By Ron Leir
A Catholic parish in Kearny has lost two key priests and many of its parishioners are unhappy about that.
The Rev. Yuvan Alvarez, who served nine years as parochial vicar at St. Cecilia’s Church, 120 Kearny Ave., was reassigned in late July and now, the pastor, the Rev. Michael Ward, is gone. Some 300 parishioners and guests convened a “celebration of [Ward’s 16] years of service” this past Friday evening.
During the past decade or so, the parish’s demographics have reflected an amalgam of three primary language groupings: English, Spanish and Portuguese and parishioners say the church’s spiritual leaders have accommodated the cultural needs for all three.
They credit Fathers Alvarez and Ward with leading recitations of Masses in all three languages and with arranging religious processions that are traditions associated with Spanish and Portuguese Catholics.
On Aug. 22, Sheyla Maldonado, a member of the parish’s Spanish contingent, wrote on behalf of the parish to Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, asking to meet with him about the changes and to consider bringing back Father Yuvan to lead the church.
“It has been through the constant collaboration of Fr. Mike and Fr. Yuvan that our Church has been reconstructed, re-organized, have had three different cultures mesh into one Holy Catholic Community, but most importantly grown in Faith,” the letter said.
The letter went to note that, “Fr. Mike’s constant dedication to learning both Spanish and Portuguese in order to better communicate with his non- English speaking parishioners is to be commended. Fr. Yuvan came to our parish, as a fresh-faced newly ordained priest and it was through his actions that he proved to be a man of character with a deep love of God and his priesthood.”
The letter praised Father Yuvan, a native of Colombia, for starting the All Saints Day Parade with the CCD children, encouraging Nativity displays and for his “hands-on approach” to the sprucing up of the sanctuary’s appearance.
Both priests were commended in the letter for introducing the Kearny community “to Processions, The Way of the Cross acted out by the members of our parish, and many other events and traditions we now hold dear.”
While these efforts have led to increased church membership, “most especially those in our Spanish/Latin American community,” the letter said that attendance has begun to slack off since Father Yuvan’s departure and that parishioners “fear that if this continues the church we have struggled for will cease to exist.”
Archdiocesan spokesman Jim Goodness said that when Father Yuvan was reassigned to replace the Rev. Peter Wehrle as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima in North Bergen in July, “the expectation at the time was that Father Ward was going to stay [in Kearny].” But in the interim, he said, a pastoral vacancy occurred at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Scotch Plains and Father Ward is being transferred there, as of Sept. 15.
Typically, Goodness added, the Archdiocese doesn’t provide explanations for the movement of its priests but added that it’s important for parishioners to remember that, “Change is a regular part of the priesthood.”
Commenting on Maldonado’s letter, Goodness said: “Occasionally, people will write to express a desire for a priest to stay and that’s always great to hear.” He said that “an answer was sent” expressing “appreciation for everything that the parishioner said” about the two priests’ efforts and that the Archdiocese “was certain that that good work is going to be continued with the new pastor [the Rev. John Wassell, moving to Kearny from Holy Rosary/St. Michael’s Parish of Elizabeth]. But it always takes time with a new priest.”
On a personal basis, Maldonado told The Observer: “Father Mike has tried very hard to make the Spanish community welcome at St. Cecilia’s. He got the permits from the town to allow us to hold our Processions. He has become very close to us and he has been an upstanding pastor in participation with Father Yuvan. Our family is very sad to see Father Mike go.”
Joe Reese, a member of the Parish Council finance committee, and Ricardo Fernandez, a Parish Council member, offered their tributes to Father Ward.
“He’s a true shepherd, a leader, attentive to his parishioners, compassionate, a good influence on all of us,” Reese said. “We’ve been blessed that he’s not only a priest but a friend. And he’s a man for all the people – for the past 16 years he’s been the glue that holds all our people together. He’s demonstrated that through his demeanor, his personality. When you meet with him, you can feel his approachability.”
For Fernandez, Father Ward was “someone always ready and able to listen” to parishioners. There was the time when the priest was stopped in the church parking lot by someone who “needed to say their confession right away” and Father Ward readily obliged, Fernandez said. “He was trying very hard to make us just one community and he had some success. We responded to him because of the kind of guy he is.”
Ward – whose new church happens to be across the street from his alma mater, Union Catholic High School (Class of 1982) – was a Wall Street broker before transitioning to the priesthood. Ward was ordained in 1997 after becoming “conversant in Portuguese,” as he put it.
As a seminarian, “a couple of us were invited to go [to Portugal] for several summers to learn the language,” Ward recalled.
His first clerical assignment was St. Cecilia’s, where he spent his first six years as parochial vicar and last 10 as pastor. For part of that time, he performed additional clerical duties as administrator of Our Lady of Sorrows in Kearny and of St. Anthony’s in East Newark and as St. Cecilia’s representative at the short-lived Mater Dei Academy.
In 2007, Ward presided over a fundraising capital campaign allowing the church – built in 1922 – to undertake substantial renovation, including new floors, marble memorial tiles, painting and a new heating system.
“One key thing I’ve tried to do is build a community that doesn’t observe language barriers,” Ward said. “We say Mass in three languages, we started a June Procession for Corpus Christi five years ago, we started a bereavement ministry in conjunction with All Souls Day, celebrating the lives of people we buried in the last 12 months.”
“One of my favorite things with the parish has been working with adults preparing to celebrate sacraments such as communion and confirmation,” Ward said.
During his St. Cecilia’s tenure, Ward also stayed involved with the larger Kearny community, having served as chaplain for these organizations: Council 6928, Knights of Columbus; Kearny Fire Department, United Irish Association, Kearny First Aid Squad, Optimist Club and Alliance Against Drug Abuse.
One memory that won’t easily escape Ward was an event that happened seven years ago when he was prepping plantings for parish youths and came upon the lifeless body of a female infant only a few days old. “Its parents had buried the baby in one of our church gardens,” he said.
“After an autopsy determined the baby had died of natural causes, the county probate court gave me guardianship to do the funeral. The church was packed for that. We called her ‘Baby Cecilia’ and buried her at Holy Cross Cemetery,” he said.