Fr. Michael Tyson, OFM
You could say that my journey with the Franciscans began when I was a toddler. My family always spent the summers at Rockaway Beach on Long Island, and they tell me that Fr. Pius Noonan, OFM, began visiting us there when I was two years old. We always had a lot of fun when Fr. Pius was around. After a swim and a shower, Fr. Pius would sit on the porch, praying his Office, then joined us for supper. I remember that he always savored his cup of what he called “good old Tyson’s tea.”
All during grammar and high school, I wanted to be a priest, or at least wondered what being a priest would be like. As a senior in high school, I finally took the plunge, but in a rather strange way.
Because of Pius, I had always thought that I would apply for the Franciscans. I was, however, a very shy teenager, and I feared going to a seminary where I wouldn’t know anyone. I knew my schoolmate Bill Cotter was on his way to Clark Summit, Pa., to study for the priesthood with the Maryknoll fathers, so since I knew someone there, I applied there, too. Before accepting me, Maryknoll gave me what I would call the easiest test imaginable, and I failed it miserably.
My application was not accepted.
I spent the next two years at Fordham University. Although I was doing poorly academically, I still wanted to be a priest. So I want to St. Francis of Assisi Friary of the Franciscans on 31st Street in New York City and spoke with Fr. Salvator Fink, OFM. He ended up sending me over to Catholic Charities for testing and an interview.
At the beginning of the interview, the counselor said, “If you hear a rustling noise, that’s my seeing-eye dog under the desk.”
When my interviewer asked me why I wanted to be a priest, I answered, “Because I want to help people.”
“You can help people as a math teacher," he replied.
“But I want to help people,” was my only response.
After the interview, I was given a test. It was a test I recognized — the very same one I had been given by Maryknoll. I guess my score was higher the second time. That September (1959), I left the city for Callicoon, N.Y., and lo and behold, one of my classmates there had graduated with me from All Hallows High School — I did know someone at the Franciscan seminary. Later, during my philosophy years at Rye Beach, N.H., Fr. Boniface Hanley, OFM, heard I was interested in going to Bolivia. He encouraged me to pursue catechetics, assuring me that catechetics would be useful to have if I were to work in the missions. Unfortunately, I had no idea what catechetics was. I began to learn Spanish instead, first at St. Bonaventure University in 1964 and then in San Juan, Puerto Rico over the summers of 1965 and 1966. In Puerto Rico, I met Fr. Joe Mike Byrne, OFM, who convinced me that I should return to Puerto Rico instead of going to Bolivia. So, after ordination and still more Spanish studies in Bogota, Colombia, I set off for Puerto Rico in the summer of 1968.
Although I struggled with the Spanish language for several years, I realized one day that if I could understand the parish cook (who spoke with a pronounced stutter), my grasp of the language would serve me well.
I acquired many valuable missionary tools for my work in Santa Maria de Los Angeles and Madre Cabrini parishes. Fr. Anthony Schneider, OFM, taught me by example how to be present to my parishioners whenever possible. I cherish the memories of the weekly parish open house, when we welcomed our parishioners to the friary for fellowship and refreshments.
When Holy Name Province withdrew from Puerto Rico in 1973, I was sent to St. Joseph’s Parish in East Rutherford, N.J. There I learned about team ministry, a concept that also served me well in Rochelle Park, N.J.
After eight months’ service, at St. Francis Parish on 31st Street in New York City, I was asked to go to Holy Cross Parish in “Da Bronx.” The shelter for the homeless there is a tribute to that community’s total willingness to serve the poor and marginalized. Here, too, I learned how God can bring good from a horrendous experience. As a result of the “March Against Drugs” we sponsored, local drug dealers sent teenagers to set fire to our church building. In their ignorance, the teens started fire to the altar boy’s sacristy — and then closed the sacristy door. Within a room with a closed door and closed windows, the fire died for lack of oxygen. The subsequent anti-drug march was huge, and although drug use is still a problem, positive effects of those marches are still in evidence today.
In 1996, I came to St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md. Although St. Camillus is not, strictly speaking, a poor parish, many members of the parish are impoverished and often transient. Fr. Jud Weiksnar, OFM, my assistant pastor, worked tirelessly to establish the Langley Park Catholic Center, now officially a mission of St. Camillus Parish. Celebrating Mass in Spanish every Sunday in the gym at Langley Park Elementary School, Fr. Jud became a trusted presence among the many Hispanic people in this area. At last count, nine small-group communities meet weekly to pray and discuss the Scriptures—another tribute to Fr. Jud’s hard work and initiative.
My journey continues. All the steps along my way have convinced me that when we put in the effort, God blesses our work abundantly. God will always provide.
— This essay was written in 1999 when Fr. Mike was serving at St. Camillus parish in Silver Spring, Md. It appeared in the December 1999 issue of The Anthonian magazine.