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Flushing church mourns death of popular priest

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Monsignor John Antoncic, the head of St. Mel's Roman Catholic Church in Flushing and a man known for his dry sense of humor and his dedication to prayer, died this week at the age of 61.

Friends said they were not completely sure of the cause of his death, although they believed it to be a viral infection.

Antoncic's acquaintances were all surprised by his death, saying he had been in good health just days before the illness.

"It was a shock," said Josette Bailey, who works as an administrator at St. Mel's.

Antoncic was head of St. Mel's at 154th Street and 26th Avenue for nearly three years. The congregation of 1,600 has mass in both English and Italian. Many in the congregation are of Croatian descent as was Antoncic.

Mourners packed the church, which seats about 1,000 people, Monday morning for Antoncic's funeral. Many of those who attended the funeral were priests from around the city.

The church is now headed by the Rev. William Dulaney. Members of the church are awaiting word from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which also includes Queens, on whether or not another monsignor will be assigned to St. Mel's.

Antoncic, a Brooklyn native, was ordained as a priest in 1968, friends said.

Nearly every one of Antoncic's friends fondly recalled his dry sense of humor.

"His sense of humor was something else," Bailey said.

Monsignor Martin Bannan of St. Patrick's in Bay Ridge, who knew Antoncic for more than two decades, said Antoncic mixed his joking with his duties as a priest.

"His work was balanced with great humor," Bannan said.

Domenic Ranieri, a sacristan at the church, said he often arrived to church late, and the priest would never fail to point out his tardiness with a joke.

"He wasn't scared to tell you off," Ranieri said.

Ranieri said Antoncic was a big Yankees fan and "always made fun of the Mets."

While Antoncic loved to joke around, he also had a very serious side, his friends said.

"He took his priesthood seriously," Bailey said. "He was a priest's priest."

Sister Mary Spencer, the principal of St. Mel's school, said Antoncic would wake up to pray every morning from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.

"He was a big man," Spencer said. "Very strong. And he had a heart of gold."

Antoncic's deep commitment to the priesthood drew strong respect from his colleagues in the church, friends said. In a sign of that respect, Antoncic served as the head of the priest's senate in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bannan said.

"He was a real leader," Bannan said.

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 141.

Posted 7:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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