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Alas, no ‘hot seat’ for Connecticut priest

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Pierce O’Reilly

Contestant Fr. Colin McKenna’s eyes danced with joy when he saw the second "fastest finger" question on the hit show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" last Thursday night.

The question — "Put these islands in order starting in Florida and heading east: Puerto Rico, Ireland, Sir Lanka and Borneo."

"I couldn’t believe it, firstly that Ireland was there and then a geography question," he said.

The parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s Parish in Shelton, Conn., tapped in his answer in lightning time. "I knew I had it right," He said, "but was it fast enough."

Irish-American viewers who heard about the story in the Echo had their fingers crossed too for the out-of-town vicar.

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The Connecticut priest with strong Irish roots had successfully reached the final 10 contestants, but his heavenly powers failed to deliver on the night and despite getting two of the three "fastest finger" questions correct, he didn’t make it to the "hot seat" and meet with host Regis Philbin.

"I’m disappointed, of course, but the whole experience will stand to me in the future," he said. " You couldn’t believe the tension that is created during the show, and it’s so difficult to hold your concentration."

The show itself was billed as a classic with the first Catholic priest making his debut. An estimated 30 million viewers tuned in to see Fr. McKenna’s performance on the ABC program, which had been shot a week earlier. The parochial hall at St. Joseph’s Church was also in full swing with well wishers, TV crews and local news reporters all edging to get another angle to an already unique tale.

"It was a terrible winter’s night up here and with snow and frost we couldn’t believe all the people that turned up to watch the big screen," McKenna said.

"It really was an unbelievable experience. I didn’t make it to the hot seat or win $1.8 million, but just to be part of the whole setup was something else."

Gene McKenna, Fr. Colin’s candidate for the "family chair," was also disappointed his younger brother missed his chance to become the first clerical millionaire on the show.

" I’m afraid, he’ll have to stick to the day job now," he joked.

Fr. Colin, who had asked for the assistance of Archbishop Edward Egan, never got to call his five lifelines friends either. Pastor Frank Hoffmann, his close friend at St. Josephs, and Dan Avilla, a family friend in Shelton, both had agreed to let McKenna call them if he got stuck on a question.

"You couldn’t believe the support I got, even from people that I never met," McKenna said. "It’s going to take some time now to get back to regular parish life after all the hullabaloo."

It was apparent from early on in the show that host Regis Philbin took a liking to McKenna, the first Catholic priest on the show. Regis gave him an on-air introduction and chatted cordially with him throughout.

Marian Uss, a clerical worker at St. Josephs parish who was in the audience for the show, said that the entire parish is proud of McKenna.

"Everyone loves Fr. Colin," she said.

After the cameras stopped taping, Uss said, Philbin walked over to McKenna and said, "What happened, Father? Every nun and priest in the country was praying for you."

About two dozen parishioners from Saint Josephs were on the set for the taping, including Fr. Colin’s mother, Tona, who hails from Roscommon.

"It was a fantastic show," Uss said. "It’s definitely not as easy as it looks on TV."

And how, then, will Fr. Colin McKenna remember this period in his life, just a year and a half into his vocation.

"Well, I can imagine now, in 50 years, me sitting in a small rural pub in Ireland having a pint with the lads and saying to them when the conversation runs out, ‘Do ya know lads, I was two seconds from becoming a millionaire once.’ I’m sure that will turn a few heads," he said.

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