By Pierce O’Reilly
Fr. Colin McKenna didn’t have God as one of his "phone-a-friend" lifelines when he walked into the ABC studio of the popular TV program "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in New York on Tuesday. But the Connecticut Irish-American priest was confident that the man above would look kindly on him if he gets his chance to take the show’s "Hot Seat."
It appears that McKenna will be the first Catholic priest to sit in that seat if he wins the "Fastest Finger" question round.
"I’m getting a little nervous now," he said Monday as he flicked through a few handwritten notes in the foyer of the Empire Hotel on the Upper West Side.
"It’s unreal, I just can’t believe that I’ve come this far already. To be honest, it was my brother’s idea to get involved in the first place."
Gene McKenna, 39, is a "Millionaire fanatic." He and some friends have watched every episode since the show’s inception 18 months ago and they constantly try different methods to meet the man himself, host Regis Philbin. They’ve even gone so far as to set up a internet fan club called "Jiptors," which monitors every move the show makes.
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"The lads have tried everything to get onto the show; you name it they did it," McKenna said.
So how did the priest finally get through?
"Well, we all met one night and had a marathon session calling the toll-free number," McKenna said. "My brother and I got through and were asked to come to New York for an interview and a quiz test. It was strange that Gene and myself were called the same week. We went through the qualifying process — testing, video auditions and interviews — and then a week later I got called back."
McKenna said he was amazed when the producer phoned him.
"It must be all the prayers," he said, joking, on Monday afternoon, the day before he was to head to the ABC studios for taping.
"When we did the auditions, I wore my priest’s collar and suit. It’s funny, [but] a few people said to me, ‘Why didn’t I think of that, wearing a costume?’ I said, ‘No, no I’m a real priest.’ "
McKenna is definitely a real priest. In fact, he’s the parochial vicar at St. Joseph’s Parish in Shelton, Conn. He actually asked Archbishop Edward M. Egan to be one of his "phone-a-friend" lifelines after he was chosen as one of the 10 contestants. Bishop Egan, the man who ordained him a year and a half ago while bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., declined due to work commitments.
"I called the archbishop and asked him if he’d like to be a lifeline friend," McKenna said. "He thought about it for a while and then said he couldn’t, due to a pre-arranged meeting at the same time as the taping. He’d have been the ideal candidate: He speaks five languages, he preaches about art history, and his general knowledge is excellent."
The church leader may have declined, but Dan Avila, the man who lost $2 million on the game show "Greed," didn’t. Neither did Fr. Frank Hoffmann, pastor at St. Joseph’s Church and shelter.
"Dan is a friend of my brother, so he was next on our list as a lifeline friend. We’re delighted he’s on board as well as Fr. Frank," McKenna said.
The out-of-town priest visited Ireland as recently as last February. While there, he celebrated a special Mass in his mother’s home parish.
"I’ve been back a good few times to visit my relatives," McKenna said. "In February, I said Mass in Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Roscommon and all our relatives and family were present. It was very special to me."
McKenna’s mother, Tona McCrann, emigrated from Strokestown, Co. Roscommon, to the U.S. in 1956. She was a doctor at UCD at the time and came to New York to further her medical experience. Two years later she fell in love with Eugene McKenna, a Manhattan attorney, they met by chance at Grand Central Terminal.
Eugene McKenna’s family is also of Irish descent. His father was from Ballina in Mayo, while his mother was from Clifton, Co. Galway. Eugene McKenna was active in both the AOH and the Mayomen’s Association.
Fr. Colin grew up in Westport, Conn. He graduated from Fairfield College Preparatory School in 1982 and later studied English at the University of Vermont, spending his junior year at University College Cork in Ireland, where he studied Irish Literature. He also has two masters’ degrees in education from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.
"I wasn’t really nervous up to this, but the butterflies are now hitting me," McKenna said Monday, taking another look at his notes.
"I’m looking forward to the experience. It’s going to be fun and I’m here to enjoy it. The priesthood at times can be very stressful and demanding and I’m sure the man above will keep an eye on me."
What about research and preparations?
"Well, I’ve done nothing special," McKenna said. "People have being telling me to cram, but it’s difficult — you never know what might pop up. So all the things you’ve studied might be useless on the night. I just hope to God questions that suit me appear and that I make it to the ‘hot seat.’ "
A lot is riding on McKenna’s appearance. He has promised to share any winnings with his family and his local church. The priest also joked how he’d first of all set up the "Fr. McKenna Retirement Fund" if he wins any money.
"I’ve promised to support the St. Joseph’s Church and School, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and Spooner House — the [Housatonic] Valley’s homeless shelter."
McKenna said he first felt the call to join the priesthood while studying in Vermont.
"It was a bit like my call to the ‘Millionaire’ show," he said. "I said, ‘God, you must have the wrong guy.’ "Ten years later, he gave it a try and is now convinced it was the right move.
"We’ll see now if I’ll have any divine interventions if I get to the hot seat," McKenna said. "It’s in God’s hands now, and my parishioners prayers. It should be some experience."
McKenna’s appearance on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is scheduled to be aired on Thursday, Jan. 18.