Suffolk Closeup: A journey from Congressman to clergyman


Former Congressman Mike Forbes, long on a political path, is now on a spiritual path, and he sees a clear connection between the two.

Mr. Forbes, who from 1995 to 2001 represented the 1st Congressional District, which includes Shelter Island, will receive two advanced degrees in canon law from Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa in September.

He’s been a full-time student at Saint Paul’s for the past year-and-a-half. About once a month he returns to the family’s home in Texas and his “very supportive” wife, Barbara, he said by phone from Canada. The family (Mike and Barbara have four children) moved from Quogue to Round Rock, Texas —“the home of Dell Computers” — in 2007. They had, like many Long Islanders, found it difficult financially to remain on Long Island.

In Ottawa, Mr. Forbes resides in a religious community, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

With the degrees in canon law, he will be able to be a judge on a Catholic tribunal that rules on annulments, holds trials for “disobedient” priests and otherwise deals with “legal issues for the church.”

Earlier, back in Texas, Mr. Forbes studied for five years to be ordained a permanent deacon. Deacons of the Catholic Church can perform marriages, baptize infants and conduct funeral, wake and communion services.

After the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, held in the 1960s and addressing relations between the Catholic Church and the modern world, there was a major effort to expand the role of deacons in the church, explains Mr. Forbes. As a deacon, “you are representing the service side of what Christ brought to the world.”

As the Diocese of Austin, for which he has served as a deacon and will soon be on its tribunal, reported in a news release covering his ordination: “Describing himself as a devout Catholic in love with Christ all his life, Mike Forbes considered whether God was calling him to the deaconate for more than 10 years during a successful career in public service.”

From Ottawa last week, Mr. Forbes said, “I was pretty much devout all my life. And after leaving the Congress, I felt I would love to continue to do service … I think there’s a continuity. To me it was always about service. And I was always so involved in my faith. So it just seemed that becoming a deacon was a natural thing to do. I want to be involved in working for the church for the rest of my days, to serve the Lord and serve parishioners and trying to be helpful.”

As a deacon, he said, “I stumbled on canon law and just fell in love with it.”

Now 62, Mr. Forbes recounted a conversation he had with Barbara about going back to school for two years to study for the master’s degree in canon law. He wondered whether he was too old, but his wife counseled him to pursue his dream.

It’s all been a far cry from the hurly-burly world of politics.

Mr. Forbes spoke of how he always wanted to get into politics starting off as a Kennedy Democrat. From a family that owned newspapers in New Rochelle and Riverhead, Mr. Forbes grew up in Westhampton Beach and Quogue. He graduated from Westhampton Beach High School and went to SUNY Albany where he majored in political science and history.

Back in Suffolk, with his family being close to Suffolk Republican Chairman Edwin M. (Buzz) Schwenk and Mr. Schwenk’s mother, Rosalind, a former vice chairwoman of the Suffolk GOP, both of Southampton, he took a Republican course.

Mr. Forbes worked as an aide to Assemblyman Perry B. Duryea, Jr., who became speaker of the State Assembly, and his successor Assemblyman John Behan, both of Montauk, and then State Senator Caesar Trunzo of Brentwood and U.S. Senator Al D’Amato, all Republicans, and 1st C.D. Representative William Carney, a Conservative who also ran on the GOP line. Then he ran himself as a Republican for the House of Representatives, first in 1994, and won three times.

Trouble came after he switched to being a Democrat in 1999. He attacked the national GOP leadership for being “tone-deaf extremists … out of touch” with the needs of average Americans. But Mr. Forbes at the time was also highly critical of radioactive pollution caused by Brookhaven National Laboratory. Regina Seltzer, whose husband had worked as a scientist at BNL, ran against him in a Democratic primary and, aided by BNL employees, won by 35 votes depriving Mr. Forbes of the Democratic nomination. She was then defeated in the general election by Republican Felix Grucci, of the fireworks family, who served a single term before losing to Democrat Tim Bishop.

“All partisanship must cease if you are going to be clergy,” notes Mr. Forbes, and now “even in this election … I zip my lip” about politics. “I’ll speak about it to Barbara, but that’s it.”

Photo: (Credit: Misha Popovikj/

grossman_karl150 Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times Review Media Group publication.