For years, Louise would go to the St. Anthony Shrine in Boston to pray for her youngest son, who had drifted away from the Catholic teachings of his childhood. Today, an usher at the door of the church hands the 91-year-old woman a program that reads “Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood.”

Inside is the name “Anthony T. Cipolle.”

“My mother was going to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston every Tuesday with my aunt and praying for me, because I was wild,” the Rev. Anthony Cipolle, 52, would say later. “I learned about faith from my mother.”

He has taken an untraditional path to the priesthood through multiple careers, fatherhood, a marriage and an annulment. He spent decades away from the church, and another 10 years studying to prepare for this moment. And now, as his mother is settling into her pew, Anthony is standing in front of the closet in the sacristy, the room where priests prepare for worship.

All around him, priests and deacons and altar servers are pulling robes over their heads. Anthony presses the fabric of his own simple white alb to his face and prays for purity. He puts the robe on over his black-and-white clerical collar.

A trumpet sounds, and the choir begins to sing the opening hymn. A line of men winds its way around the church and up the center aisle. First are the altar servers, seminarians who will someday be priests themselves. Then come the Knights of Columbus, solemn in their feathered hats. Then Anthony walks at the head of more than 30 priests and deacons. Portland Bishop Robert Deeley follows. The singing voices swell at the refrain.

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

• • •

Anthony grew up in Arlington, Massachusetts.

His father, David Cipolle, traveled often for work. Anthony and his three siblings were allowed to stay up late to wait for him. When David would come home, he would read Bible stories to the children until they fell asleep.

“I remember him teaching me the Our Father, ‘the Lord’s Prayer,’ ” Anthony said.

His mother, Louise, used to bring her youngest son to Mass regularly. But as Anthony got older, he stopped attending church. Despite good grades, Anthony had no interest in attending college. He thought he could make more money jumping into the business world, so he dropped out in his junior year of high school. When his girlfriend became pregnant, the two teenagers married at city hall. They had a son, Mark.

Anthony began working in car sales. The family moved to Chicago, where Anthony eventually started a plumbing company. His business was a success, but his marriage struggled. When the couple divorced and his ex-wife returned to Massachusetts, Anthony eventually decided to sell his business and move closer to his son. His marriage was later annulled because it had not been witnessed by a Catholic priest. For three years, he lived off the money he earned from the sale of his business.

“I lived like a rock star,” Anthony said. “I blew all the money.”

During that time, Anthony said he still had no interest in his family’s faith. But his mother started going to Mass almost every day, he said, praying for a change in her son’s life.

As the money ran out, Anthony began working in car sales again, and he befriended a man who occasionally came into the dealership for repairs. Soon he learned the man was a Catholic priest – the Rev. John Kilmartin. Anthony began to visit with him regularly, watching TV evangelist Billy Graham with him on Saturday nights. He drove the priest to medical appointments and began working as the facilities manager at his church.

“He never did any finger wagging at me,” Anthony said. “I saw him bring the sacraments to the sick and dying. I saw the joy in the baptisms, the weddings.”

Anthony began to realize he wanted the faith he saw in Kilmartin.

“One day, I was at a low point in my life, and I wanted to start over,” Anthony said. “I wanted God’s forgiveness. But I thought, I can’t even remember all my sins. I don’t qualify for this forgiveness thing.”

He turned to the Our Father his own dad taught him as a boy. As he prayed – “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” – Anthony said he felt a sense of peace come over him.

“Everything in my life changed when that peace came on me,” Anthony said. “The way I talked, the way I walked, what I said, who I hung around with.”

• • •

In the Portland cathedral, Anthony takes his place on the right side of the altar with the deacons.

More than 800 people are seated in the pews. The bishop welcomes them and begins the Mass with a prayer. Mark Cipolle, Anthony’s 33-year-old son, stands at the lectern to read from the Old Testament. David Cipolle, Anthony’s brother, reads from the New Testament, turning his shoulders slightly toward Anthony’s chair as he repeats the instructions in the passage.

“Do not lord over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock,” he says.

Bishop Deeley stands and walks to a carved wooden chair in the front of the altar. He calls for Anthony.

“Present,” Anthony says, walking to stand in front of the bishop.

The bishop looks at the Rev. Daniel Greenleaf, the director of seminarians for the Diocese of Portland.

“Do you judge him to be worthy?” the bishop asks Greenleaf.

Greenleaf says he does. Anthony waits with his hands folded in prayer. The bishop tells Anthony he has been chosen for the priesthood. Applause echoes off the white walls of the church.

As the bishop delivers his homily, Anthony takes a seat apart from the other priests and deacons. His chair is near the first pew, where his mother is seated, and he reaches over to hold her hand.

• • •

It was 10 years ago that Anthony decided to return to the church.

He began auditing classes for laypeople and studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. He started reading the Bible. He got his GED. He started taking night classes at Boston College, where Kilmartin was helping him pay tuition.

He was beginning to consider the priesthood when Kilmartin died. Anthony lost the spiritual and financial support of his friend. But in the parking lot outside Kilmartin’s funeral, a woman pulled Anthony aside. “She said, ‘I know you’re supposed to be a priest,’ ” he said.

The Rev. James Woods, dean of the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College, helped Anthony secure a scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in less than three years. Woods connected Anthony with the Diocese of Portland, which needed priests. The diocese sent Anthony to Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, which is designed specifically to prepare priests who are older than 30. Because his path to the priesthood was not traditional, Anthony said he spent longer in seminary training than younger men.

The Catholic Church is experiencing an international shortage of priests, and men entering the seminary is increasingly rare. The Diocese of Portland currently has 10 seminarians, but Anthony is the only priest ordained this year. He will serve as parochial vicar for St. Paul the Apostle Parish, which includes churches in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport.

In the last five years, only five other men have been ordained in Maine.

His son, Mark, is now 33, living in Wilmington, Massachusetts, with his own family. When Anthony was a deacon in training to be a priest, he was able to baptize Mark’s two young boys. Anthony encouraged Mark not to see his ordination as losing a father, but rather, gaining a broader family in the Catholic Church.

“It’s something I’ve embraced,” Mark said. “He said I now have 1.2 million brothers and sisters.”

• • •

When Bishop Deeley speaks, his voice rings through the cavernous sanctuary.

He asks Anthony whether he promises to assume the responsibilities of a priest. To each question, Anthony responds, “I do,” like a groom about to be married. He kneels before the bishop and promises to respect him and his successors. The bishop asks the congregation to kneel and pray for Anthony.

Anthony lies face down on the floor. His eyes are closed. His arms are outstretched. His palms are flat against the cold mosaic tile.

Two members of the choir sing the names of saints and martyrs of the Catholic Church.

“Be merciful to us sinners,” the cantor sings.

“Christ, graciously hear us,” the congregation sings.

When the song ends, Anthony kneels again. The bishop places his hands on Anthony’s head. One by one, the priests on the altar walk down and do the same. The bishop says the prayer of ordination, invoking figures from centuries of history of the Catholic faith. At the end of the prayer, Anthony is no longer a deacon, but a priest.

Three priests help him put on the vestments of the office. The bishop anoints his hands with oil, and he presents the new priest with a simple gold chalice and a gold plate called a paten, which are used during Mass. The other priests again approach the new Father Anthony one by one, hugging their new brother.

• • •

When the Mass ends, the congregation swarms into a nearby reception hall for a celebratory lunch.

Father Anthony leads a prayer over the meal. With a collective “Amen,” the guests converge on the food. Father Anthony gapes at a four-tiered cake adorned with gold swirls, flowers and a picture of Jesus. Children in their church clothes eye the tray of cupcakes decorated with crosses in gel icing.

A parish staffer gently leads Father Anthony past clusters of well-wishers. A line of people has formed behind a kneeler, where they will receive the first blessings of his priesthood. An older woman wrapped in a shawl steps forward first. Father Anthony places his hands on her shoulders and whispers a prayer over her. They make the sign of the cross together. She stands and squeezes his arm. The next person moves to the kneeler, but the line keeps growing longer.

Someone has placed a cup of soup on the side table with the statue of the Virgin Mary. Father Anthony doesn’t touch it, focusing on the people who bow their heads in front of him. He only looks up once to ask for his mother.

Father Anthony is in the middle of a blessing when another parish staffer leads Louise to the front of the line. The mother grips the kneeler as she gingerly lowers herself. She looks up at her son. They are both beaming. Louise begins to weep, leaning her head into her son’s chest. He holds her thin shoulders and bends down so their foreheads are touching.

Father Anthony begins to pray over the woman who has spent her life praying for him. His words are inaudible over the din of the lunch tables. They make the sign of the cross together. Father Anthony grips his mother’s hands tightly and kisses her cheek.

She stands, blessed.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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