WOOD-RIDGE, N.J. – The concluding rite at a Mass one Sunday last month at the Church of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady had an air of finality unlike any other for parishioners and friars. As Paul Keenan, OFM, departed the altar and made his way down the aisle – waving to the reduced number of congregants who were masked and standing spaced apart in the pews – the 12 p.m. Mass on Sept. 13 was the last Eucharistic celebration by a Franciscan friar, bringing to an end nearly a century of pastoral service by Holy Name Province at the northeastern New Jersey parish. It was the Province’s last remaining presence in the Archdiocese of Newark.
The historic departure – and the 94 years of service to the parish and local community by the Province and its friars – were etched forever in the annals of the Borough of Wood-Ridge when the mayor and borough council members issued an official proclamation at their August monthly meeting that declared Sunday, Sept. 13, as “Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province Day.”
At the meeting, Wood-Ridge Mayor Paul Sarlo and other members of the council presented a copy of the proclamation to each of the Assumption Parish friars, including Jim McIntosh, OFM, who arrived just three years ago to serve as guardian; Richard Mucowski, OFM, who had the distinction of serving as the last pastor; Robert Norton, OFM, serving his second assignment at the parish; and Paul, who was stationed there for nine years.
The proclamation, in part, read: “We celebrate the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province who have faithfully served the Church of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady and the Wood-Ridge community since 1926. We come together to honor the Franciscan Friars in recognition of their 94 years of loving and humble service and in the anticipation of the everlasting impact and tradition of service that will continue in this community long after their departure.”
The departure of the friars from the Assumption Parish was part of HNP’s Fraternal Ecology process, a two-year initiative that resulted in the Province’s withdrawal from nine ministry sites in 2020 – among them seven parishes, a mall chapel, and a university.
Although the last Mass at the Wood-Ridge parish ended one of the Province’s oldest Fraternities-in-Mission and the physical presence of the friars, the message at the liturgical farewell celebrations made it clear that Franciscan ideals would always be part of the parish’s fabric and identity.
“St. Francis reminds us that if we – individually and as a parish community – concentrate on love and service of the Lord, our lives cannot help but be a story to everyone else who crosses our path. Your parish – not by itself, but together with the whole Archdiocese of Newark – is grateful for the 94 years of service the Franciscan friars have rendered in Wood-Ridge,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin said during his homily at a special Sunday liturgy on Sept. 6 that he concelebrated with the friars and the new diocesan pastor of the parish.
“Now, we bless the friars in their new missionary commitments. The finest expression of your gratitude to them will be the light, love, forgiveness, and unity you manifest to our broken and suffering world,” he added.
Benjamin Taylor, OFM, and Christopher Keenan, OFM, the latter who grew up in the parish and was inspired by the friars to a vocation with Holy Name Province, were also in attendance at the Mass celebrated by the cardinal.
Friars’ Farewell Masses
Each ordained friar was assigned to at least one of the Sept. 13 Masses as their final individual celebration of the liturgy at the Assumption Parish. Paul had the distinction of being the celebrant of the last Mass celebrated by a Franciscan friar, almost 94 years to the day when the first Mass was celebrated in November 1926 by Edwin Garrity, OFM, at the Wood-Ridge parish.
“This is not my Mass. This is our Mass. We are here as a community of faith,” Paul said during his homily at the noon liturgy to a church filled with 25 percent of capacity, and to another audience of virtual participants watching the live-streamed Mass on the parish Facebook page — which, along with the music liturgy, was coordinated by the parish’s music director Gabe Valle.
“Pope Francis said we need to live in a spirit of hope, vision, and compassion. Hope is what we celebrate today. As we friars leave the parish, there is sadness and hurt, but there is great hope – because this is your parish, your home. It has been a true honor traveling on this faith journey with all of you,” said Paul, who was ordained to the priesthood at the parish and is now stationed at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts.
For Richard, the COVID-19 pandemic – although delaying the departure of the friars by three months – put a pall over the process.
“The most important part of being a pastor is to bring peace and consolation to parishioners, especially at a frightening time like this. As Franciscans, we want to be with the people. But we were unable to have Mass in the church or see anyone in person. All communication and contact with parishioners were virtual and remote for months, including live-streamed Sunday liturgy,” said Richard, who is currently on sabbatical and planning to author handbooks related to his field of clinical and forensic psychology.
“I am eternally grateful for the love, friendship, and support of the parishioners of Assumption Parish. They will be with me wherever I am,” Richard added.
“Change can be difficult and traumatizing, but in reality, change is part of our mission as friars. It’s moving from place-to-place to create and develop, and to leave behind Franciscan values,” said Robert, now assigned to St. Bonaventure Parish in nearby Paterson.
Although his stay at the parish was only three years, Jim said it always felt like home. “It was welcoming from the moment I arrived because the parishioners of Assumption Parish are very warm and openhearted,” said Jim, who will continue his digital technology work for the English-speaking Conference and HNP’s communications office while at his new assignment in Butler, New Jersey.
A Simple Send-Off
After the Sept. 13 Masses, a stretch of Main Street outside the Assumption Church was closed off to traffic for a socially-distanced gathering. With everyone wearing masks, parishioners chatted with friars and said their good-byes. The event also provided the opportunity to those who attended other Masses that weekend to stop by and wish the friars well.
Jack Nagel, a longtime member of the Assumption Parish who was married in the church and whose three children received all of their sacraments there, said he and other parishioners had been in the midst of planning a farewell dinner-dance at a local catering hall. But the pandemic reduced the gala to a sidewalk drop-by with individually packaged cakes and snacks and bottled refreshments.
It wasn’t the send-off for the friars that the parish had envisioned, according to Jane Ryan, who has served as the office manager at the friary since 2015, but it was the best possible farewell under the worst set of circumstances.
“People were encouraged not to linger, and the packaged cakes and treats and bottled juice and water were to-go, rather than to consume at the gathering. It wasn’t ideal, but at least people got to say goodbye in their own way. In reality, this simple and humble send-off turned out to be more in character with the friars. They probably enjoyed it more than a dance,” Ryan said.
“The friars were special gifts,” Ryan added. “Their departure is especially difficult for parishioners who have been here for many years. But they will hold on to something from the friars and meld it into their faith throughout their lives. I will always remember the friars’ unique approach to parish life and spirituality, which was guided by their life in fraternal community.”
Parishioners and staff members spoke fondly of the friars and how Franciscan ideals will always be part of their faith.
“The Franciscans have always been welcoming and open. They have the ‘it’ factor. They talk about their own humanness during their homilies. The Franciscans are a down-to-earth bunch. But the parish goes on because the people are the parish – and I think the friars would agree because that’s what they taught us. No matter what, just as the friars live in fraternity, we are here for one another,” said Nagel, who credits the inspiration of the friars for his decades of commitment to raising funds for academic scholarships and local charitable organizations.
The spirit and joy – and the imprint that the Franciscans are leaving after 94 years of ministry at the Assumption Parish – was captured in the inscription on a keepsake coffee mug and a heart-shaped refrigerator magnet to commemorate the historical moment: “Church of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady, Wood-Ridge, N.J. – The Franciscan Spirit will continue to guide us – A Franciscan Parish 1926-2020.”
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: photos taken at the Aug. 19 meeting at which the friars were presented with the proclamation can be seen on the TapInto report about the event.
- “North Jersey Parish Concludes 90th Anniversary Commemoration” — June 30, 3017, HNP Today
- “Francis Medal Presented to Wood-Ridge Parishioner” – April 7, 2015, HNP Today
- “Richard Mucowski Marks 50 Years as a Friar” — April 2, 2014, HNP Today