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Emeric Szlezak Celebrates 100th Birthday

Emeric Szlezak admires his cake while talking with well-wishers who congratulated him on his milestone birthday. (Photo courtesy of John Anglin)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A century of life and 78 years of Franciscan service were recognized this weekend when Emeric Szlezak, OFM, reached his 100th birthday. Friends, friars and family members gathered on Saturday at St. Anthony Friary to celebrate the milestone. Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, designated the following day as Emeric Szlezak Day. Emeric is the first friar of Holy Name Province to celebrate his 100th birthday.

Roughly 25 guests – mostly Emeric’s family, including his brother Emery – joined 30 friars on Dec. 16 for the St. Anthony Friary celebration honoring the centenarian.

Kevin, who presided at the Mass and preached, noted that Gaudete Sunday – the third Sunday of Advent – spoke about the kind of joy that Emeric possessed in his 41-year ministry to Hungarian immigrants at St. Stephen of Hungary Parish on East 82nd Street in New York City.

“Emeric’s joy, kindness and patience that befit a Friar Minor welcomed many people who were desperate to relocate and begin new lives in this country,” said Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, who lives with Emeric at the St. Petersburg friary. “Kevin Mullen remarked that he had lived at St. Stephen’s with Emeric and while Emeric taught Kevin many things, Kevin taught Emeric Irish music,” Kevin Tortorelli said, adding “Perhaps it is not quite an equal trade-off.”

During the Mass, Emeric was presented with the kneeling statue of St. Francis that is a replica of the statue in the 32nd Street courtyard at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City, a gift from his brother friars of Holy Name Province and a small reminder of Emeric’s 40 years of life and ministry in New York City. In addition, Emeric received “a generous assortment of Bailey’s Irish Cream,” according to Kevin Tortorelli.

Emeric was also presented with several customized gifts including a stole with his name on it – presented by Vincent Laviano, OFM, guardian of St. Anthony Friary – and a shirt that says “world’s most amazing 100-year-old.”

Emeric receives a gift from Vincent Laviano. (Photo courtesy of John Anglin)

Emeric’s nephew and his wife composed a long poem celebrating Emeric’s life that they read toward the end of dinner. It described his warm contacts with his family and places where he lived and served as a friar, said Kevin Tortorelli.

Friars Adam Szufel, OFM, and Rene Barczak, OFM, members of the friary community from Assumption BVM Province, sang to Emeric in Polish, “May You Live a Hundred Years!”

“Emeric didn’t identify what it ‘takes’ to reach 100 years old, but a walk every day, good genes and a bit o’ the Bailey’s surely figures into it,” said Kevin Tortorelli. Earlier this year, Emeric told HNP Today that his secret to a long life was not worrying and also eating and sleeping well.

“One could feel the energy and joy of the occasion,” Kevin Tortorelli said about Saturday’s birthday celebration. “A few friars commented to me that the celebration was a kind of affirmation of our lives as Friars Minor. I thought to myself that 100 years is normally a historical category, but that night it was very much a personal category of flesh and blood, of a Friar Minor surrounded by love and affection.”

In addition to serving at St. Stephen of Hungary Parish for 41 years, Emeric also ministered for 19 years at St. Emery Parish in Fairfield, Conn. For the past 12 years, he has lived and worked in St. Petersburg.

Emeric and Kevin Mullen during the birthday celebration. (Photo courtesy of Janet Gianopoulos)

“When it comes to length of years, the psalmist observes that one’s days on earth may be calculated with the formula: ‘70 years or 80 years for those who are strong,’” said Kevin Mullen in a letter sent to HNP friars on Dec. 15. “According to this measure, Emeric is truly a Big Strong Man! However, we give thanks not only for his length of days but much more for the quality of those days and for his selfless giving to others. In this regard, Emeric, our brother, is a Big Strong Franciscan.”

Emeric, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, on Dec. 17, 1917, came to the United States with his family on Thanksgiving Day in 1923. A story about his life was published in HNP Today in 2014 to mark the 75th anniversary of his profession.

A post on the Province’s Facebook page announcing Emeric’s birthday on Dec. 17 acquired more than 100 “likes” in less than 24 hours – perfect for someone marking 100 years of life.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

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