Father Aylward reflects on 50 years as a priest

CLEMSON — The parties may be over for now, but the celebration continues for Father Jerry Aylward.

The 81-year-old Paulist priest’s jubilee year has been commemorated by parties and remembrances at four parishes — St. Andrew, St. Paul the Apostle, St. Francis Mission and Holy Cross.

Father Aylward grew up on the upper end of Manhattan in an apartment on 207th Street.

“It was the last stop on the ‘A’ train,” he said. “We had a three- or four-room apartment — my sister, my brother and my mother and I.”

Father Aylward’s father died of a heart attack when the future priest was 16. He attended Manhattan Prep School, a small Catholic school in The Bronx.

After graduation, he enrolled at City College of New York with plans for a career in chemical engineering.

“It was a very fine school and a very hard school,” the priest said, “but taking chemical engineering was a big mistake.”

He left City College, enrolled in night classes and worked as a copy boy for The New York Times.

“I really enjoyed that, and I would have liked to have stayed there as a reporter,” Father Aylward said, but he didn’t have the journalism training. So after two years he left the newspaper, taking some odd jobs until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into the war.

Father Aylward was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to the Pacific as a radio operator with the 98th Infantry Division – the same division poised to invade Japan.

“I remember going on maneuvers in Hawaii, and of course we were all anxious to know if the rumors were true —that the war was over.”

After the United States dropped the two atomic bombs on the Japanese, Father Aylward’s unit landed at Honshu, Japan, as part of the post-war occupation. After the war, Father Aylward had a decision to make.

“I said, ‘Jerry, what are you going to do with yourself?’”

While in Japan waiting to return to the States, Father Aylward met Father Dick Malloy, a Paulist priest who encouraged him to consider entering the priesthood. “When I got back to New York, I applied,” he said. “They accepted me, and I was delighted.”

Father Aylward said he knew he had made the right choice the moment he started his theological studies.

“I stayed in school in Washington for six years, and I loved the place,” he said. “I had that inner feeling that this was for me. It evoked something in me.”

He joined a class of 13 that would become the first class ordained by the late Bishop Fulton Sheen of the New York Archdiocese. The date was May 1, 1953. He was 32.

Father Aylward’s first assignment was in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he remained for four years.

“It was a great city to be in. The people were lovely, and I enjoyed it immensely.”

From there, Father Aylward was sent to Boston, working in campus ministry. He then went back to New York for several years of priest missions, an assignment he learned to tolerate.

“You’re on the road a lot,” he said. “You get away from people, and you start to lose confidence in yourself. You can say a lot of things from behind the pulpit, but when you get into the nitty-gritty, you’re not so sure of yourself.”

After six years in New York, Father Aylward asked for a transfer and was sent to a parish in midtown Chicago. He reconnected with people there by “ringing almost every bell in Chicago.”

“I went to Catholic Charities; I went here, there and everywhere.”

Father Aylward enrolled in counseling courses at Loyola and performed marriage counseling at the parish.

He stayed in Chicago for 10 roller-coaster years, years that included the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the fallout from Vatican Council II and the conflict between then Cardinal John Cody and the Association of Chicago Priests.

Father Jerry, who was a member of the association, recalled one moment when the priests met with Cardinal Cody inside the huge McCormick Center.

“He had us right in the palm of his hand, but he didn’t know what to say,” Father Aylward said. “I guess the priests were afraid of him, and he was afraid of the priests. It was a tragic moment for the bishop, for the priests and for the church.”

Looking back on the unrest, he says he can now place it in the context of the times.

“There was a lot of social upheaval then. People in business in middle management were going through the same thing; college students didn’t want to take engineering, they wanted to take philosophy,” he said. “Talk about Babel. It was a whole new ball game.”

“I often wish I could live 200 years so I can better understand the period I went through. I was too close to it at the time,” he said.

Despite that turmoil, Father Aylward still holds fond memories of those years.

“I have never been in a diocese that had so many outstanding priests,” he said. “Chicago was a marvelous place, with a marvelous group of priests. I never met a more capable group of men in my life.”

From Chicago Father Aylward was asked to go to Toronto, where he was assigned to the Catholic Information Center. He stayed there for another 10 years. Toward the end of that assignment, he was sent back to Grand Rapids to be closer to his ailing mother.

He took a leave of absence from the priesthood to attend to his mother, returning to the church after she died in the mid-’80s.

The priest returned to his home parish in New York, and was doing missions work and substitute preaching when he was asked if he’d like to go to Clemson, S.C., to a small parish in the heart of the Bible Belt.

“I said, ‘You bet your sweet life I’d like to go to Clemson. How do you get there?’”

Father Aylward arrived at St. Andrew on Feb. 6, 1987, a day he still vividly remembers.

“Nobody was here. Nobody greeted me. Nobody took me to supper,” he said.

But it didn’t take long for Upstate parishioners to respond to Father Jerry’s love and devotion to Catholicism, his homemade pies and his “funnies.”

The priest starts every homily with a pair of jokes or “funnies” — usually with a religious theme — a practice he started while on faith missions in Toronto.

“At first, I would do it just to sort of break the ice — get people’s attention,” he said. “Now, people expect it. I always feel very close to the people when I do that.”

Every fall, Father Aylward spends time in the kitchen, baking fruit pies which he sells during the festival season to raise money for local charities.

Father Jerry also claims to be the only priest in the diocese who can square dance. He’s a member of two dance groups in the area, one in Anderson and the other in Clemson.

“I’ve been doing it for about 10 years,” he said.

But, after 50 years in the priesthood, Father Aylward will tell you that his greatest joy remains rooted in the celebration of God’s love.

“The older I get, the meaning of the Mass has become more essential,” he said. “For me, the Mass is a great honor and a privilege.”