NEW CANAAN — After many years working at universities Robert Kinnally had ascended to what was arguably the premier position in college admissions in 2000. It was at that point that he decided to made a profoundly life-altering decision.

Kinnally — who was hired at Stanford University by soon-to-be Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice — had just played an integral role in instituting a multimillion dollar financial aid initiative to assist graduate and undergraduate students. At a meeting soon after, amid a flurry of congratulations from his colleagues, Kinnally felt restless.

“They were congratulating me for this transformative thing we did for the university and, no joke, I am staring out the window thinking, ‘This is not what I’m supposed to be doing,’ ” Kinnally recalled from an office within St. Aloysius, where, effective Jan. 1, he became the new pastor.

Prior to receiving “the call,” as he refers to it, Kinnally considered himself a religious person. He was raised Roman Catholic in Yonkers, N.Y. and went to Mass regularly as a child. In college, he became enraptured by literature, consuming novels and poetry fiendishly at Manhattan College and continuing his studies in literature at NYU. He wrote his master's thesis about the baptismal imagery of water in the work of Henry James’ “The Ambassadors.”

As an adult, throughout stints in the admissions offices of Sarah Lawrence College, SUNY Purchase and the University of Bridgeport, Kinnally maintained his faith, and even taught religious education briefly. He moved Palo Alto in 1997. Kinnally biked to work, got in the best shape of his life, dated a bit and made enough money to live an exceptionally comfortable life in university subsidized housing.

He loved his job, but still, the possibility of a life in church pulled at him.

“You can’t run from it. I couldn’t run from it,” Kinnally said.

Kinnally began seeing a spiritual director, a Dominican Priest, with whom he shared his dreams of joining the priesthood and worked toward his goal. In 2004, Kinnally was ordained.

Before being appointed by the Archdiocese of Bridgeport, Kinnally had spent five years, of what was supposed to be a seven-year term, working in the seminary. He was surprised to earn the appointment, but said he’s adjusted well in just under a month.

“People are very receptive in New Canaan, they’ve been very supportive. It’s a very large parish at 2,800 families, that’s a lot of people. I’ve got to get a little used to that. I worked with seminarians, so there were eight people at Mass. But I love it,” Kinnally said. “In admissions, I loved that idea of getting kids excited about college. It’s not unlike what I do now, which is getting people excited about Jesus so that they know what to do next.”

And, in addition to getting people excited about Jesus, Kinnally said he hopes to be someone who those in the parish can look to in difficult times, and one willing to start important conversations.

“In many ways it is my job to help make sense of things. That doesn’t mean that if there’s something strange that happens, from the government, for example, that I’m going to be able to explain the rationale behind it. But I’m going to be saying, ‘here’s what we do with that,’ ” Kinnally said. “I think the church, the synagogue, the mosque — wherever people gather — these are places where conversations should take place. Because they have lasting implications. You’re talking about issues that really are down to life and death.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1