Jubilarian Profile: Michael Tyson Marks 50 Years as a Friar

HNP Communications Friar News

This is the ninth in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2012. The last issue of HNP Today featured John Schulmeister, OFM.

NEW YORK — Known as the “fighting Franciscan” for his devotion to peace and justice issues, Michael Tyson, OFM, of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in New York City, celebrates his jubilee as a friar this summer.

With his mastery of Spanish, and his affinity for organizing peace marches, his ministry has centered largely around multicultural and JPIC issues, at churches in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the Bronx, N.Y.; Wilmington, Del.; and Silver Spring, Md.

The New York native is happy to be back in the Big Apple, after a 50-year ministry that began in Puerto Rico. “I was sent to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish,” Michael said, a skill that would serve him well in ministry over the years. Newly ordained, he spent five years in the Caribbean, working at the Madre Cabrini, St Mary of the Angels, and Stella Maris parishes.

After attending Catholic elementary and high schools and Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y., he entered the Franciscans, professing his first vows in Lafayette, N.J., in 1962. He then continued his education at the Province’s house of philosophy, St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., earning his B.A. from St. Bonaventure University in 1964. He went on to study theology in Washington, D.C., and was ordained in 1967. The next year, he went to Puerto Rico.

Ministry in New Jersey
When he returned home in 1973, he was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in East Rutherford, N.J., a church that Holy Name Province staffed until 2011. “A lot of the places where I worked we no longer have anymore,” he said.

He spent six years there before assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Rochelle Park, N.J., where he was part of a ministry team. This approach meant that each friar shared in the ministry roles in the parish, and Michael was mostly responsible for the school and religious education.

From there, Michael was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York City, where he was responsible for scheduling the friars to services and hearing confessions in both English and Spanish.

After a year, he became the pastor at Holy Cross Parish in the Bronx. Located in a tough Bronx neighborhood riddled with drug-dealers, it was here that Michael’s heart for JPIC issues firmly took root.

He held his first anti-drug march, rallying approximately 1,000 people to make a difference in the neighborhood. In retaliation, he said, the drug-dealer community set the church ablaze. Fortunately, only one room in the sacristy and a statue of the Blessed Mother were damaged.

The fire, he said, prompted him to do an even bigger anti-drug march, attracting approximately 1,500 and involving then New York City Mayor David Dinkins. After this successful march, he recalled, the local crack house was abandoned and the drug dealers moved out.

Moving to Maryland
His next assignment took him to a suburb of Washington, D.C., to St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md. Here, during his six years as pastor and guardian, his bilingualism helped once again, and he began a multicultural Mass and a Gospel Mass. The new Masses attracted many people of differing backgrounds — French, Spanish, English, African — and the parish grew. “People came in their native dress and it was very colorful,” Michael recalls. He sensed that there was a need for a multicultural Catholic church in the area, he said, “and today, the church flourishes.”

In 2002, he was assigned to Holy Name of Jesus Church in New York City, and true to his JPIC roots, he inaugurated the Martin Luther King marches that have taken place on the civil rights leader’s holiday every January since 2003. From their early beginnings, the multicultural walks today are a true ecumenical event, drawing participation from Protestant churches in the neighborhood along with synagogues and mosques. The ecumenical spirit continues throughout the year, he said, as the houses of worship join together to collect food for Thanksgiving and clothes for the needy.

When he was assigned to St. Paul Church in Wilmington, Del., from 2008 to 2011, he did what he did best in the rather tough neighborhood surrounding the church — he started marching. Soon after his arrival as parochial vicar, the church would be known for the Martin Luther King and anti-drug marches. The Wilmington Peacekeepers, a street patrol, was also started.

Last year, he returned to Holy Name of Jesus on the Upper West Side, a place that feels like home, he said. He continues his JPIC efforts, and the marches that he started are going strong. He said he would like to see more churches embrace JPIC issues, and would hope to be remembered as a peacemaker. “Not only with JPIC issues but between God and ourselves,” he said.

With many JPIC awards and recognitions to his credit, he remains on the board of the Youth Ministry for Peace and Justice in the Bronx.

In his time off, Michael likes to travel with his sister, a member of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary, who is stationed in Tarrytown, N.Y. He is looking forward to an upcoming cruise to Bermuda. He and his sister are predeceased by several other siblings.

He also likes to go to the beach, mostly on Long Island, where he was once the curator of the Province’s home near the water in Pt. Lookout.

Michael often makes Christmas gifts from his beach finds, painting scriptural quotes on sea shells. All his participation in marches has made him fond of walking for exercise, he said. “I’m a pretty good walker. I walk all around Riverside Park and Central Park.” He also likes to go to Broadway shows, as the budget allows.

He enjoys golf, and plays guitar, saxophone and flute. He recalls fondly his ministry in Puerto Rico, when he started a sextet of college students who paid their way through their gigs.

He hopes that his passion for justice and peace will be carried on throughout the Province, especially on the local level.

— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.