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Contact: Jocelyn Thomas
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jan. 10, 2018 – If it were up to him, Fr. Emeric Szlezak, OFM, would have spent his recent 100th birthday in low-key fashion – maybe a morning stroll to the bay, as he does each day, to feed the squirrels, or a walk on the treadmill in the fitness room at St. Anthony Friary, the Franciscan retirement residence on 2nd Street North in St. Petersburg (activities that he counts among his “secrets” to longevity).
His brother Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province had other plans. After all, it’s not every day that one of their own (or anyone, for that matter) turns 100 years old. In fact, Szlezak, last month, became the first member in the history of Holy Name Province to reach the century mark.
In addition to hosting a birthday bash at the Franciscan retirement residence in St. Petersburg, the milestone prompted Provincial Minister Fr. Kevin Mullen, OFM, to declare Dec. 17 “Emeric Szlezak Day” throughout Holy Name Province.
Although Szlezak officially began his retirement in 2005, the same year he arrived at St. Anthony Friary (he was 88 at the time), he remained very active – not surprising considering that this centenarian still hops on the treadmill every day and goes for daily walks around the St. Petersburg community. He can often be found by the bay feeding a horde of squirrels that come scurrying toward him as soon as a plops down on a park bench.
“It’s not so much that they recognize me, as much as I think they pick up the scent of the peanuts,” he quipped.
“Maybe that’s how St. Francis started,” he added, referring to St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans’ patron saint who was well known for his kindness and gentleness toward animals and all of creation.
In his so-called retirement years, Szlezak has served as chaplain for the St. Petersburg chapter of the Knights of Columbus, and has traveled to Hungarian-populated parishes in nearby communities to provide ministerial services and celebrate Mass in his native Hungarian language, making him a beloved friar in many communities in Florida.
“You just can’t slow down the Energizer Bunny,” Mullen said.
If retirement didn’t get in his way, neither has turning 100, according to fellow friars and friends. In fact, now that he’s on the other side of the century mark, Szlezak plans on setting the bar even higher – whether it’s walking an extra couple of tenths of a mile on the treadmill, or lending his expertise in carpentry and plumbing projects at the friary.
Szlezak, who still counts woodworking among his hobbies (a skill that dates back to his childhood when he crafted his own toys), has been a professed friar for 78 years and an ordained priest for 73.
It’s not only the length of time that’s important, but also the quality of that time and what Szlezak did during more than three-quarters of a century of ministry.
Ironically, he wasn’t supposed to spend 41 years at St. Stephen of Hungary Parish in Manhattan, and 19 more years at another Hungarian parish in Fairfield, Conn. But World War II and the fact that he spoke Hungarian (he was born in Budapest and came to the U.S. with his family in 1923, settling in Brooklyn, N.Y.) derailed plans for what likely would have been a lengthy missionary assignment in China.
After his ordination in 1944, Szlezak was needed to minister to the large Hungarian immigrant population in New York City where, in addition to tending to their spiritual needs, he helped the displaced, refugees, and struggling families find employment, housing and various social services. This ministry continued in Fairfield and later in Florida, where even in retirement he found Hungarian-American communities (or maybe they found him)!
Although his remarkable ministry, like most Franciscans, has been carried out with deep humility, Szlezak did have his 15 minutes of fame – for 30 years – when he was asked in 1956 by a New York City radio station that had started a Hungarian broadcast to provide a recorded weekly sermon in his native language.
From the time he arrived in this country, Szlezak has lived through 16 U.S. presidents – Calvin Coolidge to the current president – nine popes of the Catholic Church, and hundreds of major events such as the Great Depression and two world wars.
But the person that most influenced him to become a Franciscan friar was the province’s humble patron saint himself – St. Francis.
“Being part of this brotherhood of companions, and following the humility and all-embracing St. Francis of Assisi, has inspired and motivated me – and probably has contributed to my longevity more than anything else,” Szlezak said.
“Helping people and bringing them closer to the Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, and being part of the Holy Name Province family have been a great joy in my life,” he added.
About Holy Name Province
Holy Name Province is the largest of seven entities in the United States belonging to the Order of Friars Minor. With ministries in 12 states along the East Coast, its nearly 300 Catholic priests and brothers serve in colleges, parishes, urban ministry centers and a wide variety of social justice ministries, as well as in overseas missions.
The Order, founded in 1209 by St. Francis of Assisi, commemorated its 800th anniversary in 2009. Today, St. Francis, whose feast day is Oct. 4, remains one of the most widely known saints, revered for his affection for nature and care for creation.
Interview and photo requests should be directed to Jocelyn Thomas, HNP director of communications, at 646-473-0265 ext. 321 or email@example.com.