While bringing faith to his people, priest searches for checkered flag


“Again, among living things that possess sense, some have the power of locomotion, some not.”

“On the Soul” by Socrates, Book 2, translated by J.A. Smith.

On the purple and white paint of his #81 race car is the message “God Bless,” and on its trunk a golden cross. At Dover, Pocono, and in Atlanta he has competed with NASCAR, having driven tracks in England, Okinawa, Japan, and Canada. This ‘Honkin’ Padre’ displays his speed on the race track and his faith at the altar.

Father Jerome Arthur Ward is one of four clergymen to have served Lake City’s St. Philip the Apostle Church in less than two years.

The retired lieutenant colonel and former chaplain for the U.S. Air Force joined the military straight out of high school in 1954. He was originally a flight engineer with a mechanical background. After he was honorably discharged in 1958, he attended college in Carthage, Mo., where he earned a degree in liberal arts in 1961.

One year was spent in novitiate for the Oblate Order, and he then went to Pass Christian, Our Lady of the Snows in Mississippi to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He studied theology at Oblate College in southwest Texas for four years and was ordained on Sept. 9, 1967, in Phoenix for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. His first assignment was St. Thomas Parish in International Falls, Minn.

And now, in addition to duties at Lake City, Father Ward serves St. Ann Church in Kingstree and St. Patrick Mission in Williamsburg County’s Johnsonville.

Father Ward began service in the Diocese of Charleston in 1993. He was an auxiliary chaplain at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter and assisted at St. Jude Parish there.

He also studied clinical pastoral education with the S.C. Department of Corrections and is now certified as a clinical pastoral chaplain.

In October 1997, Bishop David Thompson appointed him to his current posts, where he is assisted by Deacon John D. Kiely, who is pastoral administrator at the parishes.

Discussing his racing career, Father Ward said, when a car is running at its optimum performance, there’s no feeling like it. “It’s really wonderful. It’s hard to compare it to a similar feeling.”

He’s had his share of interesting moments on the track too.

“In 1986 at Pocono, Richard Petty ended up right behind me in the time trials. We had a rain delay, and we were just talking away and waiting for the rain to pass over. He said, ‘I’ve always wanted my picture with the Honkin’ Padre. Let’s do that.'”

However, there was no camera.

“He said, ‘I’ll take care of that.’ Richard raised his hand and within 20 seconds there was somebody over the pitwall and by our cars.”

Father Ward thought Petty wanted a photograph of the two beside the famous #43 Plymouth. He said, “I want my picture by your car.” Petty sent him the photograph.

The Honkin’ Padre explained why he numbered his car #81.

“When I left home in 1968, I thought I needed something from my home on my car. Back then they were just building the I-81 interstate. I decided to make my car ’81’ for the interstate. I thought I’d always have a little bit of home with me. The purple of the car comes from our church colors. The purple in the church is the sign of struggle but also a sign of victory in the end.”

When the checkered flag is waved at the end of this year’s Sumter Speedway quarter-mile season, it will be a memorable one for the Father Ward.

“This is going to be my 30th year of making left turns, and it’s going to be my last. This is going to be it. I know I’ve got to hang up the helmet some time. I was 62 on the 14th of January. It will be my 30th year of racing every Saturday night.”

The season opened the second weekend after Easter, and Father Ward was ready.

“My car came through the war so well last year, I didn’t even need to put a new body on it.”

When not on the race track, the priest tends to his flock.

“I had a little open house for my people,” said Father Ward. “We had a great time. We had 67 people come. I do that every year just as a little sign of my appreciation for all my people and what they do for me. We always do have a very, very good time. This year was really super.”

Father Ward said he was serving as a full-time prison chaplain when Bishop Thompson asked him to take on the parish assignments. “It was really getting to me, so I told the Bishop that I felt that I needed to get out from under it for a while. I still do a lot of volunteer work. I just felt that I needed a break.”

He added, “I had walked through the execution of one of our Catholic inmates, and it took a chunk out of me. I just couldn’t get my momentum back.”

The love of racing came at an early age for Father Ward, prompting complaints about his driving from neighbors.

“I was 16 years old when I first got interested. My father thought I was going too fast in the family car.”

His father encouraged him to use his skill.

“I had never even been to a race car track. My father introduced me to one of the track champions in upstate New York, and now it’s kind of history.”

The priest has been racing at Sumter Speedway since 1972. “I raced there for a couple of seasons until I went overseas, but I came back to Sumter Speedway often.”

Father Ward’s racing career has led to some long-standing relationships with NASCAR’s elite.

“Bobby Allison has been a long-time friend of mine. I met Bobby in 1973 just outside the Darlington Speedway when he had come to a race there. Since then, Bobby and I have been good friends. We’ve been through a lot of high moments and low moments. I raced with Bobby at the Pocono Speedway.”

A Mass before the race once attracted 350 people in pit row, and Allison read the readings that day.

“I was one of the concelebrants at his two sons’ funerals,” he said. First there was Clifford Allison’s tragic crash during a practice lap at Michigan Speedway, and then there was Davey Allison’s helicopter crash in Talledega.

But when he’s not putting the pedal to the metal, Father Ward is ministering in Lake City.

There is a strong Hispanic population due to the tobacco season.

“Even in the off-season, we still have a good number of Spanish people who come for Sunday night Mass. We try to offer a Sunday night Mass whenever we can for the Spanish people, and then on Tuesday night we have a soup-and-supper for them. After supper the people of the parish work with the Spanish members trying to teach them in English, just the basics, how to go to the store and the gas station.

“Some of the migrants have gotten jobs in the factories. Most of them probably would have returned to southern Texas or Mexico.

“It’s just such a neat picture of the church, the young, the old, the rich, the poor, and how they all get along together. It’s just touching to see that.”