This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, featuring those making a difference in their communities through varied hobbies, activities, and interests. The most recent featured was Vianney Justin, OFM.
BUTLER, N.J. — After 51 years of ministry in Japan, Bartholomew McMahon, OFM, knew it would take time to re-acclimate to American life and culture when he returned to the States in 2014 to care for his ailing sister.
After spending almost his entire ordained life evangelizing more than 6,700 miles from home, Bart questioned whether his return was a wise decision.
Re-adjusting wasn’t easy. In fact, he would often drift from English to Japanese during his homilies in the first few months of his return.
When his sister’s health stabilized, he took up residence that same year at St. Anthony Friary, the retirement house in Butler. It was then that he began to feel a sense of comfort being back in the States.
“That’s when the counterculture shock started to wear off,” he quipped.
His transition back to American life was aided by a newfound ministry – celebrating Mass and hearing confession at Holy Name Friary, the skilled nursing facility for infirm friars in nearby Ringwood.
Although Bart officially retired two years ago, he continues his ministry of providing pastoral care and bringing joy and companionship to his Franciscan brothers. But what he has received in return is equally fulfilling.
“That place really saved me – not only the friars but the staff members who are so caring,” Bart says of his three-day-a-week visits (and sometimes more) to the Ringwood nursing home. “It helped me realize that I was back home — where I belonged and where I was needed.”
Bart also celebrates Mass and provides spiritual comfort to the residents at the Lakeland and Wayne Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation.
Lifelong Friends 6,700 Miles Away
When he returned to his hometown of Elmira, N.Y., to care for his sister, Bart’s original plan was to take a one-year sabbatical before going back to Japan.
Although he was advancing in years, it made sense for a return to what became his home away from home – where, for more than five decades, his missionary work included preaching, providing spiritual guidance to the incarcerated, serving as a mission superior and as parish pastor of foreign populations (including a Filipino Catholic community), teaching the English language to high school students, caring for patients at a medical hospital for lepers, and bringing Holy Communion to families, town-to-town and home-to-home, navigating the countryside on a motorbike.
Bart overcame the challenges and difficulties of being a missionary in a non-Christian country, touching the lives of thousands of people and developing lasting friendships.
“When someone opens their heart – as so many people did in Japan – they listen to what you have to say. When you become friends with someone, they never forget you,” said Bart, who spends many hours a week responding to phone calls and letters that he receives from the lifelong friends he made in Japan.
“I never went into this ministry thinking that I was there just to baptize as many people as I could. It was more than that (although he did his share of baptizing children whose families he still corresponds with). It was about reaching people that weren’t coming to church, paying attention to people who needed someone to listen and evangelizing to people no matter what their religion,” he added.
Bede Fitzpatrick, OFM, who was stationed in Japan for 55 years and now lives in Ringwood, recalls Bart’s early years.
”I remember during Bart’s first assignment in Kiru,” said Bede, ” when he would receive calls telling him which churches needed his presence and preaching. I appointed Fr. Bart to work at Sacred Heart in Utsunomiya. He was then sent to the coast to live with about eight nuns, helping them in their ministries and listening to confessions. I would visit him to go swimming in the sea and Fr. Bart would join me. We shared a lot of good times.”
Bart was friendly and well-liked, said Bede, who says he enjoys seeing Bart when he comes to Holy Name Friary. “He preached very well and made friends easily. People respected him because of his availability, and he performed his priestly work with passion.”
“Sometimes we speak Japanese together, which brings back fond memories of that time in Japan,” said Bede.
Bart’s ministry has always been motivated by St. Francis of Assisi, adopting the same traits as the Franciscan patron – kindness, gentleness and inclusiveness, and introducing Jesus Christ into the lives of everyone he encountered.
Bart, 83, continues to model himself after St. Francis, demonstrating kindness and compassion to his infirm brothers at Holy Name Friary, and to those at the Wayne facility.
He still ventures to his hometown to visit his sister and cousins – and where he spent his childhood and attended elementary and high school before attending St. Joseph Seminary in Callicoon, in rural Sullivan County, N.Y.
Appreciating Fraternal Life
His first assignment after ordination in 1962 was at St. Francis Parish on West 31st Street in Manhattan, preaching on behalf of the missions there and at other parishes in New York City.
One year later, he and seven other members of his class were designated for mission work in Brazil, Bolivia, and Japan – the latter his destination.
“I thought I would be in Japan for six years at most, but it took that long for me to learn the language and get some time off,” said Bart, who worked in some of the most remote towns of the Tochigi and Gunma prefectures in Japan – sometimes celebrating Mass for just seven or eight congregants — which, to put things in perspective, is fewer than the number of retired friars now living at St. Anthony’s.
Bart says that residing at St. Anthony Friary for the past three and a half years has been a wonderful blessing. He enjoys the fraternal living – a hallmark of Franciscan life – especially after living and traveling alone for the majority of his half-century in Japan.
Although he still maintains an active ministerial life, Bart has found time to catch up on his reading.
“There weren’t many opportunities in Japan because I simply didn’t have the time to read,” Bart said, in a conversation at the friary, during which he enthusiastically shared many pleasant memories of his five-plus decades in the Pacific Rim.
Bart still reads as many books as he can about the life of St. Francis, “because, after all, it was books I read in my adolescence that influenced my decision to become a Franciscan friar” – an influence so strong that he chose not to follow up on an invitation from a diocesan priest, who was a family friend in Elmira, to enter the diocesan seminary. Rather, Bart said: “My mind was set on the Franciscans. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis and his missionary work.”
– Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “Butler Friary’s New Residents Adapt to Life in North Jersey” – Nov. 20, 2013, HNP Today
- “Franciscans in Japan Unharmed by Earthquake” – March 23, 2011, HNP Today
- “Provincial Minister Visits American Friars in Japan” – March 17, 2010, HNP Today