to keep.

He senses threats to his identity, and seeks to hold on to his beliefs. He would rather live alone than in a Jesuit community. He wants to keep practicing and teaching Zen meditation. He's not willing to change his appearance and conform to what he calls "a corporate image."

And he wants to continue celebrating the gospel in his unique way, using props such as lawnmowers to teach Catholic lessons. "The Christian message," he said, "should be counter-cultural."

Although Orteneau says he still has a place in the parish community, he is not the one who makes the decision. He answers to his Jesuit superior at Storrs, Pastor Richard Gross, and to the provincial superior, the Rev. William Barry.

"He and I have both agreed it would be best for him to leave at this time," said Barry, provincial of the Boston-based Jesuits of New England. "The two of us have talked about this for some time. It's not an issue as far as I'm concerned."

Barry said he cannot reveal the reasons why he's moving Orteneau; it is a matter between two priests. Gross also would not comment on the reasons for the move. Gross said Orteneau's leaving would mean a loss to the church community. Orteneau said he knew a year ago his superiors wanted him to move, but he never wanted to go and did not know when it would happen.

Fogarty said the confidentiality of conversations between a priest and his superior is vital to building trust. But Orteneau likened the silence about his move to guarding secrets in a dysfunctional family.

Leaving the family

When Orteneau entered the Jesuit order in 1972 and took his vows in 1974, he was impressed with the priests' devotion and thinking. At the time, he translated these as liberalism.

He was ordained eight years later, and moved to New York City to work at St. Francis Xavier, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. He studied theater at New York University, worked as a team leader at the church-sponsored soup kitchen and helped run "dignity Masses" for gays and lesbians.

Orteneau also did temporary work typing up orders for an input company on Wall Street. He still remembers the constraints of the jacket and tie.

"I hated it," he said. "I needed to be with the people who are real people — lawyers, playwrights, street people."

For the first few years in New York, Orteneau lived with about 10 other priests in an apartment above a grammar school. But in the mid- 1980s, his ever-present desire to live alone became very strong. So he moved out of the Jesuit community, creating the first major rift between him and his superiors.

To support himself outside the community, he worked many jobs, including waiting tables. He burned out. He took a year off and moved to Vermont before being assigned to Storrs four years ago.

In Storrs, Orteneau was again energized and inspired. Among the students and the educationally oriented community, he saw a chance to "build a parish community from the ground up."

That community began with the people in his youth group.

Before he met Orteneau, 17-year- old Istvan Decsy of Bolton said he was disillusioned by the Catholic Church. He felt no one in his hometown parish accepted him, a long- haired teenager who dresses in T- shirts and jeans. After being under Orteneau's wing, he's ready "to get back into church."

"Gene is about being compassionate. That's what he draws out of everybody," said 18-year-old Josh Hethcote of Storrs. "He doesn't say here's the answer; he helps you realize the answer."

"Gene's just cool," said Josh's sister, Jennifer Hethcote, a 20-year-old student at the University of Connecticut and former member of the youth group. "You just want to hang around him."

In his office, Orteneau keeps a sleeping bag, pillows, blankets and a big television for teens who are having trouble at home and need a place to sleep. He counsels them on eating disorders, suicide, relationships and friends. As he sees it, his mission is to help make Catholicism relevant to teens' lives in a day when spirituality is seeping out of a commercially driven society.

Orteneau's dedication to the teens is one of the major reasons Fred Hethcote, Jennifer's father, said he converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism after 30 years away from a church. It's something his wife had been praying for.

"There are very special priests who come along once in a while. They are salt-of-the-earth sort of priests," said Karen Hethcote. "This will be a desolate place for a while."

Orteneau isn't sure what he'll do after July. He is asking his superiors for a leave of absence, which would include support for living expenses, and is talking about starting a nontraditional semi-monastic religious center.

Like a teenager leaving home, he faces the pain of separation, and a future full of fear and possibilities. He's leaving the Jesuits, and may even leave the priesthood.

"And that would kill me," he said, "because I can't see myself as anything but a priest."

 
 

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