This is the fourth in a series of profiles about friars commemorating major anniversaries of profession this year. The previous issue of HNP Today featured Richard Mucowski, OFM.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hungarian roots have served Emeric Szlezak, OFM, well in his 75 years as a friar. The affable and lively priest has had a long ministry serving Hungarian parishioners in New York, Connecticut and Florida.
“I’m 96 and counting,” he said with a smile from his home at St. Anthony Friary, where he has lived since 2005.
The Budapest native came to the United States on Thanksgiving Day in 1923 with his father, and the rest of the family arrived on Christmas of that year, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y. He recalled to HNP Today by phone almost verbatim his 75 years as a priest in Hungarian ministry and wrote about growing up Catholic in Budapest and how he was called to religious life in a 2007 issue of The Anthonian.
One of four children, Emeric attended Catholic grammar school before enrolling in St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., following in his older brother’s footsteps. “I was like his shadow. Everything he did, I did.”
But his brother left the Order to study engineering, and Emeric continued on to become a friar and priest. He was received into the Order in 1938 at St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson, N.J., and was first professed in 1939. He continued his education at the Province’s houses of philosophy, St. Stephen’s in Croghan, N.Y., and St. Anthony in Butler, N.J., earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University in 1941. He then studied theology at Holy Name College in Washington. Emeric made his solemn profession in 1942 and was ordained a priest in Washington in 1944.
Ministry to Hungarians
Emeric had originally planned to become a missionary in China but, since World War II was underway, he was asked to go to St. Stephen of Hungary Church in Manhattan because he spoke Hungarian. For the next 41 years, he ministered there as an associate pastor, a role he joyfully filled.
His work included going to Hungarian missions and caring for Hungarians in New York City. He helped displaced persons, refugees and struggling immigrants, assisting them in getting jobs and apartments. “It was a lot of work, but I did the best I could.” Emeric also assisted Hungarian priests in other provinces, and fondly refers to himself as a pinch-hitter. He was a general visitor for St. John Capistran Province in Hungary — now part of Our Lady Queen of Hungary Province — and would visit other custodies and compile reports for the General Curia in Rome.
In 1956, a New York radio station started a Hungarian broadcast and Emeric was asked to give a sermon in his native language. He did this weekly for 30 years and enjoyed the work, taking a liking to the technological side of broadcasting.
“I did a lot of taping,” he said, right up until he left New York City to take a yearlong sabbatical in 1985 at the Washington Theological Union while residing at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md. In 1986, Emeric was asked to serve at St. Emery Church in Fairfield, Conn., to replace an ailing Hungarian priest.
In addition to ministering to the Hungarian community, Emeric has served as a chaplain to Catholic War Veterans on both state and national levels, and to local sheriff departments.
In 2005, he decided to retire. But Emeric seems to be retired in name only. He serves as chaplain for the St. Petersburg Council of the Knights of Columbus, and still celebrates Mass in Hungarian at several churches in Florida. Up until two years ago, he was driving 55 miles one way each week to the Church of the Incarnation in Sarasota, Fla., to celebrate Mass.
“I stopped because I was too old to drive 55 miles,” he said. Now he goes to a parish in Venice, Fla., to celebrate Mass for 200 people, but needs to be driven. “I still drive, but I have to have a chauffeur there.” Holy Family Church, where he also celebrates Mass, is only a 10-minute drive.
The best part of being a priest, he said, is “saying Mass, meeting the blessed Lord, and being companions in following St. Francis. They told me to follow him and I’ve been doing it ever since.” He has also enjoyed helping people throughout his religious life. Emeric describes his rewarding 75-year friar life as being providential. “Everything has always worked out,” he said.
The best part of being a friar, Emeric added, is the camaraderie. “The Province is like a family. I left one family and got another. It’s been great. I loved every place that I’ve worked and am grateful to Holy Name Province for letting me do this work.”
As a hobby, Emeric helps parishes with carpentry work, plumbing and repairs. He also likes gardening and fondly remembers starting rooftop gardens while at churches in New York City and Connecticut. He still enjoys woodworking, dating from his days in grammar school when he used to make his own toys. He also uses the exercise equipment in the newly renovated friary.
Emeric likes living in Florida, where he can walk to the bay every day and feed the squirrels. “I must smell like a peanut. Whenever I sit on the bench, they come and beg.”
He would like to be remembered as a nice guy and as a brother’s brother, one who “was always ready to do anything to help someone,” he said, even if it was as simple as picking a piece of paper off the floor.
While Emeric was battling a cold when HNP Today caught up with him, he wasn’t letting that keep him down. He was writing a sermon for the following Sunday. “As long as I feel up to it, I’ll still do my ministry,” he said.
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today. Friars who will be featured in upcoming installments of this series include silver jubilarians.