Msgr. Cullen distributes Communion to his sister, Mary, who traveled from Ireland to attend the celebration.
Msgr. Cullen distributes Communion to his sister, Mary, who traveled from Ireland to attend the celebration.

When planning began for a twofold celebration of the 50th anniversary of Msgr. Harold F. Cullen’s ordination and his retirement from active ministry, he was very insistent about an outdoor Mass on the church steps followed by a “family picnic” with music and activities for children.

On June 30, as the community of Spring Lake’s St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish gathered with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., Msgr. Cullen’s sister, Mary, who had flown in from Ireland, brother priests, deacons, religious and members of the community at-large, that prediction came true.

It was a gathering Msgr. Cullen said he never could have imagined growing up in Ireland or when he was first ordained to the priesthood in the Redemptorist Fathers there Sept. 15, 1968.

“For one thing,” he wrote in his farewell message in the parish bulletin, “I had never heard of Spring Lake – or New Jersey for that matter. And the thought of having been the pastor of such a significant and great parish would have been in the realm of pure fantasy.”

Journey of Faith

Msgr. Cullen was born in 1944 in Cork City, Ireland, to James and May Cullen. His mother was a devoted wife and stay-at-home mom to three children, Harold, Mary and Brendan. His father was a noted journalist and editor of the Irish Examiner.

Raised in a devout Catholic home and educated in Catholic schools, Msgr. Cullen said it was natural for him to grow up with an interest in entering the priesthood. “I grew up in the 40s and 50s in Ireland. Everyone went to church,” he said. “It was an important part of life.”

Though he had considered becoming a doctor, his cousin, a Redemptorist priest, “influenced me to join the order when I was 18.” When he entered, the novitiate of the order founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori was still in a different phase, he said. “But all that changed with the Second Vatican Council.”

“All of the religious orders underwent an ‘aggiornamento,’ or ‘bringing up to date,’ which the Redemptorists faced into in a very courageous way. I was part of that,” Msgr. Cullen said.

“I feel I’ve lived through one of the most dramatic times and the most change since the Council of Trent,” in 1545, he said. “In the past 50 years, the Church has changed so dramatically.”

After completing his studies for the priesthood in Cluain Mhuire Seminary, he was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Galway by Bishop Michael Browne on Sept. 15, 1968.

The first years of his priesthood were spent in Ireland serving in parish mission and retreat work. “If I had any aspiration, it was to go to Brazil as a missionary … but God had other designs,” he said.

Sent as a chaplain to an inner-city girls’ high school in Dublin, he worked with troubled young people. The appointment served as a catalyst for moving to the United States to study psychology in Ohio’s Xavier University and later, Temple University, Philadelphia.

While studying, he worked in school settings as a psychologist and also became a licensed psychologist. With the approval of his provincial superior in Ireland, Msgr. Cullen remained in the United States after graduating from Temple and began to discern becoming a parish priest.

Transferred to the Diocese of Camden, he served in St. Patrick Parish, Woodbury, and St. Anthony (now St. Mary of Mount Carmel) Parish, Hammonton, before coming to the Trenton Diocese in 1982, where he served in St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, as a parochial vicar with Msgr. Kenard Tuzeneu, the pastor he considers a role model and mentor.

Incardinated a priest of the Trenton Diocese in 2006, he was named pastor of St. Jerome Parish, West Long Branch, in 2005, which he shepherded for nine years including four as pastor of neighboring St. Mary, Deal, until being assigned to St. Catharine-St. Margaret.

Fond Farewell

In his farewell comments on June 30, Msgr. Cullen spoke joyfully of the way his active ministry was concluding. The years in Spring Lake, capped with the honor of being named a monsignor, were unexpected and extraordinary, he said.

“I feel very positive and peaceful and in a wonderful place,” he said “The number one thing I’m proud of about my five years here is St. Catharine School becoming a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.”

The many different parish ministries – 31 to date – are another source of pride. The music ministry, he noted, has grown incrementally with a classical program and contemporary youth choir that appeals to all ages. “I always thought that Spring Lake and St. Catharine’s were a natural center for really good music and arts in general.”

Of all the gifts of his priesthood, he said, being involved in parish life was the greatest gift of all.

“What I like about being a diocesan priest is that you become a part of a community and you set roots down,” he said. “What I’ll miss most are the people – warm, embracing and comfortable – in each of the parishes I’ve served.”