By Msgr. Steven Ferrari
Recently I took advantage of a free weekday morning (a rarity for most pastors) to do some visiting. I intended to spend some time with two elderly diocesan priests who have tremendously influenced my life and my priesthood. Both are now residing at the Bishop Mugavero Residence at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston (the former Cathedral College Seminary where I spent four of the happiest years of my youth, from 1969 to 1973).
Msgr. Eugene A. Feldhaus is the oldest priest in the diocese – he’ll turn 98 this July, God willing. (I’ve only known him for exactly half of that – meeting him 49 years ago, when I entered the college.)
As an English professor, he was without comparison. As a role model, he is above the rest. It is Gene who instilled in me a love of literature and reading, of the theater, and most of all, of the priesthood.
He was my spiritual director for many years, and preached the homily at my First Mass. Just inside his room, next to the door, is an old framed photograph of “Feldy” placing his hands on my head, as I knelt before him on ordination day (May 31, 1980) before the altar at Blessed Sacrament Church in Jackson Heights. Perhaps not by coincidence, standing next in line behind him in the photo is the priest whose brother would eventually marry my sister, Father Tom Devery!
Of course the years, infirmity, and time have affected Msgr. Feldhaus’ body, and to a lesser degree, his mind. He is still quite sharp – always remembers to ask about my Mom and my parish. We can discuss things as if we left off yesterday. And that spark of humor is still so evident in his voice and in his eyes.
As I took my leave, he remarked to his caregiver, Norma, referring to my generation of his past students and present priests, that he was ‘privileged’ to have taught us and worked with us – “not a finer group,” he said. Feldy sure knew how to make you feel good!
Going downstairs to the first floor at the residence, I knocked at the door of my first pastor, Bishop (then Father) Rene A. Valero. Confined to a wheelchair, Bishop Rene is struggling with the ravages of age and illness as well. He will turn 88 this August. I reminded him how he had once told me nearly 40 years ago that “you become like your first pastor!”
Well, I said to him, looking him straight in the eyes, I may have the mustache and goatee like you, but I still have a full head of hair!
I recalled when he was appointed an Auxiliary Bishop for Brooklyn in 1980. I was newly ordained a couple of months. His room was directly across from mine in Blessed Sacrament rectory.
Early one morning, I found a hand-written note under my door. Rene was asking me to type (remember typewriters?) his acceptance and gratitude letter for his appointment. He didn’t type! The note, which I have to this day, further indicated that I should not mention this to anyone under pain of mortal sin – not even to himself!
How privileged and exciting for me as a still-wet-behind-the-ears priest to be in on this wonderful ‘secret’ – at least for a day or two!
Just before saying my goodbyes, I prayed with the priest/bishop who had taught me so much about what it meant to be a pastor. After I blessed him, he kissed my hand.
I left Douglaston late that morning, saddened and yet renewed. Saddened at what these once so vibrant, energetic and fine priests, who have offered more than 70 and 60 years of their lives in service of God’s people, have now become (and of what I may also become). Saddened also that the priests ordained within the past 10 or 20 years or so never had the opportunity to live, work and pray with these fine men in their ‘glory’ years.
I also felt renewed, because the fervor, holiness and example of these beloved priests continue still to resonate in my own priesthood.
In this diocesan Year of Vocations, it is my hope and prayer that the people of the diocese continue to pray for priests, past and present – those who administered the sacraments to them, those who educated and encouraged them, those who have failed in their promises, those suffering from addiction or illness – in a word, all priests. For we priests need the prayers and encouragement of our people.
Msgr. Ferrari is the pastor of St. Teresa’s parish, Woodside.