FATHER FRED: ‘THERE IS CAUSE FOR JOY’
By LORETTA FULTON
This Easter was supposed to be different.
A year ago, Msgr. Frederick G. Nawarskas or “Father Fred” as he is better known, was so weak he couldn’t make it down the aisle for the third Mass of Easter Sunday at Holy Family Catholic Church. He had undergone a stress test on Good Friday because doctors believed the lack of strength came from a heart problem.
But the day after Easter, Monday April 22, he was in Hendrick Medical Center where he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Since then, he has undergone surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, followed by an experimental immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
Today Father Fred, who will turn 80 on April 24, is cancer free. He is happy and joyously serving members of Holy Family, where he has been the priest since 1996.
“I’m one of the oldest priests in captivity,” he joked.
Father Fred was looking forward to walking down the aisle this Easter Sunday, greeting parishoners at all the Masses. It would be so different from a year ago. The church would be packed for all the Masses required to accommodate the huge crowds on Easter Sunday. Music and flowers would add to the joyous celebration.
Then, the coronavirus hit. Bishop Michael Sis, following advice from medical professionals, has mandated that no more than 10 people gather at a time for services in the Diocese of San Angelo. Adjustments had to be made, with deacons giving homilies on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and for the abbreviated Easter Vigil on Saturday. Father Fred’s sermon will come on Sunday. Displaying his usual good humor and outlook, Father Fred found a silver lining.
“At least I didn’t cause all the trouble this year like I did last year,” he said.
No one viewed Father Fred’s ordeal as “trouble,” of course but the coronavirus for sure is causing all kinds of trouble. Most churches and other houses of worship have been empty since the 10-person limit was suggested or in some cases mandated. Leaders of larger places of worship are live streaming sermons or distributing them via social media. Easter Sunday messages of hope will be delivered in the same manner, but it won’t be the same. For the first time in anyone’s memory, churches will be practically empty for Easter observances. Only a handful of people will be allowed to conduct the service.
“Nobody is invited to it,” Father Fred said.
It is certainly a “first” in the ministry of Msgr. Frederick G. Nawarskas, who knew when he was a junior at Benedictine High School in Cleveland, Ohio, that he wanted to become a priest. He was ordained at Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, on May 27, 1967. Less than a month later, on June 17, he reported to Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Angelo and has spent his entire ministry in the Diocese of San Angelo.
On May 19, 2017, Bishop Sis presided over a special Mass at Holy Family in honor of the 50th anniversary of Father Fred’s ordination to the priesthood. The church was packed with admirers.
“They are here,” the bishop said, “because of their love and respect for Father Fred.”
Monsignor Frederick G. Nawarskas, right, prepares for a special Mass on May 19, 2017, at Holy Family Catholic Church in honor of the 50th anniversary of “Father Fred’s” ordination to the priesthood. The Most Rev. Michael Sis, bishop of the Diocese of San Angelo, presided over the Mass, which was attended by about 500 people. “Father Fred” has been at Holy Family Catholic Church since 1996. Photo by Loretta Fulton
Arriving in San Angelo proved to be a welcomed surprise for Father Fred and another young priest who came at the same time from Ohio. Neither had been west of the Mississippi River and what they thought they knew of West Texas wasn’t promising.
“We heard horror stories about scorpions and rattlesnakes,” he said in an interview for a story in the Abilene Reporter-News.
Instead, the two young men found a progressive diocese with gracious and welcoming people.
“We really fell in love with West Texas,” he said.
Since then, West Texas has fallen in love with Father Fred, who served parishes in San Angelo, Odessa, and Midland before being assigned to Holy Family in 1996. He joked that he has been at the church so long that members won’t mind not seeing him on Easter Sunday.
“They’ve just about had it,” he joked.
Not likely. People are naturally drawn to Father Fred’s humor, warmth, and grace. Holy Family was packed on the night of the special Mass in honor of his 50th year as an ordained priest. All who know him were concerned as he battled cancer last year and are grateful for his recovery. He didn’t need that health scare or this year’s coronavirus crisis to remind him of the significance of Easter.
“In spite of everything that’s going on,” he said, “there is cause for joy.”
As bleak as the days have become since “coronavirus” entered our vocabulary, Easter Sunday will be joyous. Churches will be all but empty, there won’t be vases of Easter lilies, flowered crosses or traditional Easter music from church choirs and pipe organs. But it will still be Easter Sunday, and for that, Father Fred says, we should all be thankful.
“I hope all of this will strengthen our faith in the risen Lord,” he said.
Monsignor Frederick G. Nawarskas
Position: Pastor, Holy Family Catholic Church
Age: 79; born April 24, 1940, in Cleveland, Ohio
Family: Parents, Albert and Adele Mickunas Nawarskas, both deceased; one brother and one sister
Ordination to the priesthood: May 27, 1967, Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus,Ohio
Education: Benedictine High School, Cleveland, Ohio, 1959; Pontifical College Josephinum, 1967; also studied at Seton Hall University, Loras, Boston College
Diocese of San Angelo: Sacred Heart Cathedral, San Angelo, assistant pastor, 1967-1971; St. Joseph, Odessa, pastor, 1971-1977; Sacred Heart Cathedral, San Angelo, pastor, 1977-1984; St. Ann, Midland, pastor, 1984-1996; Holy Family, Abilene, 1996-present
Diocesan positions: Personnel Board, Diocesan Priest Pension Board, Presbyteral Council, dean, Abilene Deanery, Board of Diocesan Consultors, Knights of Columbus
Top Photo Credit: on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re6/7980e210″>Visual Hunt</a>