Ex-Marine Chaplain Featured at Vietnam Remembrance

HNP Communications Friar News

BUTLER, N.J. — John Pierce, OFM, a resident of Saint Anthony Friary here, gave the invocation and benediction at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation Remembrance Day ceremony, held May 7 in Holmdel, N.J. 

John said he gave a positive message to the group of 300 servicemen, labeling them “American heroes,” and thanking them for great, valiant service. He also said he apologized for the less-than-hearty welcome that many Vietnam vets received upon returning home to a Unites States divided by war. 

John was a likely speaker on Remembrance Day because of his service as a Marine chaplain in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, for which he received a Bronze Star with Combat V for Valor, as well as a Navy Commendation Medal with V for Valor, and several other medals. 

The foundation learned about John when a compelling photo (pictured, right) of him celebrating Mass in a field in Vietnam was forwarded to the organization. The 40-year-old photo shows John, wearing a T-shirt and fatigues, holding up the Eucharistic Cup, as a small group of men sit Indian-style in a field of high grass outside their tent. The cup holds their attention. 

The photo was initially given to New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine when the World War II Memorial was dedicated in Trenton, N.J. The governor’s office then distributed the photo on to the foundation for posterity.

“We were honored to accept it,” the foundation wrote to John. 

The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Remembrance Day was established in 1991 to honor New Jersey residents who served their country during the Vietnam era. As part of this ceremony, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs gave out a variety of medals for service. John was given a Distinguished Service Medal, and a Vietnam Service Medal. 

jpierceA Long and Varied Career
Serving in Vietnam is just one of the many ways John has distinguished his long career. 

The Massachusettss native played on the Fairleigh Dickinson University hockey team in northern New Jersey at the age of 31. While a pastor at St. Anne’s Church in Fair Lawn, N.J., he took a few courses in music at the Rutherford, N.J., campus. With degrees already from St. Bonaventure University in Western New York and St. Michael’s College in Vermont, he returned to FDU to pursue his love of music. It was on campus that John saw a sign advertising the hockey team and he wanted to play. He grew up running track, playing basketball, hockey and football, for two seasons at SBU and St. Michael’s. 

His participation on the team was so unique that The New York Times took note, writing a story about him titled “The Priest With Two Uniforms,” in March 1963. 

Celebrating his 50th Anniversary
When he celebrated his 50th jubilee of profession in 2008, John put together a commemorative booklet recalling his journey as a priest. He called his ordination his “absolute greatest joy in life.” 

In a letter to friends and family, he wrote: “Thank you one and all for coming to share this family day. Let the games begin, and let us together make it happen to the greater honor and glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. … You are my All-Americans. I hope and pray to be yours.”

John said at his ordination anniversary that his inspiration was 1 Corinthians 9:24: “All run in the race, only one gets the prize. Therefore, run with your whole heart and soul for the honor and glory of God.”

These days, John serves as a chaplain at an assisted living community near his home in Butler.

 Wendy Healy is a writer based in Connecticut.