By Msgr. Robert Pawson
March 26, 1966 – a day I remember as though it were yesterday. A few minutes before 8 a.m., I stood together with several other young men about to be ordained priests. We were standing in line waiting for the procession to begin moving into the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Innsbruck, Austria.
In the crisp morning air, I looked up into the mountains surrounding us. The mountain peaks were covered with white snow and looked beautiful against the background of a deep blue sky. A perfect day! I remember thinking how good God had been to me, how many blessings had been poured down upon me. Little did I then realize that there even greater blessings on the road ahead.
After spending three weeks travelling with my family to some of my favorite places I had come to know in my four years in Europe (the Innsbruck area of Austria, the Bavarian region of Germany, and Italy [Venice, Florence, Assisi and Rome]), I returned to Innsbruck to complete my fourth year of theology studies. At the end of the school year in July, I returned to the Diocese of Brooklyn to begin the next 50 years of priestly service.
My four years in the international seminary in Innsbruck, with seminarians from 40 different countries from all parts of the world gave me a wonderful experience of the universal, “catholic” nature of the Church, and prepared me well for priestly ministry in the very multi-ethnic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens. My first two months were in the parish of St. Ann in Flushing, where I was a fill-in, so each of the priests ministering there could have some vacation time. A big feature of that two-month assignment was covering the hospital then known as Booth Memorial.
In October of 1966, I began my 11 ½ years of ministry in Bushwick. In the parish of 14 Holy Martyrs and the merged parish of St. Martin of Tours – 14 Holy Martyrs, I had the opportunity to serve many wonderful people in the German-Italian-Irish American, American black, Hispanic (mainly Puerto Rican) and Haitian community in one of the poverty areas of the City at the height of the Civil Rights era. Bushwick was burning down (second only to the South Bronx in numbers of fires), and there were the tense days following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It was also the time of the beginning of the implementation of the spirit and the documents of the Second Vatican Council. They were exciting and challenging times in the midst of which to begin to live the priesthood – preaching, teaching and ministering to God’s people.
In January, 1978, Bishop Francis Mugavero assigned me to the parish of Queen of Angels in Sunnyside. It was a very different area from Bushwick. It was a largely Irish area (not only American-born Irish, but a large number of Irish-born). There was also a burgeoning Hispanic community, with a large number of Cubans. It was a community very different from Bushwick.
Instead of Bushwick’s blocks and blocks of three-story wood-frame houses, there were blocks and blocks of large apartment houses. While I was only in Queen of Angels a little over four years, I still have contact with many of these wonderful people.
In June, 1982, Bishop Mugavero appointed me pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Jackson Heights. This was a large parish that was undergoing many changes. There were many families who had been there a long time (Italian, Irish, German backgrounds), but there were also a rapidly growing Hispanic community (mostly Dominican, Colombian and Cuban). There was a large school, and a large religious education program. There were many more large apartment houses in Jackson Heights than in Sunnyside, but there were also many blocks of one-family homes. A number of the apartment houses were co-ops, which gave stability to the neighborhood. My nine years at Blessed Sacrament were another wonderful opportunity to serve wonderful people.
Less than a week after celebrating my 25th anniversary of ordination in 1991, Bishop Thomas Daily called me to meet with him to tell me that he wanted me to be his episcopal vicar for Queens North. For six years, I served in that position from the northern part of Queens from Long Island City to the Nassau border. Serving as Bishop Daily’s vicar, I was responsible for the 66 parishes of the vicariate, and had the opportunity to be very involved in the management of the diocese. It was a very broadening experience and a great opportunity to develop a real sense of the diocesan Church.
Just over 19 years ago, in February, 1997, Bishop Daily appointed me pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Queens Village. I continued as episcopal vicar until June and for four months did both jobs. In June, I left the Vicars’ Office and began “full-time” as pastor of Lourdes. These past 19 years, it has been a joy and a privilege to serve there as pastor.
During these years, I had the opportunity to be part of many families – sharing moments of joy and happiness (weddings, Baptisms, First Communions and Confirmations, graduations, trips to Lourdes in France and Litchfield, etc.) and being with many people at sad and challenging times (sicknesses and funerals). It has been my privilege to be pastor at Lourdes.
What lies ahead in the years to come? In March of 1966, I did not know. In 2016, I do not know. I pray that in the years to come, however, I will still have the privilege to serve in good days and challenging ones.