One Mission in Mind – Father Brian McCormick wears his heart on his t-shirt in this photo that was taken years ago when he was interviewed by The New York Times. The New York Times photo

One Mission in Mind – Father Brian McCormick wears his heart on his t-shirt in this photo that was taken years ago when he was interviewed by The New York Times. The New York Times photo

By Mary Stadnyk | News Editor

When Father Brian McCormick set out on his journey to the priesthood almost 50 years ago, he did so with one very clear purpose in mind.

He wanted to change the world.

 “The way I see it, changing the world is about helping people become sensitive and caring toward other people and that’s what I wanted to do as a priest,” he said, and it was also his view that “if Jesus is really alive, then his Resurrection must be demonstrated in places where there is the least hope.”

And for more than 42 years, Trenton’s Wilbur section has been the part of the world where, as president of the Martin House Community Justice Foundation, Father McCormick has tirelessly devoted his priestly life to making a significant impact. It is there that he has worked among, ministered to and championed for thousands of poor adults and children by helping them to improve their lives through housing and educational opportunities.

Father McCormick, who recently retired from Martin House and is currently living in Villa Vianney - the diocesan facility for retired priests in Lawrenceville - appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the highlights of his vocation of service to people in need.

He spoke with particularly fond affection for his father, Kenneth McCormick, and credits his “Pop” for instilling in him the passion for social outreach work.

 “Even as young kids, Pop would always tell us – my three brothers, my sister and me – that we should give back to the community, that we should work to make our community better,” he said. “And I was from a family who not only said we should give back to the community, but did give back to the community. We walked the talk. We lived it out.”

While growing up in Somerville, Father McCormick recalled how he and his siblings would work with their father in the family-owned hotel, and often times would encounter guests who had fallen on difficult times. Some were men who were returning after serving in the war and their families had disintegrated; there were people moving to the area in search of jobs, and there were older folks who were struggling economically.

Regardless of how the guests arrived at Mr. McCormick’s hotel or their particular situations, one thing was for certain, they were provided with a safe haven and surrounded by the McCormick family, who treated them with dignity and respect.

“We got to know the guests and many times they became like an extended family to us,” said Father McCormick. “They were all human beings to us.”

Who Me? A Priest?

Father McCormick chuckles when he thinks about how he became a priest.

“Being a priest was really not my idea,” he said. While in St. Peter High School, New Brunswick, he had no thoughts of a vocation whatsoever. He instead was much more interested in playing sports – football and baseball – and dating girls.

The seed for Father McCormick’s vocation was planted when he want to confession. He was in his home parish, Immaculate Conception, Somerville, and “it was while talking with the priest, that the priest suggested I might have a vocation to the priesthood.”

“I was open to the idea,” Father McCormick said.

Following his high school graduation, Father McCormick journeyed north to Canada to study in St. Jerome College, Kitchener, Ontario. Following his college graduation, he entered Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, and was ordained a priest May 28, 1966, by Bishop George W. Ahr in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.

The newly ordained Father McCormick’ s first assignment was as associate pastor of St. James Parish, Woodbridge, where he quickly became involved with various aspects of youth and young adult ministry including heading up the CYO. Through his CYO work, Father McCormick was led to put his passion for social justice into practice when he founded the Bunns Lane Youth Association, which provided outreach to delinquent youth of the area. Working with a core of volunteers, Bunns Lane was open seven days a week and sponsored activities, trips and guidance for the youth.

“Our main goal at Bunns Lane was to keep these kids out of jail,” he said. “If they went to jail, it would then become a series of steady graduations up to the big house.”

From Woodbridge to Trenton

In 1970, Bishop Ahr asked the 43-year-old Father McCormick to relocate to Trenton and work in the diocese’s Martin House ministry. Martin House, which had been named after St. Martin DePorres, a 16th century saint in Lima, Peru, was founded in 1968 in the wake of the racial riots occurring in cities throughout the country, including Trenton. Three diocesan priests had initially been assigned to live and work in the impoverished Wilbur section of Trenton, but within a few years had left the ministry for various reasons, leaving Martin House in dire need of new leadership.

At first, Father McCormick was reluctant to go to Martin House. He said he declined Bishop Ahr’s request two times before he finally accepted the position.

“Otherwise, there was the very real possibility that Martin House would close,” he said. “I prayed about that and decided that I would go there.”

When Father McCormick arrived to Martin House, he worked primarily with youth and led a Boy Scout troop. However, as he came to know the youth and learned more about the community, he realized that he was being called to a greater mission of addressing one of the neighborhood’s most dire needs – decent and truly affordable housing. Father McCormick believed that there was not sufficient housing provided for people living below the poverty level. He then sent out to have Martin House have as its primary mission to make the dream of home ownership to very low-income families a reality. Poor people should be given the opportunity to have housing that they can both pay for and maintain.

Father McCormick did not let the municipal and financial stumbling blocks that he encountered prevent his revitalization process from moving forward. He was motivated to take a different approach. In 1972, he helped to establish Martin House’s Better Community Housing of Trenton that would allow the diocesan ministry to build homes and offer interest-free mortgages. The BCHT, in its more than 39-year history, has gutted and rehabilitated 102 homes and built more than 65 new townhomes, 17 units of housing for homeless families and 10 rental units.

Along with housing, Father McCormick helped to spearhead the opening of the Martin House Clothing Store in 1980, which continues to operate under the direction of neighborhood residents and sells quality secondhand goods. His next venture in 1988 had him create the Martin House Family of Programs which went on to spawn the additional outreach programs including Doorway to Hope, a Martin House Learning Center and the Youth and Adult Men of Trenton Initiative.

Doorway to Hope, the transitional housing program for homeless families that was started in 1991, began as an outreach to mothers who were heads of households and their children. The program evolved into helping total families to seek self sufficiency. The Martin House Learning Center, which is a 28,000-square-foot structure that houses a preschool program, classrooms for after-school tutoring, high school equivalency programs, literacy classes and a professional-sized gymnasium, computer room, exercise room and conference space. Activities provided for children include Scouting, a drill team, dance and basketball.

In 2003, Father McCormick launched a $3 million campaign to build 100 homes for 100 families. He had it in mind that if the number of renovated homes increased, hopefully the neighborhood would become more stable and attractive to potential urban dwellers.

Another initiative that came under the Martin House Family of Programs over the years included the Young Adult Men of Trenton Initiative, a program of physical labor, mental discipline and spiritual motivation designed for 17-25 year-old men. While the men had an opportunity to learn carpentry, electrical work and computer skills, the men were also strongly encouraged to pursue their education. At the very least, the men it was the hope that the men would obtain their general equivalency diploma (GED), but ideally, the standard was set for them to go on to college.

Looking back over the 42 years at Martin House, Father McCormick resists taking credit for all that Martin House has accomplished. He instead pays tribute to a host of co-workers, hundreds of volunteers, area parishes, the community-at-large and the residents of the Wilbur section who, with their spirit of love, sharing and caring, were able to make a positive impact on many lives.

Noting that it is his fervent hope and prayer that Martin House will continue its ministry well into the future, he said: “Serving at Martin House fulfilled my aspiration and vision of priesthood.”

“If nothing else, my time at Martin House taught me how to understand real problems and bring Christian values to help resolve those problems. It was also about being able to look at the community and see the gifts that exist within that community. Then once you recognize those gifts and nurture those gifts, you are able to create something much bigger.”