Planes, circus trains, and automobiles: Fr. Jerry Ward's 50-year ministry

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Catholic News Service

In 50 years of priesthood, Fr. Jerry Ward serves people where they are: the airfield, the Big Top, and the racetrack. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

If you ask Father Jerome “Jerry” Ward to capture his priesthood in one memory, he takes a moment — but only a moment — to think about it.

In a soft voice, he begins talking about Christmas Eve 1967 as if it were yesterday. Ordained a few months earlier, the upstate New York native prepared to celebrate his first Christmas Mass as a priest.

The liturgy’s setting wasn’t your usual cozy, poinsettia-filled sanctuary but the austere and grim confines of Darrington — a men’s prison outside Houston.

“I was only ordained a few weeks and I remember walking down the crosswalk,” said Fr. Jerry, who volunteered for the holiday service. “It was cold, dark, and the walls were sweating with moisture.”

The young, anxious priest was also perspiring. Darrington was a pretty rough place with a troubled inmate population. The visiting chaplain wondered how the prisoners would receive him.

“I wanted to come across in a very pastoral, caring way,” Fr. Jerry explained.

His worries disappeared as the sound of a Christmas carol reverberated through the cellblock.

“I thought to myself, well, if these guys who are locked up can sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ I guess I’ll be okay.”

Ministering to all kinds of people, wherever they are in life, defines Fr. Jerry’s priesthood. For 50 years, the longtime military chaplain has shepherded an eclectic group of parishioners — from racecar drivers to ranchers.

His biggest challenge? Finding enough pastoral time to meet everyone’s needs.

Technically, Fr. Jerry is a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. Since moving to Fort Worth in 2004 to care for his sister, Mary Agnes Ward, the 80-year-old retiree has assisted local pastors by celebrating weekend Masses, hearing confessions, and “going wherever Bishop [Michael] Olson needs me.” He’s especially well known and loved by the faith community at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish where he celebrated his Jubilee Mass on Sept. 9. 

Friends and family from across the country gathered inside the church to honor a man who entered the seminary in 1958 after witnessing the care and compassion of a military chaplain. A farm boy who joined the Air Force after high school graduation, the recruit was impressed with Oblate Father Neil Enright’s “presence” to the troops.

“He’d walk the flight line and we’d see him in the dining hall or baseball field where we recreated,” Fr. Jerry recalled. “He was just very, very present to the young airmen on base and I began to think it looked like an interesting life.”

The flight engineer was drawn to the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate because of the order’s mission to “preach the Gospel to the poor wherever we find the poor.”

And the word “poor” doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s empty wallet.

“We’re all poor at heart,” the priest observed. “We all need the Gospel message regardless of what our financial status is.”

Ordained an Oblate Father on Sept. 9, 1967 at his home parish, St. Stephen in Phoenix, N.Y., Fr. Jerry left the religious community in the early 2000s because of his sister’s health. Prior to that, he spent 30 years following in his mentor’s footsteps as an Air Force chaplain assigned to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., and then military posts in Turkey, Korea, Japan, and England.

Fr. Jerry Ward with Richard Petty during the Pocono Raceway Summer 500 time trials in 1987. (Photo courtesy/Fr. Jerry Ward)

As a priest gifted with an ability to connect with people, Fr. Jerry has ministered to the “poor in spirit” in some unusual places — like stock car races. Intrigued by speed from the time he was a teenager, the energetic pastor began racing late model cars when he was assigned to a parish in International Falls, Minn. 

“I got on the pit crew of one of my parishioners and did that for about a year,” he said, explaining how he learned the intricacies of the sport. “The next year, I built my own car and began racing in 1969.”

For the next 30 years the pastor raced wherever he was stationed, earning the nickname “Honkin’ Padre.”

But his time at the track wasn’t just about rounding the corners at record speed.

“I ministered to pit crews, heard confessions, and would give the invocation before the race. At bigger events, I would have Mass,” said the amateur driver who was never seriously injured. “I was their padre if they needed or wanted to talk to me.”

During a race in S.C., one of his competitors suffered a heart attack. Officials stopped the race and Fr. Jerry ran to the stopped car.
“I didn’t know if he was Catholic or not but I always carried the holy oils with me,” he explained. “I got them out of the glove box in my truck and anointed him.”

His reputation as the Honkin’ Padre introduced him to another traveling congregation — circus people. Whenever the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show rolled into Fort Worth, the performers would contact Fr. Jerry for Sunday Mass. The menagerie of lion tamers and trapeze artists impressed the visiting priest.

The circus had its own Mass kit that traveled with the troupe.

“It was kept in one box with nothing else around it,” he added, describing the care shown. “Everything was in perfect shape, like you’d find in a sacristy. It was unbelievable.”

Fr. Jerry would celebrate Mass in a room on a table with a perfectly white tablecloth. Circus members set up the altar and served as lectors.

“They were very down to earth — just like people in any walk of life,” he observed. “Performing was their skill and vocation.”

It’s easy to see how the high-energy entertainers could relate to the former racecar driver who now restores and sells old tractors. His trip to Darrington prison, 50 years ago, taught him a valuable lesson in discipleship.

At the end of that memorable Christmas Mass, an inmate approached Fr. Jerry to say, “Hey, chaplain, I noticed you seemed a little nervous.” 

The young priest admitted his uneasiness.

“Next time you come, chap,” the prisoner advised, “just treat us like people.”

Those words of encouragement stay with Fr. Jerry.

“For the past 50 years, I’ve tried to do just that — treat people like people,” he said. “Our Lord gives us many examples of how to treat others. As we live this life, it’s probably one of the most important and toughest things we do.”

If you ask Father Jerome “Jerry” Ward to capture his priesthood in one memory, he takes a moment — but only a moment — to think about it.