At 92 years old, Father Gerald Ryan is New York’s oldest working priest, a monsignor, and the parish administrator at St Luke’s in Mott Haven, in the Bronx. The son of Irish immigrants — his mother came from a small town near Limerick, and his father from Tipperary — Father Ryan has visited Ireland several times, to explore both family and faith.
His favourite place in Ireland? The shrine at Knock, in County Mayo.
“It’s a prayerful place,” he told IrishCentral. “When you’re there you feel that you want to talk with Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
“It feels peaceful, like when you’re in church and you feel calm and reverential toward God.”
Father Ryan also visited his mother’s childhood home, which he’d always imagined through her stories of Christmas in Ireland. She’d told him of “many parties and dances. People went around from house to house.
“The Irish are a very religious people — or at least they had been,” his mother told him of her childhood. “Living their faith was the most important thing in their lives.
“I think as a community [the Irish] are what Jesus wants us to be, very childlike,” Father Ryan said.
“The Irish are loving and easy to be with. They love stories — there’s no lack of conversation."
Father Ryan was recently interviewed in the New York Times, where he commented that he may well be the oldest serving priest in the US — he does not know, he told the paper.
“I think I have come a long, long way from when I was ordained,” he told the Times. “It isn’t about serving the church in the way you have envisioned, from the altar, and from the position of authority and power. But it is learning what human nature is, and what the struggles of people are. And where Jesus really is.”
He saw the era of massive change sweep across the Bronx, with parishes changing from ministering to whites only to including blacks and Hispanics. Through it all he stayed with the people, became a committed supporter of civil rights and was a leading figure in integrating the newcomers to the church.
“He encouraged the people, stay in the South Bronx, rebuild the South Bronx,” Felix Santiago — who has been a member of the parish since 1983 — told The Times of the aftermath of the Bronx's arson epidemic in the seventies. “He’s the mayor of 138th Street.”
The Rev. John Grange, 72, the pastor of nearby St. Jerome’s, agreed. “Jerry wasn’t outspoken,” he told the TImes, “but he was a force behind things.”
Ryan credits his commitment to the people in part to the simple Irish faith he learned at home.
“I’m very glad to be Irish,” Father Ryan told IrishCentral. “The Irish are an interesting, loveable people. I love Ireland and I love being there, and I highly recommend to everyone to be Irish!”
Growing up in New York, the young Gerald Ryan’s parents were part of a tightly-knit community of Irish immigrants, he told IrishCentral. His parents held parties at which “there was always an Irishman who could play [the accordion],” and everyone danced.
“I love dancing!” Father Ryan said.
The young Gerald Ryan absorbed the strong Catholicism in his home, and always knew he would grow up to be a priest.
“Most priests can tell you about their vocation, when the idea came to them,” he told IrishCentral. “I just grew up with the idea.
“I never thought of being anything else.”
His parents were very pleased and proud at his choice, he said. He also has a cousin in Ireland who is a nun.
“She’s one of the world’s most beautiful women,” Father Ryan said. “Beautiful personality, attracts people to her. She’s warm and understanding and delightful to be with.“
After 67 years as a priest, Father Ryan has no regrets as to his choice.
“I love Catholic innocence, warmth and holiness,” he told IrishCentral. “I have no desire for any other profession. I hope to live and to die a priest, hasta la muerte.”