Retiree Martin Bednar Stays Connected After All These Years

Stephen Mangione  Friar News

Marty Bednar reads a card from one of his many relatives in his room at Holy Name Friary in Ringwood.. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Mangione)

This is part of a continuing series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, providing a look back on their ministerial journey, and what they are doing now. A previous article profiled William DeBiase, OFM.

RINGWOOD, N.J. If there is storytelling, reminiscing and laughter seeping into the corridor at Holy Name Friary, there’s a good chance it’s coming from the room of Martin Bednar, OFM.

It was four decades ago when he ministered to a youth group that he took over from another friar at Holy Cross Church – the then-Franciscan parish in the Clason Point section of the Bronx, N.Y. But Marty (as he has been called all his life) hasn’t forgotten the many young people that he guided at weekly prayer meetings, activities and annual retreats. He made such an impression on them as youngsters, that now in adulthood they haven’t forgotten him either.

Despite the passage of time, many stay in contact with their beloved mentor, calling to check on his health and visiting him regularly at Holy Name Friary, the Province’s skilled nursing facility in Ringwood, where Marty has lived since March 2015 after retiring from active ministry.

He loves the company and the conversation – and the perks that have come with these life-long friendships. Members of the group twice took him on a Caribbean cruise – once as a gift for his birthday.

Last December, they had a more low-key celebration – if you can call 40 former youth group members descending on the Ringwood friary on his 81st birthday low-key. Many brought their teenage children to the party to meet the friar who was instrumental in their faith formation.

Marty is grateful for the abundant memories stirred by the visits, but there is even greater joy, he says, in seeing how those youngsters of 40 years ago – now in their 50s and 60s – have become compassionate, productive, faith-filled adults.

“I feel fortunate to see them at this stage in their lives – good parents and good practicing Catholics with families of their own and active in lay ministries in their parishes,” Marty said during an interview at the Ringwood friary.

“It is very humbling when someone tells you that their faith is strong because of the foundation you provided when they were part of the youth group. Many of them thank me for that,” he said.

Marty celebrates his 80th birthday with members of the youth group he ministered to 40 years ago at Holy Cross Parish in the Bronx, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Terry Velez-DeLeon)

A Model of God’s Love
One of those grateful former youth group members is Terry Velez-DeLeon, who says Marty’s style and message at Holy Cross Parish have had a life-long impact on her.

“He is an amazing person,” said Velez-DeLeon. “He didn’t just talk about God’s love. He showed it to us. He modeled it. He made me realize that it was important – and possible – to have a relationship with Jesus.”

She added, “He was our first encounter with a priest who showed interest in us. I remember 100 kids sitting around on the floor during those youth group meetings. Fr. Marty was sitting on the floor with us, not standing over us.”

Velez-Deleon visits Marty weekly, making the half hour drive to Ringwood from her home in Rockland County, N.Y., where she lives with her husband, Marco, also a former member of the youth group.

“Fr. Marty always thanks us profusely for visiting him, but I tell him that seeing him does my spirit good. He continues to be the glue that keeps the group together. He has always kept us connected and often checks in with us,” said Velez-DeLeon, a high school teacher with three children.

Jackie Matos, another former youth group member, echoed Velez-DeLeon’s sentiments.

“God entrusted a bunch of kids from the Bronx to a Franciscan friar who, [at the time, reluctantly took on the assignment and probably] knew nothing about mentoring teenagers,” Matos said. “Like most kids our age, we were complex and each fought our own battles, both spiritually and through fistfights, when necessary. But Fr. Marty, in obedience to God, was always there for us during those teenage years, and [he continues to be there for us] throughout our lives.”

Matos continued, “He was always the glue that kept us all together at some of the most crucial times, almost as if it was God himself saying, ‘I got you!’”

That’s why now in their 50s and 60s, Matos says the group takes care of Marty. “We will drive from far away places and climb mountains for him. We bring him [his favorites] pepperoni pizza and coconut cake. We honor him and God by singing some of our favorite songs [which he taught us] when we’re with him,” Matos said.

“The love we share for this simple man of God and each other is truly special. We were rescued a long time ago and now our children watch in awe at these amazing friendships, [which are] the fruit of a good servant and shepherd, [Fr. Marty] – and for that I am forever grateful,” Matos added.

Marty has another enjoyable pastime at Holy Name Friary – corresponding with members of his extended family, which is a job in itself, keeping tabs on the lives of his many nieces and nephews, and their children. One of his four siblings has 10 children.

The cards and letters flow with updates about birthdays, graduations, marriages, job promotions, anniversaries, and just about everything else that’s going on.

From Pennsylvania Winters to Florida Sunshine
Having professed his first vows in July 1958, Marty is celebrating an anniversary of his own this year – 60 years as a Franciscan friar, a milestone that may not have happened if his father, a coal miner, had not been beset by a years-long labor strike.

Most kids born and raised in the small coal-mining town of Barnesboro, Penn., were destined to follow in the footsteps of their family members. That changed for Marty when, at age 12, with the prolonged labor strike taking an economic toll on the Bednars, his father relocated the family from Barnesboro to Miami, Fla., for a fresh start.

Although he never attended Catholic school, Marty remembers faith – and music – being central to family life.

“It was a religious household. We never missed Sunday Mass,” Marty recalled. “I sang in the choir. Everyone in my family had great voices, a skill we inherited from our mother, a talented singer who was invited to perform at the New York City Opera when she was young.”

The climate change – from the cold snowy winters of Pennsylvania to the sunshine of Florida – was a big adjustment for Marty. But the move turned out to be heaven-sent. In his senior year at Miami Jackson High School, thoughts of religious vocation started to surface after he attended a school-sponsored career fair.

One of his fondest memories – and one that he said played significantly in his discernment – was accompanying his mother to daily Mass during Lent in senior year. Lent ended, but thoughts of the priesthood were beginning to rumble.

He remembers the kindness and self-sacrifice of the Franciscan friars at his parish in Barnesboro, but it was an advertisement in a religious publication that piqued his interest in Holy Name Province – and a little encouragement from the Franciscan nuns at his parish in Miami – all of which led to his enrollment at St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y.

“The Province is unique because of its fraternity. We are all brothers, part of a family,” said Marty, who was ordained in 1964. “That’s what I would tell someone thinking about the priesthood. Come to the Franciscans because it’s a family – and you become a member the moment you profess your first vows.”

Marty says the blessings of fraternity have extended to the thousands of people that have crossed his path in ministry – and that he has been fortunate to maintain bonds with many, not only from the youth group, but throughout his journey.

Former members of the youth group are frequent visitors to Holy Name Friary, where Marty lives. (Photo courtesy of Terry Velez-DeLeon)

Bolivia and Parish Ministries
It’s a journey that began in Bolivia as a missionary friar. “I wanted to bring the Gospel to a foreign land, and the Province gave me that opportunity,” said Marty, who traveled by mule and foot on rough terrain, altitudes up to 11,000 feet, to villages and towns where he spent three days at a time with the inhabitants, celebrating Mass, preaching and teaching before moving on to the next location.

Although he had trepidation about adapting to the culture – he learned to speak the very difficult native languages of Quechua and Aymara – Marty says that the late Conor Mullally, OFM, and Bernardine Ward, OFM, were the “best of brothers” who helped him acclimate and realize the privilege of serving in the missions.

Marty also served in two leadership positions while in Latin America – as the Province’s Superior Regular and as president of the Franciscan Federation of Bolivia – during which time he worked with 260 Franciscans from eight countries.

After 12 years in Bolivia, he returned to the U.S. in 1977. That began a long run in parish ministry – twice at Holy Cross, from 1978 to 1983 and again from 1990 to 1993, and at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md., where he served as pastor from 1983 to 1990. In 1993, he was assigned to the Province’s Ministry of the Word, giving missions in the South with a group of friars.

In 2000, Marty was assigned with another friar, Roderic Petrie, OFM, to a diocesan parish, Immaculate Conception, in Hialeah, Fla. His love and familiarity of the Latin culture made it a homecoming because of the parish’s largely Hispanic population.

Wherever his assignments took him, Marty always provided a foundation to help people grow in their faith – whether youth, parishioners or the abject poor in a foreign country. He recalled how he and the team of friars at St. Camillus – among them Charles Finnegan, OFM, and the late Michael McDonnell, OFM, and Peter Sheridan, OFM, helped make the parish one of the country’s most multicultural of its time.

A little-known fact about Marty – he was raised in both the Eastern Rite (his father was Slovak) and Roman Rite (his mother was Italian). Since he received the three sacraments of initiation (Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation) when he was just one week old, he didn’t have to attend religious education classes like his public school classmates. Because he was baptized in the Eastern Rite, he required special dispensation into the Roman Rite before entering the seminary.

While everyone has a hidden talent, it can be said that Marty’s talent has been well hidden. Most people are unaware that he had quite the flair for the piano and accordion, neither of which he has played since he was in his mid-30s. Perhaps he will dust off the accordion for the contingent of former youth group members when they serenade him with happy birthday at his next party.

—   Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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