It was the stork that shocked the priest -- the 7-foot, white-painted stork sitting on the lawn of his new home in Severn.
That, and the sign reading "It's a pastor!" made for a most unusual gesture of welcome from St. Bernadette's Roman Catholic parish to its new clergyman.
The Rev. Domenic Cieri, the new priest (known affectionately as "Father Nick"), laughs at the memory, but the enthusiastic welcome he's received since arriving at the Severn parish three weeks ago has made him more than happy. "I'm mesmerized," he says.
After seven years as director of the Office of Liturgy for the Baltimore archdiocese, Father Cieri was ready for a change from his desk job. An archdiocesan committee met with the parish council at St. Bernadette's and concluded that Father Cieri was a good match for the 1,100-family church, with its young, socially active congregation.
The former parish priest, the Rev. Joseph Connolly, a priest for four decades, retired recently after 16 years at the church.
"The people wanted someone who would be collegial and work with the lay leaders and parish council," Father Cieri says. "They wanted someone sensitive to social ministry and the needs of the poor, but also to church worship."
The parish, named for Saint Bernadette, who in 1879 described seeing visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, is marked by activism on behalf of the poor.
For example, after hearing about parishioners and other community members losing jobs, the church's coordinator of social ministry recently set up a job seminar at the church. St. Bernadette's regularly participates in protests against social injustice, such as the Fifth Annual Walk Against Hunger in Africa.
Into this warm-hearted congregation has come Father Cieri, a handsome, likable man whom church members love to tease. "Your robe matches your blue eyes, father!" jokes a veteran secretary.
At 39, the new priest seems to go with the church, with its highly artistic, modern sanctuary adorned with unusual sculpture and its congregation of young families.
The largest age group within the parish consists of members in the 31 to 41 years old. "But we have some of everything," says Father Cieri. "We have a good span."
Said Jerry Smith, a member of the the Parish and Community Relations committee: "Everybody seems to be very pleased with Father Nick. We need somebody young, somebody to bring us together more as a community."
The parish, under the new priest's direction, hopes to join the county's Self-Help and Resources Exchange (SHARE) program, through which, for $13 a month and two hours of volunteer work, a participant receives about $35 of food monthly.
"People seem truly excited for new things," Father Cieri said. "They seem ready."
XTC Not that he plans to turn things topsy-turvy. "In the first few years, I want to learn as much as I can about the community and the parish, and see how I fit in and how I can be of most help."
A native of Linthicum, Father Cieri feels at home in Anne Arundel County. His family moved to East Baltimore during his childhood, where his father ran a small food store. He graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in 1971, then attended Notre Dame, where he completed his undergraduate studies in psychology.
He studied for the priesthood at Maryknoll Seminary in New York State, home of the Catholic Foreign Missions Society of America. After a year working in East Africa, he returned to Baltimore in 1978 to finish his studies. He earned a master's degree in divinity, a master's degree in liturgy and a master's degree in Catholic Eastern (Orthodox) Spirituality.
After ordination in 1981, Father Cieri assisted at St. John's Church in Westminster and then at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City.
During his seven years with the liturgy office in Baltimore, Father Cieri coordinated and oversaw all masses and ceremonies involving archbishops and cardinals. It was a high-pressure, demanding job, and one he enjoyed. But he yearned for parish work.
"I enjoy working with people," he said. "Parish work is varied: Sunday liturgy, visiting the sick, teaching, working with kids and teen-agers."
This emphasis on people is reflected in his goal for the church, one he shares with the congregation -- to make St. Bernadette's a welcoming place, "a home for people where everyone can find a place. The parish has that already, but there are areas in which we can grow."
A sense of welcoming fits with his view of the mission of the church-at-large: reconciling people to one another.
"The most important thing we do is being an agent of peace," says the new pastor. "Helping people understand and respect one another is what the message of Christ is all about."