Father Jean Felicien, who is currently pursuing graduate studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, enjoys a Christmas party with Father Sloyan in December 2018.  Courtesy photo
Father Jean Felicien, who is currently pursuing graduate studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, enjoys a Christmas party with Father Sloyan in December 2018. Courtesy photo

Residents and visitors to a small assisted living facility on the grounds of Our Lady of Mercy Parish, Potomac, Md., can find 99-year-old Father Gerard S. Sloyan still continuing to live out his vocation – a ministry now more than seven decades in the making.

“I’ve been a priest for 75 years,” said Father Sloyan, who marked the anniversary of his ordination June 3. “Being of some help to people – that’s the best part when you become a public man through the presbyterate.”

An altar server from the time he was six, Father Sloyan said he knew he wanted to become a diocesan priest from boyhood. However, “even at an early age, I figured out some priests did their job better than other priests – and if I became a priest, I hoped to belong to the group of those better types.”

Strong Diocesan Roots

A native of the Bronx, N.Y., Father Sloyan was raised in Red Bank, the only son of Irish Catholic parents Marie Virginia Kelley, a school teacher, and Jerome James Sloyan, an engineer, who, Father Sloyan said, handed down his longevity genes. “My father died at age 84 – younger than I am, but it was helpful,” said Father Sloyan, smiling.

In his room, surrounded with bookcases and framed photographs of his family including his parents and three sisters – two of whom entered religious life – Father Sloyan recalled a family life filled with humor and intellectual curiosity. But most essential was the belief in God passed on by his parents.

“To me, faith is all important. Faith is at the roots of my human being from infancy up,” said Father Sloyan, who through ordination became “a priest until death.”

In retirement, Father Sloyan, a priest, academic and author who turns 100 this December, still concelebrates Mass whenever he can, but especially during Friday morning liturgies held at his residence.

“He knows and loves Scripture, and loves the Gospel,” said Father Stephen P. Wyble, parochial vicar in Our Lady of Mercy Parish and main celebrant at the weekly Mass for the past two years. “In staying true to his priestly identity, never missing an opportunity to participate, concelebrating for as long as he can, Father Sloyan is inspiring to me in his priesthood,” noted Father Wyble.

Additionally, Father Sloyan is a wonderful singer and loves the Sign of Peace when he goes around the room greeting everyone. “He’s very enthusiastic about his priesthood and about Scripture in particular,” added Father Wyble, noting his concelebrant is “enthusiastic over his love for the Word of God.”

That enthusiasm led Father Sloyan to a lifetime of teaching primarily at The Catholic University of America, Washington, from 1956 to 1967, where he also served as head of the graduate department of religious education and in the religion department at Temple University, Philadelphia, where he served from 1967 to 1990, including time as chair. Following his mandatory retirement from Temple, Father Sloyan returned to the classroom and lecturing for another 20 years as an adjunct professor at various institutions including CUA and Georgetown University, also in Washington.

“I offer my heartiest congratulations and prayerful best wishes to our priest, Father Gerard S. Sloyan, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood for our Diocese,” said Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who formerly served as CUA president. “He is also celebrating his 100th birthday this year. These are two rare milestones for any priest, and the Diocese of Trenton is blessed to share them both with Father Sloyan. Ad multos annos!”

Respected Mentor

During a recent visit, retired Temple University Professor Lucy Bregman, a colleague and friend, brought Father Sloyan a box of chocolates, which he called his one “character weakness.”

Describing her friend and mentor as “a moral leader as well as an academic and administrator in our department,” Bregman said she often used his advice with her own students. “Some of the advice Father Sloyan gave was so thoughtful and so good,” she recalled, especially informing graduate students not to compare themselves or focus on others as that would result in their own unhappiness.

Bregman considers Father Sloyan her oldest friend – both in age and length of time she has known him. She has celebrated many milestones with the soon-to-be centenarian, including his 99th birthday celebration last year. “You have been a model – first of all – on how to be a calm, peace-making person in all situations,” Bregman told Father Sloyan.

Seventy-five years ago, Father Sloyan prepared for the priesthood at Seton Hall University, South Orange; Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, and Theological College of CUA. He was ordained a priest by Bishop William A. Griffin June 3, 1944, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, and his first assignment was to St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton (now part of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish). After a summer in Hamilton, he began full-time work in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at CUA. The parishes in the Trenton Diocese where Father Sloyan assisted during the summers included Sacred Heart, Bay Head; Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Maple Shade, and St. Francis of Assisium, Trenton. Father Sloyan also spent a very brief time as a novitiate of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Metuchen, in 1947. In addition to publishing numerous books on the Catholic faith, Father Sloyan also served on the continuing education committee of the diocesan Council of Priests.

The faculty of CUA is planning to commemorate Father Sloyan’s milestones with a one-day symposium in his honor, the cost of which is being split between the Diocese of Trenton and CUA. The panel discussions will focus on major issues Father Sloyan worked on throughout his life, with speakers addressing both his contribution to them and the current state of the disciplines. Proposed topics include homiletics, liturgical catechesis, the Gospel of John, and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

“From holy Baptism in infancy – I have been a Catholic,” Father Sloyan said. And to those newly ordained priests he would add, “when he accepts a post in that Church – you have to be faithful to its demands.”

Lynnea Mumola is a correspondent with the Catholic Standard, the Catholic newspaper for the Archdiocese of Washington.