‘Father Fred’ Gets Standing ‘O’ After Last Sermon at Holy Family
By LORETTA FULTON
A standing ovation–make that a rousing standing ovation–isn’t something that’s often experienced in a Roman Catholic Mass.
But Sunday, June 27, was special. And admirers of Msgr. Frederick G. Nawarskas, better known as “Father Fred,” made sure he knew it. It was Father Fred’s last Sunday as pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church and the congregation wanted him to go out with a bang–or at least a rousing standing ovation.
They had just heard his last sermon before stepping down from a position he has held since 1996. Father Fred’s final sermon was appropriate for him. He spoke of compassion, something he is known for himself.
“It is the divine glue of the human race” he said.
Father Fred almost made it through the sermon without emotions getting in the way. But he stammered a bit toward the end when he reminded the congregation that he wouldn’t be leaving. He is just transitioning into the role of “reduced active ministry” and will move out of the rectory into his own house just down the street. He will continue to celebrate two Masses a week and will hear confessions twice a week, in addition to other duties that the new priest, the Very Rev. Santiago Udayar, assigns him.
“I thank you for your kindness and support,” Father Fred said as he neared the end of his sermon. “It’s been a very exciting and beautiful experience for me.”
Following the noon Mass, church members lined up for individual blessings from Father Fred before enjoying refreshments.
Bishop Michael Sis of the Diocese of San Angelo, which includes Abilene’s four Catholic churches, created the role of “reduced active ministry” to allow older priests to step down from full-time ministry while still serving in a pastoral way. Most priests are assigned to a parish or mission different from the one they were serving, but Sis has assigned Father Fred to Holy Family.
“I’ll be around here,” Father Fred said, even after he eventually retires. “This is where all my friends are.”
A “retirement” gift that Father Fred will cherish forever arrived on Saturday, May 22, when Kevin Lenius was ordained to the priesthood at Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Angelo, the seat of the Diocese of San Angelo. It was the gift that kept on giving, as Lenius celebrated his first Mass at noon the next day at Holy Family and a Solemn High Mass (traditional Latin Mass) that evening.
Lenius was 2 years old when “Father Fred,” as he is known, arrived at Holy Family, where the Lenius family were members. It was Father Fred who served as a role model and guide for Lenius, who realized at a young age that the was called to the priesthood.
“Simply seeing his untiring devotion to his parish over the years I was a child impressed me,” Lenius said, “and when I began to start thinking about joining the seminar, Father Fred was very intentional in reaching out to me.”
Just as Lenius is beginning his ministry as an ordained priest, Father Fred is easing toward retirement. Fittingly, Lenius celebrated Mass on Father Fred’s last Sunday as priest at Holy Family. Effective Thursday, July 1, Lenius will begin duties as parochial vicar at St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Midland.
Sis, who has served as bishop of the San Angelo Diocese since 2013, is pleased that Father Fred is able to continue serving Holy Family and the diocese. Sis noted that Father Fred has been a highly effective and faithful priest, serving in a variety of parishes–large and small, wealthy and poor.
“He has a compassionate heart that is full of the love of Jesus,” Sis said. “I believe that the way he interacts with people is inspired by a very active Christian prayer life.”
Father Fred also possesses a “very capable and fertile mind,” the bishop said. He is constantly reading and learning, which makes him an excellent conversationalist on a variety of topics.
The bishop, as “the boss,” has one perspective of Father Fred. The church organist and the business manager have another. He is their boss. Remarkably, the perspectives all line up. Father Fred is the same person with his boss as he is when he’s being “the boss.”
David Robinson, former band director at McMurry University, now serves in the same position at Tarleton State University in Stephenville. He still drives to Abilene to play the organ at Holy Family. He jokes that Father Fred, a gifted musician, is a better organist than he is. Robinson is grateful that Father Fred understands how music interacts with the Catholic liturgy and has made music a priority at Holy Family.
Father Fred also is an excellent administrator with a gift of “making the trains run on time,” while at the same time meeting the needs of the people. Most importantly, Robinson said, Father Fred is a genuinely compassionate person.
“He has developed such great relationships with everyone at Holy Family that he will be very difficult to replace.”
Gail Wheeler knows Father Fred, both as the church’s business manager and as a parishioner. She came to Holy Family in March 1999, three years after Father Fred began his ministry at the church. Wheeler, too, is stepping down, only she is fully retiring. Her replacement is Mishelle Godbee.
Wheeler will always cherish her memories of working alongside Father Fred. As a boss, he is patient and kind, Wheeler said, taking time to explain what, why, and how he wants something done.
“He is is a humble person,” Wheeler said, “and seeks to understand the other person’s point of view.”
As a priest, Father Fred has walked alongside the Wheeler family in times of joy and crisis–the same as he has done with other families over his fifty-four years in the priesthood. The parish is fortunate, Wheeler said, that Father Fred will continue to serve, even if in a reduced role.
Wheeler said that as Father Fred’s employee, she will miss his sense of humor, his daily words of wisdom, and his humble and sincere approach to all areas of parish life.
“As his friend, I will continue to enjoy his support and kindness to me and my family,” Wheeler said. “As a member of our parish, I feel blessed that he will continue to serve our community.”
And that is exactly what Father Fred plans to do. He has no problem relinquishing his title and authority to a new priest. He is ready to take a lesser just a little over two years after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. On Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, Father Fred was so weak he couldn’t make it down the aisle for the third Mass. 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 the cancer diagnosis was made. Since then, he has undergone surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, followed by an experimental immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
Today, Father Fred pronounces himself fit as a fiddle and he looks it and acts it. He is ready for his new role. But don’t think the title “reduced active ministry” means exactly that. Not for Father Fred, anyway. He will still preside over Masses, preach sermons, visit hospitalizes church members, and do anything the new priest requests. And, if needed, he will fill in on the organ.
“In a bind, I could do that,” he said.
Learning to play the organ wasn’t the young Fred Nawarskas’ idea. It was his father’s. Nawarskas grew up in Cleveland and attended a Catholic high school. When he was fourteen, his father learned how much money the church organist made and approached his teenage son.
“Fred,” his father said, “you have to learn to play the organ.”
He became quite accomplished and keeps his skills sharp today by playing the church organ and the Baldwin baby grand piano that has been a part of his family since he was fifteen. The piano has made many moves in Father Fred’s career. A few parts have been lost, but always found.
The Diocese of San Angelo is the only diocese Father Fred has served. He was ordained on May 27, 1967, at Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. On June 17, he reported to Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Angelo. Nawarskas had learned that if he would volunteer to go to a place in need of priests after he completed seminary, much of his schooling would be paid for. He did and that’s how he ended up in the San Angelo Diocese, which had been created just six years earlier. That decision turned out to be fortuitous for both Father Fred and the people of the diocese.
He loves West Texas and can’t imagine being anywhere else. In 1976, he moved his parents to land he bought about twenty-five miles from San Angelo. They lived there until their deaths. Both are buried in San Angelo and Father Fred will be buried there, too.
But for now, Father Fred will continue to serve at Holy Family, while working in some travel. He will visit family in Cleveland and Chicago and hopes that a trip to Rome is in his future. He has never met Pope Francis and would consider it an honor to get to meet him.
In a sense, Father Fred has come full circle. He began his ministry in the Diocese of San Angelo and was part of the ordination ceremony for Kevin Lenius, one of the newer priests in the diocese.
“I did the best I could to encourage him,” Father Fred said.
And he succeeded. Lenius recalled that Father Fred was intentional about reaching out to him when he began thinking about seminary. Father Fred discussed the process and what a lifetime in the priesthood had meant to him.
“One thing he told me that I will never forget,” Lenius said, “is how fulfilled he has been in his priesthood, even after so many years of service.”
Father Fred promised Lenius that he would never be bored. He might be tired and frustrated at times, but never bored.
While Lenius was in seminary, he received constant support from Father Fred and always felt welcomed when he came home. Father Fred hosted Lenius over summers while he was a seminarian. Lenius was allowed to preach on Sundays when he was a transitional deacon, a step in the process of becoming an ordained priest. Lenius said some of his most treasured moments include lunches with Father Fred after Sunday Masses.
“He would always tell great stories, make me laugh, and give me such hope in my future priesthood,” Lenius said. “The greatest gift he has given me is his encouragement and his quiet witness of simply being a parish priest for so many years.”
Father Fred is exactly the model Bishop Sis had in mind when he created the role of reduced active ministry in the diocese. Father Fred, and other priests of his stature and experience, can remain a valuable resource for several years after they step down from full-time ministry. Sis, fellow priests who have served with Father Fred, the people under his care, and young men like Lenius that he has mentored all share the same love and high opinion of their brother in Christ.
“He touches the hearts of people in such a positive and life-giving way,” Sis said, “that we are blessed to have him in our lives.”
Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene
Msgr. Frederick G. Nawarskas
Position: Pastor, Holy Family Catholic Church
Age: 81, born April 24, 1940, in Cleveland, Ohio
Family: Parents, Albert and Adele Mickunas Nawarskas, both deceased; one brother and one sister, both living in Cleveland, Ohio
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