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Retiree Philip O’Shea at Home in Ministry at House of Prayer

Philip enjoys a book in a special chair purchased for him by his former students at Sacred Heart University, where he taught in the 1960s and 70s. (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 on what they are doing now. The previous article profiled Bernardine Kessing, OFM.

RINGWOOD, N.J. — In an essay about Holy Name Friary – the Province’s skilled nursing care facility – Philip O’Shea, OFM, once wrote: “… a place like this [could become] merely a parking space or a launching pad” for retired and infirm friars. For Philip, the facility has become neither.

When he arrived at the Ringwood friary in 2015, Philip didn’t view it as an end to his ministries, but rather as the start of a new ministerial assignment. He was determined to instill this mindset in others at the residence.

“We’re old, and maybe even a little decrepit, but we ain’t dead! Our physical and mental inabilities, and our age, prevent us from being somewhere else, but we have a reason and purpose for being here,” Philip said during an interview in his bright and cheery room at the Ringwood friary.

“This is more than just a place for us to pass the time. Friars are ‘assigned,’ not committed here,” Philip said – a message that steadily resonates with the friars at the Ringwood facility and the Provincial leadership.

With the support of the Provincial Council, Philip secured Holy Name Friary’s designation as a Provincial House of Prayer. Next January 2 will mark the third anniversary of this designation.

“We still have a lot to offer. We are just doing God’s will in a different way. This is a skilled nursing facility, but it’s also a place of mission, as vibrant as any other friary,” Philip said.

Since arriving at Holy Name Friary, he has been on a mission. He likes to think of his efforts as harnessing all of the spiritual firepower found under one roof – and in doing so, replacing the frustration, which often comes with being in a nursing home, with a growing awareness of God’s presence and a sense of purpose. This is not lost on those who come to visit the friary.

“In early August, I spent a week at the infirmary making my annual retreat. Part of my daily routine was to attend Mass celebrated by Phil in his room,” said Joseph Nangle, OFM. “He’s unable to leave the room, so every morning, if he has a ‘congregation,’ he celebrates the Eucharist there – no ‘congregation,’ no Mass. During those several days, I was Phil’s congregation.

“It was quite a joy to be with this man who is now so very limited but continues to live life to the full,” Joe continued. “Those Eucharistic celebrations, complete with homilies from Phil, were quite moving. And for someone who is nearly Phil’s age, they were telling moments of reflection for me.”

Once the House of Prayer designation was in place, Philip didn’t stop there. He has kept busy in his retirement with another self-motivated ministry at the Ringwood friary – initiating what has become a popular and well-read essay series published regularly on these pages of the Province e-newsletter.

In his essays, Philip offers reflections on a wide range of subjects – among them, environmental and social justice issues, world changing events, holidays and holy days, and Franciscan spirituality.

His rationale for changing the way resident friars and outsiders view Holy Name Friary likely stems from personal challenges he has faced throughout his life. Philip was born with cerebral palsy.

But he never allowed the whispers he heard while growing up – even those from religious who said his condition gave him little chance of becoming a priest – to hinder his resilient spirit, hopes and pursuits.

Early Life and First Career
Philip’s independence and perseverance were instilled by two loving aunts – one an entrepreneur and the other a drama teacher – who both played a significant role in raising him after his mother passed away when he was only seven years old. The work ethic and influence of his father, an arborist by profession who labored long hours, also provided a strong foundation.

“I have always been physically limited, but I have never thought of myself as having limitations,” said Philip, 87, who recalled how he worked for his father’s company pruning trees in Malden, Mass., a community just outside Boston where he was born and raised.

“I didn’t learn to love the trees and the work as much as he would’ve liked,” said Philip, who chose college over the family business. He attended Providence College in Rhode Island for one year before transferring to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., which he attended on a full scholarship and where he also received a doctorate degree in philosophy in 1956.

The groundwork for religious vocation began at an early age. His mother was an Eastern Rite convert, the result of meeting his father, who was a member of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church. Although he was an altar boy at his local parish, prayed the Rosary every night with his mother before she succumbed to lung cancer, and often thought about ordained life, Philip’s path to the priesthood was not the one most traveled.

He spent more than two decades in his first career as a college professor, teaching philosophy at Villanova University in Pennsylvania before returning to Massachusetts, where he took a position at Emmanuel College to be closer to his ailing father. While later teaching at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, he accepted an offer from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., where he taught philosophy and the philosophy of religion as a member of the religious studies department.

After his father’s death, thoughts about a religious vocation resurfaced about the same time he met a group of Franciscan friars. In 1971, at age 40, Philip took a leave of absence from Sacred Heart to begin a new journey – pursuing a vocation with the Custody of Our Lady of Angels, a unit of the Order of the Friars Minor that served Eastern Rite Catholics. (The custody no longer exists as an independent unit, with remaining friars absorbed into Assumption Province.)

Philip studied at Holy Protection Novitiate, the custody’s headquarters in New Canaan, Conn., and St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, N.Y. He completed his novitiate in Holy Dormition Byzantine Franciscan Friary in Sybertsville, Pa., where he made his first profession in 1973. After Philip was ordained in 1975 into the Byzantine Rite Franciscans, he returned to teaching at Sacred Heart.

He said he was fortunate to “always have good teachers and mentors who took an interest in helping him during his studies and while in formation.” Many of his former students felt the same way about him, including Joseph Cavoto, OFM.

“Philip was probably the most popular and approachable professor at Sacred Heart in the 1970s. He was easy to identify with books under his arm, always engaged with someone, never letting his obvious disability be an impediment,” said Joe, who took several philosophy courses taught by Philip when he attended the university.

Spiral-Like Doodle and Three Words
Joe recalled a little-known fact about Philip that only his former students would know. “His signature spiral-like doodle and three-word sentence, ‘Re-think and submit,’ would inevitably be scribbled in the upper right corner of mid-term exams,” said Joe.

“Throughout my life, I have often returned to that phrase and the spiral-like doodle – the latter becoming a map of the road I thought I was following – with all its twists and turns, re-thinking and submitting,” Joe said. “Philip is ever the teacher who always has time for a kind word, or to send a note out of the blue that reminds of our Franciscan fraternity. He continues to be an influence, at least to this former student.”

Philip’s own affinity for Sacred Heart University has been kept ablaze through lifelong friendships. Many of his students remember his encouragement, thought-provoking lectures, stimulating lessons – but most of all, his inspiring determination in the face of physical adversity.

Students who were members back then of Kreuzfahrer – a fraternity at Sacred Heart whose name that means crusader or cross-bearer – and who still visit and maintain regular communication with Philip, surprised their beloved professor with gifts when he moved to Holy Name Friary.

The group purchased a special recliner chair, designed for individuals with palsy, that provides upper body support, motorized options for things such as leg elevation and tilt angle, and easier transition from sitting to standing. They also presented him with a laptop that has the Skype webcam feature, enabling Philip to have face-to-face conversations over the internet with friends and loved ones. They said it was the least they could do for someone whose friendship, wisdom, spirituality and example provided them with the inspiration and foundation to succeed.

In addition to his teaching obligations at Sacred Heart, Philip performed pastoral duties at Eastern Rite parishes in Connecticut and New York. It was understandably bittersweet when he decided to leave the university in 1978 to see what it was like to teach at a Franciscan-operated institution of higher education. That’s when he joined the faculty of St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., a two-year experience that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

“I had this sudden interest and desire to preach and do retreat work. Living in fraternity with a large and vibrant Franciscan community at St. Bonaventure made me realize I was being called to do something that reached beyond the classroom,” he said.

Affer 25 years as a professor (both pre- and post-ordination), Philip, in 1984 at the age of 53, left teaching and switched fraternities – going from the Custody of Our Lady of the Angels to the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province.

He spent his first year in parish ministry at the Church of St. Stephen of Hungary on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Just when he thought he had left his teaching career behind, Philip was assigned as spiritual director for seminarians at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y., just outside Buffalo, where he spent three years teaching philosophy courses and helping young men navigate their journey of discernment.

As a member of the Ministry of the Word, Philip preached at churches around New England, including St. Anthony’s in Hawthorne, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of the December 1997 issue of The Anthonian)

Pastoral Ministry and Franciscan Fraternity
Between teaching college students and seminarians and continually advancing his own education (he also has master’s degrees in Eastern Christian studies and Divinity), Philip was in a perpetual environment of academics until an assignment that changed everything.

He was sent to Franciscan Ministry of the Word in the New England region, where he spent seven years giving parish missions and retreats, and performing pastoral ministries at parishes where he was asked to help.

“When I started teaching, I was only three years older than my students. It was time to concentrate on the religious side of ministry – and helping older adults with their faith and spiritual needs,” said Philip, also noting that starting a religious vocation later in life, as he did, was the exception back then, but now is the norm.

“I enjoyed the sacramental aspects – visiting the sick, hearing confessions – and meeting so many wonderful people in dozens of parishes. Pastoral work wasn’t as fixed and rigorous as teaching, and there was something refreshing about that,” he added.

Philip is grateful to the special fraternity of the Franciscans that has always been warm and welcoming to him. “That’s what attracted me to the Franciscans. They didn’t look at me as a liability, but as an asset,” he said, also noting that Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM has brought a real sense of vibrancy to the Province.

During his life and in his ministries, Philip has learned that if you are willing to adjust, especially under the direction of the Holy Spirit, you may find yourself doing things that you never thought capable.

“But you do these things for Christ – and that is what religious life and being a Franciscan friar has meant to me,” explained Philip, adding, “The interesting thing about religious life is that hopefully, what is satisfying to you, is satisfying to Christ.”

Although his physical condition keeps him confined to his room most of the time, he is blessed with the companionship of the more mobile resident friars, who regularly drop in for a visit and conversation. While it’s human nature to allow physical challenges to dictate the future, Philip continues to use his as a blessing.

Despite an even greater dependency on others to complete the task of leaving his room, he continues his ministerial assignment at the House of Prayer with dignity, passion and joy – sharing a full and rewarding life by touching countless others through the messages of his essays and the power of prayer pouring out from Holy Name Friary.

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

Editor’s note: Profiles of other retired Holy Name Province members can be found in the Friar News section of the Province’s website.

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