The parish community of St. Matthias, Ridgewood, has mixed emotions when it comes to their former pastor and former neighborhood boy, Msgr. Edward Scharfenberger, becoming the next bishop of Albany, N.Y.
Lorraine Mannarino, a St. Matthias parishioner for 40 years, said she was ecstatic when she first heard the news. She and her husband, Joe, have been relying on Msgr. Scharfenberger’s support during Joe’s illness. The monsignor, who was pastor of St. Matthias from 2002 until last year, visited them in the hospital and in their home.
“He always had words of wisdom,” Lorraine said. He “gave us all the support we needed” along with a warm smile.
Msgr. Scharfenberger was even there, at the altar, as the couple renewed their vows for their 50th wedding anniversary.
The Mannarinos were at the hospital for a doctor’s appointment when the news came. They saw their dear friend’s face on the hospital’s television set as the new bishop of Albany was being announced.
“We were so happy for him,” Lorraine said at the St. Matthias rectory, where she was arranging transportation for herself and her husband to the ordination in Albany. She added that she was happy that the bishop-designate’s parents are still alive and are able to see their son become a bishop.
However, with happiness comes a sense of sorrow for many at St. Matthias.
“I miss him already,” said Ana Mostarac, director of business administration. “I really consider him to be my mentor.”
Among the qualities Mostarac said she most admired in her former boss was that he was supportive of his staff.
“He enabled us to do our job,” she said. “We knew we had his full backing.”
This support was possible, she said, by an open line of communication.
“I knew I could freely speak my mind,” she said.
She also said that she knew the monsignor was taking their conversations to heart because, from time to time, she recognized a topic they spoke about in his homilies.
Sense of Humility
Brother Michael Leorch, O.F.M. Cap., parish coordinator of social and youth ministries, said the monsignor’s attentiveness comes from a sense of humility.
“He doesn’t think he has all the answers,” Brother Michael said. “He trusts people. That gives them a sense of freedom to grow into their ministry.”
However, Brother Michael did say that the monsignor probably does have many of the answers thanks to his wisdom and knowledge. Bishop-designate Scharfenberger is a polyglot, a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer. He also served as head of the diocesan Marriage Tribunal and as episcopal vicar for Queens.
Ken Powis, director of facility operations, said the monsignor fostered a team mentality at St. Matthias.
“He always had the final say; there was no doubt about that,” Powis said. “He was the boss. But he gave a tremendous amount of leeway.”
Msgr. Scharfenberger trusted Powis’ opinion when it came to the buildings, he trusted the principal when it came to the school and they would trust him when it came to the knowledge of the Gospel, Powis said.
During many business meetings, Msgr. Scharfenberger would bring in references from the Bible to help make decisions, Powis said. Even as the former pastor was running a multi-million dollar institution, he relied on the Gospel when making financial decisions.
“You could always tell he wanted to live what he preached,” Powis said.
His sincerity was obvious to even the youngest members of the parish, like Ammy Ewida, a fourth-grader at St. Matthias School.
“He just says things right out of his heart, and he speaks the truth,” she said.
Ammy said she went to Msgr. Scharfenberger to seek his advice regarding her behavior. Her schoolmate, fifth-grader Yanna DeRoche, said the monsignor was her confessor.
Yanna added that Msgr. Scharfenberger loved her eight-month-old nephew and was great at singing.
Fourth-grader Alyssa Cordero summed up the students’ feelings toward the spiritual director of their school: “He was awesome!”
Among the things that made him awesome, Alyssa said, were his homilies. She said he would tell stories during the family Mass in order to help the children understand.
Yvette Rodriguez, a parent at the school, also said she admired the way the monsignor was able to make the faith accessible to children during the family Mass.
“I see him as a leader. I have the utmost respect for him,” she said. “We all loved him … I miss him already.”
However, Barbara Wehnes, school principal, said there is no need to be overly sad with the bishop-designate’s new assignment.
“The children know that just because he is leaving us physically doesn’t mean that we won’t be in his prayers,” she said. “We wish him well in his new job, but we are not afraid that he is going to forget his old neighborhood.”
Shared A Bit of Home
During the press conference, when the bishop-designate was formally introduced to Albany, he told everyone about his home neighborhood.
“I grew up hearing accents around me all the time,” he said. “I grew up smelling sauerkraut in the streets as we came home from church.”
“Ridgewood has always been a community very kind to the immigrants,” he added. “Ridgewood has always been a little tough on immigrants, too. You had to clean your stoop. You had to shape up.”
Msgr. Scharfenberger supported the different cultural communities in the parish by encouraging them to celebrate and share their traditions and by taking an interest in their needs and circumstances.
He participated in processions and feasts organized by the cultural groups in the parish. He supported the parochial Polish school and even participated in a Jornada. He offered a German Mass on Sunday mornings and blessed Easter baskets on Holy Saturday in four languages.
“He was always trying to weave the different ethnic groups as one cohesive group,” said Janina Szalyga, the parish’s part-time secretary.
After reminiscing about his old neighborhood at the press conference, the bishop-designate came to a conclusion.
“You can’t get Ridgewood out of a guy,” he said. “So I’m still probably a bit of a Ridgewood boy.”
Toni-Lynn Santoro, eighth-grade teacher at St. Matthias, said part of why he was able to minister to the people of the parish so well was because he understood the community, having grown up in it himself. Furthermore, he had a true interest in the opinion of others.
She said that when the teachers would sign their contracts, he would ask each individual a question that dealt with his or her area of expertise. She said it was impressive that the former pastor knew enough about his people to be able to connect with them on a personal level and that he cared enough to truly listen to their opinions.
His understanding of his people was not limited to official business, said Angie Rotondo, school secretary. She said the two of them would bond over their favorite team, the New York Mets. She even had the honor of watching the Mets play at Citi Field with him during a school trip.
“He was sitting there like everyone else hoping his team would win,” Rotondo said.
The school’s financial secretary, Gail Riccolione, said she bonded with the monsignor over their study of Hebrew and the Jewish heritage as a way to gain a better understanding of God and the faith.
“He genuinely cares about people,” Riccolone said. “He truly loves God. He is a very holy man.”
Despite his vast expertise and extensive training, Riccolione said the bishop-designate does not come off as an elitist.
“He is still very down to earth,” she said. “He is very sincere.”
“He’s approachable,” Szalyga said. “He’s very patient and understanding, willing to listen.”
Szalyga said she has found it impressive that despite his responsibilities at the diocesan tribunal and at the parish, the former pastor stopped to speak with people who came to the rectory. He listened, gave advice or simply said hello.
Wehnes said that with his spiritual life and willingness to listen came a strong commitment to his own and his parishioners’ ideas.
Among his priorities, when he became pastor at St. Matthias, was to strengthen the school. Together with his team, the monsignor established the St. Matthias Educational Foundation, which now helps finance the school.
This and other efforts increased the school’s enrollment by nearly 43 percent in 10 years.
Leads With Vision
“That’s why he is going to be good in his new ministry, because he can lead with a vision,” the principal said. “What he needs is a strong team behind him.”
As his former employee, Mostarac has advice for the diocesan employees in Albany: “Listen to him. Allow him to use (your) gifts for the good of the people of the diocese.”
Wanting to help their former pastor with his new ministry, the students at St. Matthias presented him with a spiritual bouquet when he visited them a couple of weeks ago. Each class decided together on a form of daily prayer they would say together for him and his intentions.
Brother Michael said he is confident that the bishop-designate understands his new ministry and will perform it well.
“He’s the kind of bishop that Pope Francis is calling for, a bishop who washes people’s feet,” he said. “It’s a call to humble service.”