This is the seventh in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2010. The last issue of HNP Today featured Peter Sheridan, OFM.
BUTLER, N.J. — John Alderson, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony Church here, said he never wanted to be a teacher, but God had other plans.
It seems ironic, because John, who marks his 50th anniversary of profession in July, has spent the better part of his ministry teaching and counseling students at Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School in Buffalo, N.Y.
“Of the three things that I mentioned, when the Province asked that I wanted to do, I put parish work and preaching first and second and left the third one blank. I didn’t want to teach,” John chuckled.
But apparently the Province recognized that John has a great talent for working with young people, assigning him to teach social studies and counsel students for more than 25 years, beginning in 1967. After spending his first year in ministry at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, John, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., was assigned to Timon, a Franciscan school where dozens of Holy Name friars had taught and ministered since its founding in 1946.
Returning to Teaching
John, who turns 71 in July, is returning once again to Timon to teach religion and serve as campus minister. Over the years, the school’s Franciscan influence has waned since the Province withdrew its friars in 1990, he said, and enrollment has dropped at the all-boys school. Timon for some years has wanted to reinvigorate its strong Franciscan roots. In 1997, Joel Campbell, OFM, began ministering at the school, serving until his death in 2007. Since then, the school has been eagerly seeking another friar.
“(Provincial Minister) John O’Connor, OFM, who had been in conversation with Timon principal Thomas Sullivan about having a friar on staff again, has allowed me to respond to their request,” he said.
And so, John will pack his bags for Buffalo in June once more and return to his former home at St. Patrick’s Friary. He will also assist at Holy Family Church, a diocesan parish near the school. “They have one priest covering three parishes,” he said.
Does he consider Timon a tall order? “I hope they’re not thinking of me as something magical, just because they have a friar on staff,” he said.
The only bittersweet part of this new assignment, John said, is moving farther away from his two sisters, who live in Maryland and Virginia. “Instead of being four hours away, as I’ve been in New Jersey, I’ll now have an eight-hour drive.”
But Upstate New York is familiar turf for this friar, a Rochester native. He was encouraged to become a priest by a frequent patron at his father’s store and initially attended St. Andrew’s, the local diocesan seminary, but didn’t like it.
The store patron suggested that he visit St. Bonaventure University one summer and meet the friars. It was there that John discerned that he was called to be a Franciscan. He entered St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., in 1957 and was received into the Order two years later. He earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from SBU, a master’s in counseling from Siena College, and a teaching certificate in social studies from Niagara University.
“I feel so lucky to be a friar. If I had my life to live over, I’d be a friar in a minute.”
This is a strong statement from a self-described “hellion as a kid,” who said his parents cringed when they heard he was entering religious life. “They thought I would only embarrass the family.”
John has also been involved in parish ministry, beginning in 1982, including assignments at St. Mary’s in Pompton Lakes, St. Joseph’s Church in West Milford, and St. Anne in Fair Lawn, all in New Jersey, and St. Patrick-St. Rita in Buffalo. His most recent assignment is at St. Anthony’s Church in Butler, where he’s been for the past two years.
His involvement in parish ministry was actually due to a major crisis in his life. At the age of 42, while working at Timon, he was stricken with throat and tongue cancer and given six months to live.
“I moved to St. Patrick’s Friary in Buffalo and had to stop doing everything because I couldn’t talk.” John was seen by a world-renowned surgeon, he said, who suggested he undergo experimental treatment.
“Being an experiment made me feel good. I thought that if they could experiment on me, then they could learn something about cancer and I could help people.”
Six surgeries and almost 30 years later, John is a cancer survivor. He looks at his ordeal with illness as one of opportunity. “After going through the initial denial, anger, and ‘why me’ questions, having cancer opened doors for me,” said John, who began to counsel other cancer patients, and often visited them at hospitals.
His friar friends in Beach Haven, N.J., especially the late Thaddeus Sapio, OFM, and former friar the late Owen McNally, asked John to come to the Jersey Shore to recuperate. This was just the medicine he needed to get back on his feet.
“Then, Michael Carnevale, OFM, asked me to come to St. Mary’s in Pompton Lakes, N.J.” John was able to resume his ministry and even get back to teaching at the parish school. After St. Mary’s, he returned to Timon High School once more.
If he had to choose whether parish work or teaching was more rewarding, he said he couldn’t make a choice. “I like them both,” said the soft-spoken friar, who will be honored at the Province’s June 24 jubilee celebration in New York City.
He also said he couldn’t have chosen a better Province with which to be affiliated.
“This Province, I feel, has always been concerned for the friars,” John said. “It is very flexible. If needs are presented, the Province tries to respond. If people call and say they need help, the Province responds. Just look at Timon High School. They called and said, ‘We have to have a friar here,’ and I was sent. I’ve always been supportive of the Province. It’s like a family.”
While John says he does not have much time or energy any more for golf or bowling, he does still enjoy a good James Patterson suspense novel. “Reading is an escape for me.”
He also hopes that his move to Timon High School will help say to the community: “The Franciscans are back.”
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. The next issue will feature Anthony Carrozzo, OFM, who is commemorating 50 years of profession this year.