Airmen, auto racing, and altars: Fr. Jerome Ward celebrates 50 years as a priest

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

September 11, 2017

Fr. Jerry Ward prepares the Eucharist for Communion as he celebrated his 50th anniversary during a Saturday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth, Sept. 09, 2016. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

FORT WORTH — Chuck Beare wasn’t surprised to see people from across the country travel to Fort Worth to help his uncle, Father Jerome A. Ward, celebrate 50 years in the priesthood.

“He never met anyone who wasn’t a friend,” explained the Houston resident who came to the Sept. 9 Jubilee Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish with his wife, Griselda, and two young sons. “I think he’s the only person on the planet who was a Roman Catholic priest, a lieutenant colonel, and a racecar driver. More importantly, he’s just a great human being.”

The parishioners, pit crews, and Air Force personnel Fr. Ward served during his long and colorful ministry would agree. Ordained an Oblate Father of Mary Immaculate on Sept. 9, 1967 at his home parish, St. Stephen Church in Phoenix, N.Y., the 80-year-old priest spent the past five decades meeting the needs of people wherever they were — prisons, hospitals, military bases, parishes, race tracks, and the circus.  In the early 2000s, he became a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Charleston, S.C. and moved to Fort Worth in 2004 where he now works as a visiting priest.

“I go wherever Bishop [Michael] Olson needs me. A couple of weeks ago, I took care of Rhineland and Knox City when their priest was in India,” Fr. Ward told the North Texas Catholic. “I stay very, very busy for an old retiree and I like it that way. It keeps me young at heart.”

The retired military chaplain is a frequent visitor to St. Thomas Parish where his sister, Mary Agnes Ward, is a member of the Women’s Organization and Friendship Club.

“He’s been a friend of ours for many years and added a great deal to our parish,” said church member Bruce Mallory. “We’re delighted to help him celebrate his 50th anniversary here.”

Joining the St. Thomas community were parishioners from outlying areas of the diocese like Seymour and Windthorst. After a Mass concelebrated by Fr. Ward, St. Thomas pastor Father Mathew Kavipurayidam, TOR, associate pastor Father Sushil Tudu, TOR, and Father Jim Deegan, OMI, a dinner honoring the jubilarian was held at the Elks Lodge in White Settlement. Fr. Deegan, director of Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo, Minn., is a close friend of the retired chaplain.

Raised by devoutly Catholic parents, the late Sarah Jane and Arthur Ward, the honoree entered Our Lady of the Ozarks Seminary in 1958 after serving in the U.S. Air Force as a flight engineer. A military chaplain and Oblate priest, the late Father Neil Enright, inspired his vocation.

“He was always very, very present to the young airmen and that looked like an interesting life,” remembered Fr. Ward, who made the life-changing decision to become a priest during a retreat with Oblates a few months before leaving the Air Force.

Following in his mentor’s footsteps, Fr. Ward became an Air Force chaplain in 1972 and was assigned to Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C. Over the years, his work with the military took him to Turkey, Korea, Japan, and England, as well as bases throughout the U.S.

Tom Spada was in the service and stationed in England when he met the chaplain. The year was 1988.

“What makes him special? His love of God, love of family, and love for us,” said the longtime friend who lives in North Carolina. “I spoke at his 25th celebration and will probably speak tonight.”

Accompanying Spada and his wife, Lynn, was their goddaughter, Jennifer Foster, who flew to Texas from Colorado for the event.

“Fr. Ward was in the service with my parents. He baptized my older brother in Okinawa (Japan) and then he baptized me in England,” she explained. “I’m happy to be here for him.”

Mickie Wolfing, of California, hugs Fr. Jerry Ward after celebrating his 50th anniversary during Saturday Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth, Sept. 09, 2017. Wolfing has known Fr. Ward since he served at a parish in New York. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

From 1986 to 1988, Fr. Ward ministered to families at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. Now known as the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, the retired chaplain continues to celebrate weekend Masses there for the military community.

Patricia Cox, and her husband, retired Master Sgt. Bob Cox, were intrigued by the outgoing priest after listening to one of his homilies.

“He’s retired Air Force and raced cars. That got our attention!” she recalled. “We never knew a priest who would do that!”

Receiving an invitation to the Jubilee Mass was an honor, Cox continued.

“Fr. Jerry is the most humble priest I’ve ever met. He thoroughly understands human compassion,” she said. “When he gives his homilies, he blends them beautifully with stories we can relate to. Being human—that’s the common element.”

As a young priest Fr. Ward learned to “treat people like people. That’s something I’ve tried to do for the past 50 years,” he said during his homily.

It’s not always easy, the speaker admitted to the gathering of friends, family, and parishioners who filled the pews.

“But our Lord gives us many examples of how to treat people,” he added. “As we live this life, being Christ-like is probably one of the most important and toughest things we do.”

FORT WORTH — Chuck Beare wasn’t surprised to see people from across the country travel to Fort Worth to help his uncle, Father Jerome A. Ward, celebrate 50 years in the priesthood.

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