Thomas Grogan's parents forbade him from entering religious life in the 1960s, so the young Mechanicville man pursued what he considered the next best thing: membership in a secular institute, a group of laypeople who live by religious tenets.
Today, at 72, Mr. Grogan has racked up 43 years of quiet but fierce dedication to chastity, obedience and poverty as a member of the Secular Institute of Missionaries of the Kingship of Christ, a Franciscan pontifical institute.
He recently renewed his vows with a celebration at Corpus Christi parish in Round Lake, where he's been a parishioner for more than four decades. He deemed the event "an awesome experience. You think back to 40 years ago...and now you have a whole different group of friends sitting with you holding your hands."
The ceremony marked Mr. Grogan's first time at church in a few years. Poor health has prevented him from keeping up with daily worship, acts of charity and even some private devotions. But he looks back with gratitude for "the joy I was able to bring to many people when I was in good health, and the joy that they bring me now."
Heaven is here
He considers life "heaven on earth.
"What we get in this world...I am thankful for, because of what [God] went through for us," he said. "You have to keep your eye on the cross, because there's no other way."
After his parents made clear their opposition to Mr. Grogan's religious vocation, he studied horticulture at SUNY-Cobleskill and opened a florist's shop, which he managed for more than 30 years. Though he still wonders if he should have been a chef - he fondly recalls Sundays spent making pasta by hand with his Italian mother - he found satisfaction in decorating churches and wedding receptions with his bouquets.
"It brought so much joy to so many people," he said. "You never know what one little flower can mean."
Mr. Grogan spent his free time cooking for the poor, leading local third order communities of faith-filled laity, working with alcoholics and more. He went on monthly retreats to Maryland with the women's version of his secular institute; today, he's one of only two male members left in the U.S.
Often, Mr. Grogan also traveled to Italy for a month at a time to be with the institute's global community. His membership took him to almost a dozen other countries, as well.
Stateside, he didn't make a display of his religious values.
"We're supposed to be quietly living in the world by our lifestyle, our charity," he explained. "You're not supposed to walk around in sackcloth and ashes."
In fact, Mr. Grogan insisted that members aren't much different from non-members: "We're not the best people in the world. We're sinners just like everyone else. We're still pilgrims in the world trying to make our heavenly reward in the end."
Committing oneself to the institute's vows isn't without its challenges, however: "It's not for everybody. It does have its moments where you wonder, 'What am I doing here?' We all have natural weaknesses which we really don't accept for what they are until we get a good spiritual director."
Mr. Grogan is full of advice for Catholics discerning membership in a secular order or institute: "Be willing to sacrifice your life to Christ. He's not a once-a-week visitor. It's a daily acknowledgement of His existence.
"Find yourself a good spiritual director," he continued, adding: "You can't say, 'I'm too much of a sinner.' That's a cop-out, because we have the facility to be forgiven of our most grievous sins as long as we're capable and willing to change our ways. Have faith in Him and His Blessed Mother."
Blow after blow
Mr. Grogan's store was devastated by a fire in 1997 and went bankrupt. Months later, Mr. Grogan suffered the first of a series of heart attacks and also witnessed a tornado destroy his childhood home, though his mother was left unscathed.
"By the grace of God, we got through everything all right," he said.
Mr. Grogan had a second heart attack last fall and developed Parkinson's disease about six years ago.
"I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road because I was shaking so much," he remembered. "And I made up my mind right then and there to put the car in the garage."
Since then, the degenerative disease has forced bouts in rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes. He currently lives in his own home, but receives help from visiting nurses.
For company, he turns to his Highland Terrier, Jeffrey, and visitors from Corpus Christi, St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady (which he has also attended) and the Little Sisters of the Poor. Parishioners also bring communion to his house, which he's dubbed the "cathedral in the pines" because of its collection of first-class relics.
These days, Mr. Grogan watches EWTN for daily Mass, Bible study and the Rosary. "It's a saving grace," said the ever-faithful Catholic.