Sean Kirst: 'The joy on his face': For Bills chaplain, one last and greatest season (2023)

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Sean Kirst

To Monsignor Francis Weldgen, being Catholic chaplain for the Buffalo Bills involved 32 years of spiritual duties, with one notable exception.

Weldgen never prayed for the Bills to win.

The guy known as "Father Fran" makes that point with emphasis. Within the fevered international community of Bills loyalists, he understands there have been multiple times in the long and sometimes maddening journey of the team when many Buffalo faithful responded, almost reflexively, in this way:

They say, “Please, God,” or make the sign of the cross.

Sean Kirst: 'The joy on his face': For Bills chaplain, one last and greatest season (1)

Not Weldgen. Not even when he sat in the stands in Tampa in 1991, watching Scott Norwood line up for the 47-yard attempt that would determine – by a few feet – whether the Bills were Super Bowl champions.

“God’s got better things to do,” Weldgen said of asking the Almighty to intervene in football games, including the big one Sunday, in Arizona.

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It was a different set of divine priorities that makes Weldgen, pastor emeritus at St. Christopher's in Tonawanda, glad he came back for one last year with the Bills.

Weldgen, 87, just retired from that volunteer chaplain's position. The Batavia native's last Mass for the players was the night before the playoff loss to the Bengals. He admits part of the reason he returned in the autumn, after some internal debate, was built on this hope:

Since Weldgen’s initial season as chaplain culminated with Buffalo’s first Super Bowl, he liked the idea of going out the same way.

Sean Kirst: 'The joy on his face': For Bills chaplain, one last and greatest season (2)

While that was not to be, he had a deeper rationale. The pandemic turned the 2020 and 2021 seasons upside-down. Weldgen learned to say Mass for the players via video conference, from the kitchen table of his Wheatfield home. There was a “nothingness” to it, he said, that made him eager to see the Bills again, face-to-face.

His first live service at Highmark Stadium after almost two years of computer screens was in late December 2021, on the night before a game against the Carolina Panthers. While Weldgen usually says Mass in the defensive line room, this time he used the larger Bills team meeting space. Tight ends coach Rob Boras and tight end Tommy Sweeney, both regulars at Mass, said the emotion was unforgettable.

“Just the joy on his face,” said Boras, whose take on Weldgen speaks for many players, coaches and staff:

They love the guy. "I remember when I used to lean on him for a soft warming heart, someone to talk to,” retired quarterback Jim Kelly wrote in an email describing his early years in Buffalo. At the start of the 1990s, when Kelly’s late mother Alice was struggling with emphysema, Weldgen would go to the Kelly home on Christmas Day to say Mass.

Weldgen married Kelly and his wife Jill. He baptized their daughters, Erin and Camryn, and their son Hunter, whom the Kellys lost as an 8-year-old to Krabbe disease. Weldgen speaks with admiration of Kelly's enduring spirit and courage after learning in 2013 he hadsquamous cell carcinoma in his jaw.

“He’s part of my family,” Kelly said of Weldgen, “and he always will be.”

Sean Kirst: 'The joy on his face': For Bills chaplain, one last and greatest season (3)

For Weldgen, serving as Bills Catholic chaplain – Len Vanden Bos handles the role for Christian players of other denominations – happened through a string of long-shot events he sees as acts of God.

In 1971, the neighbor of a couple whose wedding Mass Weldgen had celebrated, years before, worked at a hotel where the New York Jets were staying. The team needed someone to say Mass. She called Weldgen, who found himself doing the same thing for several visiting teams.

He was close to then-Buffalo Evening News sportswriter Larry Felser and Jack Horrigan, a front office legend for the Bills – friends whose funeral masses Weldgen would later say. He also met Denny Lynch, eventual communications chief for the Bills. In 1990, Weldgen received a call from a Buffalo assistant coach:

Could he say Mass at the team hotel? He did. He was told he could share the ongoing duties with another priest, but that guy was a no-show.

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From then on, it was Weldgen. For decades, he has paid for his own season tickets, routinely giving away tickets the Bills award him in appreciation.

Boras and Sweeney both speak of Weldgen’s skill with his pencil-written homilies. He always had a lesson “that stayed with you,” said Mike Devlin, a former Bill who is now an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens – and another friend whose children were baptized by Weldgen.

Sweeney, who missed the remainder of the 2020 season after Covid-19 caused inflammation in his heart muscle, was grateful for Weldgen's understanding in a hard time. “He’s just a cool guy,” said Sweeney, admiring how Weldgen could “move efficiently” through Mass, typically finishing in about 24 minutes while projecting a distinct sense of meaning.

“He’s with the times,” said Sweeney, who joined Weldgen at such community events as a November meet-and-greet at the North Tonawanda Public Library.

Marty McLaughlin, the team's manager of security, recalled how his longtime friend endured a stroke six years ago. Weldgen learned through rehab to walk and to talk clearly again, allowing him to resume his duties.

What these Bills regulars all say, with certainty, is that the 87-year-old fulfilled a dream mission, in life and sports:

He saved some of his finest work for his last season.

Sean Kirst: 'The joy on his face': For Bills chaplain, one last and greatest season (4)

Mike Shula, a Bills senior offensive assistant coach with 35 years of experience, places Weldgen among the greatest chaplains he's seen. Weldgen never approaches prayer “as a pep talk," Shula said, but understands what players really want: A lesson "about faith, about helping guys to be a better person.”

That was evident, Shula said, in Weldgen's determination to travel to Detroit in November to say Mass at the team hotel, where the Bills played the Lions on Thanksgiving afternoon– a few days after they were forced to play the Cleveland Browns there by massive Southtowns snow.

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The players, jolted from familiar routines, were happy to see him.

"He has a compassionate way of hitting you right between the eyes," Shula said of the fabled Weldgen homilies.

He joined Boras, Sweeney and McLaughlin in saying the absolute definition of Weldgen's meaning was made clear last month, after defensive back Damar Hamlin went into cardiac arrest on the field, in Cincinnati.

The next day – before it was clear that Hamlin would recover– head coach Sean McDermott assembled his team, making available a small and highly trained group of counseling specialists to help the Bills cope with grief and worry.

Weldgen was invited. After the team gathered as a whole, the players and coaches who routinely attend Mass – the group sometimes climbs to as many as 15 – walked with Weldgen to a separate room.

Sean Kirst: 'The joy on his face': For Bills chaplain, one last and greatest season (6)

“He’s a rock. He’s a pillar,” Shula said. Weldgen said he brought this message: Shared humanity means far more than any game, a point he made again during the last few times he saw the players.

“You guys are not the same people you were a month ago," Weldgen told them. "You saw a friend die and come back to life again. That changed your life. Thousands and thousands of people saw you kneeling in prayer, and they saw you cry. They know now if it’s all right for their heroes, it’s all right for them. You’ve done something now that they’ll never forget.”

He said their example – the idea of a larger good, rising from pain – matters more than any Super Bowl.

Weldgen led quiet prayers for Hamlin, “this astounding citizen and Christian.” He prayed for peace and healing, and even after the season ended against the Bengals – when the Bills, as Weldgen put it, “just ran out of gas” – he sensed a communal purpose as resonant as anything he has felt in his years as chaplain.

He is ready now to step back, to let someone else handle the job. Boras laughed and mentioned the on-and-off-and-on-again retirement of Tom Brady, hoping Weldgen might change his mind, like Brady did a year ago. Told of that, Father Fran said no. This is it.

A moment of silence, then a smile. “Well,” he said. “Maybe a cameo.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at



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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

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