By Kevin Canessa
The Rev. Msgr. John J. Gilchrist, who spent much of his priestly life in West Hudson, died Wednesday, April 18, 2018, at the C.Y.O. Youth Center at Boystown in Kearny.
Msgr. Gilchrist was born the first of six children of Mary Irene and John Charles Gilchrist in 1929.
He grew up in Nutley and Belleville and entered the seminary in 1951.
Upon ordination in 1957, he spent several months at St. Mark’s Parish, Rahway, and was then transferred to St. Cecilia Church, Kearny, where he served for 21 years.
St. Cecilia’s was an active parish — and at the time, had a grammar and a high school in which the priests taught classes while also serving at West Hudson Hospital. During his time at St. Cecilia, he began a Saturday morning program for young people with Down’s syndrome.
He also began writing a column for The Catholic Advocate, the official archdiocesan newspaper, that continued for many years. It was during these years Msgr. Gilchrist became involved with Local 68 of the Operating Engineers — and it marked the beginning of his association with various other unions in New Jersey.
He spent two happy years at St. Nicholas Church, Jersey City, and was then appointed pastor of Our Lady of Fatima, North Bergen, in 1980, where he served for 13 years.
During his tenure as pastor there, he spent time as the dean of the North Hudson Deanery and as the Vicar for Pastoral Life in the Archdiocese of Newark for a number of years. During these years, he was elevated to Monsignor by the pope, and was appointed leader of the Commission for Jewish-Christian Affairs, a post he held for a number of years. He developed relationships within the Jewish community that lasted to the end.
His involvement with social issues began to increase as he was approached by tenants who faced unjust evictions. He was able to work with others to develop a tenant-advocacy group in Hudson County — and as a result, their accomplishments were many.
That also led to successful struggles for affordable-housing opportunities for people afflicted with HIV/AIDS.
In 1993, Msgr. Gilchrist was appointed pastor of Holy Cross Church, Harrison. His work within the archdiocese continued, as did his involvement in social-justice issues. His work with the labor unions grew even stronger.
His efforts went into maintaining and supporting Holy Cross Grammar School. He was successful in that endeavor. At the end of his term at Holy Cross, the parish shared with him a joyful celebration of his 50th anniversary of priesthood in 2007.
In announcing the death of Msgr. Gilchrist, one of the union leaders wrote to all of his members: “Over the years, Msgr. Gilchrist’s words and prayers have resonated from picket lines to union meetings all across the state. With soft-spoken poise and a beaming optimism, the weight of his words have empowered, guided and united generations of working families.”
Through all of these years, his consistently strong affection remained with his work with unions. The International Union of Operating Engineers was first, but then came the Building and Construction Trades, the Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO and others.
Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle and her late husband, Norman Doyle Jr., were both very close friends with the monsignor. Doyle took time to reflect on her friend’s life.
“Msgr. Gilchrist was a scholar, a people’s priest and a friend. He exemplified what a priest is ordained to do and he did just that — he served the people,” Doyle said. “So many Kearny families are saying he married my grandparents, buried my parents, taught me in school and walked me through the darkest hours of our lives. He was there in the good and not-so-good times.
“He came to Kearny in 1957 and was assigned to St. Cecelia’s for 21 years and it was only fitting that his last assignment was in Kearny. The man came full circle. He was a blessing to many and had a kind word for all.
“We will miss him, his Saturday-night homilies, his St. Jude novenas and we will miss his sense of humor. I had many conversations with him and I will miss his talking about the bigger picture — the one each of us prepare for in our own way. He was my beacon of light, a mentor and a friend for over 47 years and I am so grateful we traveled some of this life journey together.”
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, says Msgr. Gilchrist was among the first priests he met having begun his ministry to the archdiocese in January 2017.
“Msgr. John Gilchrist was one of the first priests I met after beginning my service in January 2017,” Cardinal Tobin said. “A conversation that began in a hospital room continued at the youth center and a number of civic celebrations. I admired his love for the archdiocese, commitment to justice and, especially, his eyesight. He saw the face of Jesus in working men and women and the poor. I trust he will continue to intercede for our archdiocese.”
Others, meanwhile, took to social media to memorialize Msgr. Gilchrist.
“Father Gilchrist married us in St. Cecilia’s Church,” Maureen Klos wrote in a Facebook post. “I also went to school there. Thoughts and prayers are with his family. May he rest in peace. He will be missed.”
Said Jessica DiLeo: “I know my dad was waiting for you, Monsignor. Thinking of all of us who were lucky enough to have the Monsignor in our lives.”
He leaves behind his very dear friend in Christ, Sister Doris DeLotto, S.S.C. He was the devoted brother of William Gilchrist (the late Mary Lou), the late Joseph Gilchrist (the late Betty Ann), Thomas Gilchrist (Patricia), Irene Freitag (the late Robert) and Carol Volpe (Anthony). Also surviving are 31 loving nieces, nephews and their families. They found a true friend and advocate in Msgr. Gilchrist and he found a multitude of true friends in the men and women of labor.
Visiting was at the Armitage & Wiggins Funeral Home, Kearny, and at the Sacred Heart Chapel at the C.Y.O. Center, Kearny. His remains were moved to St. Peter’s Church, Belleville, where Vigil and funeral Masses were celebrated. Burial was in the St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, Belleville.
In lieu of flowers, kindly consider a donation to C.Y.O. Youth Ministries, 499 Belgrove Drive, Kearny, N.J. 07032.