WINTER PARK| Something wonderful is happening in a serene back corner of San Pedro Spiritual Development Center. Just beyond the beautiful Queen of Angels cemetery, construction crews are digging, taking measurements, and making plans for Emmaus, a new independent living center for retired senior priests. Bishop John Noonan has been dreaming of these homes and planning to care for the servants of God since he arrived in the diocese in 2010.
“Our care of our priests as they age with grace is very important to me,” said Bishop. “Our community of faith shares in the blessings and challenges of an aging priesthood as we seek to glorify God.” Currently, there are about 200 priests serving in our diocese. Forty percent of them are age 65 and older.
In that age bracket is Monsignor Richard Walsh, Vicar General and beloved pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Winter Park. Monsignor Walsh arrived from Ireland in 1968 with Fathers Paul and Peter Henry. All of them have served the faithful of central Florida without fail for more than 50 years. Father Peter recently died after a long battle with cancer, but always spoke of his time here as an absolute blessing.
“I’m grateful to Bishop Noonan and the people of God for addressing this important need,” said Monsignor Walsh. “It is right to honor the great sacrifice of our retired priests.” Although more than 70 years old himself, he shows no signs of slowing down and knows the value of community.
Missionary of Mercy, Father Anthony Aarons, agrees. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Father Aarons was at San Pedro Center seven days a week, a shoulder of God for people to lean on. He looks forward to the many graces his brother priests will find nestled within the beauty of God’s celestial liturgy.
“’Reconnect with what matters’ is the slogan at San Pedro,” explained Father Aarons. “It is an invitation to connect with God, Creation and with one’s inner being. A priest living in retirement at San Pedro would be living continuously in this state.”
This first phase of development contains 5 residences and a community center and should be complete in about six months. Graces are expected to overflow to the faithful at San Pedro. The priests who will eventually live at Emmaus will be welcomed and invited to participate in the many activities at the center including retreats, senior days, and even summer camp fun.
“Living in community is so important for priests to maintain a healthy prayer life,” added Father Miguel González, Vicar for Priests. “Emmaus will allow our retired priests to stay connected with God, one another, and the faithful of our diocese.” Father González has visited San Pedro many times over the years. His parents also spent much of their life evangelizing there and his father is buried in the serene cemetery next door.
Bishop Noonan is grateful for the parishes and donors who kicked off a campaign to take care of the men who’ve spent their entire lives leading others to Christ. Nearly $4 million in charitable gifts have been received which is more than half of the campaign goal. The goal includes funding for the first and second phase of construction and an establishment of an endowment to maintain the facilities and support priests who need financial assistance to reside at Emmaus. Understanding the financial challenges of many right now, Bishop simply asks those who cannot give to pray.
“Since I have been called to serve as shepherd of the Diocese of Orlando, I continue to seek profound ways in which our senior priests can connect to the community of their brother priests, as well as participate in the life of the Church as much as possible,” he said. “If financial support is not possible, prayers for our senior priests are always needed.”
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Jennifer Drow, Special to Florida Catholic Media, June 24, 2021
as we arise
to the beauty
of Your Word
from Your generosity
we breathe in majesty
You draw near
in knowledge and
̶ Your handiwork ̶
the altar cloth
for Your dwelling place
joining Your body
the meal of
sacrifice, buoy of love
the Sacrament of
our longing filled
for You keep the Covenant
and stay with us