FLUSHING — If one craves a kind word — that so-called “daily affirmation” — give Msgr. John Vesey a call.
When he is not laughing with a caller, he is affirming the person. “Oh, God bless you, God bless you,” he says throughout the conversation. “This is good stuff. God is so good.”
And hanging up the phone, the caller feels, well, blessed.
Msgr. Vesey, who prefers to be called Father, is hard to reach. He is always on the go, serving God’s people, even in his retirement.
It’s a pace he has maintained throughout his career as a missionary in Paraguay, Guatemala, and China; a pastor in the Diocese of Brooklyn; and now parochial vicar for Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jamaica, Queens.
But while Father Vesey, 78, is quick to laugh, he is equally prompt to cry with the sick and suffering. Just ask the members of St. Michael’s Parish in Flushing, Queens, where he was pastor during the grim early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The parishioners honored the recently retired Father Vesey on Sept. 26 with a Mass concelebrated by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
“My ministry,” Father Vesey said, “is to serve people.”
‘I Asked to Take His Place’
Father Vesey was ordained in 1968 after completing Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Earlier, the Brooklyn native had graduated from high school at the former Power Memorial Academy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
He noted in an interview that one distinguished Power Memorial alum is basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who entered the school later.
At Mount St. Mary’s, Father Vesey befriended another person of renown — Stanley Rother, an upperclassman from a farm in Oklahoma. Following his ordination, Father Rother became a missionary in Guatemala, serving the indigenous Tz’utujil people. He died there in 1981.
Four years ago, Rother became the first priest and martyr born in the U.S. to be beatified by the Church.
“He was just so kind and gentle, and a hard worker,” Father Vesey said. “He did a lot of physical labor on the seminary property, because that’s what he was — a farmer.”
Rother’s missionary work paved the way for Father Vesey’s ministry in Guatemala. He had already been a missionary in Paraguay, but when his friend was murdered, “I asked to take his place,” Father Vesey said.
The Tz’utujil people were a powerful Mayan culture violently conquered by Spain, which also brought Catholicism to Guatemala. But, despite their subjugation, they came to know and love Jesus, Father Vesey said. That instinct is widespread among people. “They desire to know beauty, and to know truth, and we call that a desire to know God.”
In 2005, Father Vesey joined the missionary apostolate with the Maryknoll Society in China, where he worked until 2014. Bishop DiMarzio then invited him back to Queens to pastor St. Michael’s, a multicultural parish with large communities of Hispanic and Asian Catholics.
Father Vesey recalled, “Paraguay prepared me for Guatemala, Guatemala prepared me for China.”
But nothing could prepare him for the cruel death toll the parish suffered from COVID-19. He said an estimated 225 parishioners died; many of them had been in nursing homes.
“That was a very painful experience because we were forbidden to be with the sick,” Father Vesey said. “The sacraments of the Church include the anointing of the sick and giving Communion to the dying.
“But the people, oftentimes, were alone. They couldn’t get to their loved ones; they couldn’t tell them how much they missed and loved them.
“But spiritual care is part of healthcare,” Father Vesey continued, “and I believe that people died because they were not given the opportunity to be healed spiritually.”
The priest’s voice cracked with emotion as he described the pandemic days, which still linger.
Parishioners of St. Michael’s appreciate his missionary’s heart, according to his successor, Father Vincentius Do.
“If Bishop DiMarzio didn’t visit China and personally invite Father Vesey back, he probably would still be there today,” Father Do said. “But Bishop DiMarzio knew exactly where he would put Father Vesey — St. Michael’s Church in Flushing.
“Although the parish is still predominantly Hispanic,” Father Do said, “the neighborhood has become very Asian. Father Vesey ran the parish like a mission, focusing on evangelization and serving the poor.”
Bishop DiMarzio said Father Vesey took some time in China thinking about whether to accept the offer from the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“I said we could use him if he wanted to come back, but he had to decide what he was going to do,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “So he came back. …
“He did a great job at the parish, knowing Spanish and Chinese, and he understood the missionary spirit.”
‘We Keep Going’
Bishop DiMarzio, who will retire on Nov. 30, pointed out that priests like Father Vesey, may give up some responsibilities when they stop being pastors, but they don’t stop serving people.
“We retire from administration, but not from the priesthood, or being a bishop,” he said. “We keep going.”
Veronica Tsang, a Flushing businesswoman and longtime member of St. Michael’s, has worked with Father Vesey the entire time he was pastor. She marveled at how he marshaled people to achieve various goals.
“He was able to embrace and address most of the needs of the diverse communities in Flushing,” Tsang said. “He built strong relationships with the police department and our local council member. They all know Father John. He is the voice for our local Catholic community.”
Tsang added that Father Vesey would also serve meals to the homeless every Sunday and on holidays and, in the summer, would have a barbecue for the children in the church parking lot.
Once a Priest, Always a Priest
Father Do succeeded Father Vesey earlier this year, but it wasn’t long before he was helping out at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The pastor there, Father Víctor Manuel Bolaños, is glad to have the help.
“It’s a blessing to have someone so experienced and someone who’s been on missions in different parts of the world,” Father Bolaños said. “Even though he’s a senior priest here, he has a lot of energy, and anything that has to do with evangelization, he is very open to. So I am very happy and thrilled that we’re working together.”
Father Vesey, too, is happy with this new season of life.
“You just go from one phase to the next,” he said. “The responsibility of being a pastor is tremendous. And now I don’t have that, so I can just deal with people. I’m really happy about that.
“Once a priest, always a priest.”