Msgr. Nolan greets parishioners following a Mass he celebrated in St. Thomas More Church, Manalapan, one of the parishes where he assists in retirement.  Mike Ehrmann photo
Msgr. Nolan greets parishioners following a Mass he celebrated in St. Thomas More Church, Manalapan, one of the parishes where he assists in retirement. Mike Ehrmann photo

Self-described as a man who has “always loved stories,” retired priest of the Diocese Msgr. Walter E. Nolan has drawn upon that appreciation in 50 years of priesthood, using his storytelling penchant for those of all ages in his homilies, and his understanding and love of other people.

“Everybody’s life is a story, a story of God,” he emphasized. “The more we can see that and pray that, the better off I think we are.”

Wearing many hats – pastor, athletic moderator, college chaplain, roles in the diocesan tribunal and host of the longtime diocesan cable television program “The Catholic Corner” – Msgr. Nolan has found the uniting factor in all his varied priestly service has been the people.

“The joy [of my priesthood] was the friendships – some real priest friends, and being with and seeing the love grow in families,” he said. “I love doing weddings and celebrating the Sacraments with them … when I see people being joyful, I’m joyful.”

Finding strength

Msgr. Nolan was born in Jersey City in 1933, where his father worked as a steam fitter and his mother stayed home to raise him and his sister. He earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 1954 from the College of Pharmacy at Fordham University, N.Y., and served in the U.S. Army artillery as a 1st Lieutenant before working for eight years as a pharmacist in Jersey City.

While studying at Fordham, he met Patricia Burke, whom he recalled as “a beautiful saint – a person who changed my whole life.” The couple married in 1956.

“We were married for three years,” Msgr. Nolan continued. “Patty became pregnant, we lost the child and I lost her … [As newlyweds] I remember the two of us kneeling and praying together, that our love would get us both to heaven; I never thought it would be that quick for her.”

Facing loss, Msgr. Nolan sought advice from a beloved priest friend, Jesuit Father Raymond York, and spent time in prayer, listening for what God had planned.

“I thought about a lot of things … but [during] everything I was starting to do, I just kept getting a feeling Jesus would like me to be a priest,” he recalled. “I realized, ‘I gotta go and solve this.’”

He also felt Patricia’s hand in his pull toward the priesthood. “Patricia certainly taught me what love was all about,” he acknowledged. “I realized that another human person could love me [besides my family] … She was asking me to be more than I am, more than I was, and that was a beautiful thing.”

In 1965, Msgr. Nolan enrolled in Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, Weston, Mass. (then Pope John University), a seminary for those pursuing religious vocations later in life. He earned a master’s degree in divinity there, followed by a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop George W. Ahr on May 31, 1969, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.

Msgr. Nolan began priesthood as parochial vicar in St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square; the following year he was named moderator of the Mercer County Catholic Youth Athletic Center and Mercer County vocational director. He joined the faculty of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, as chaplain and athletic moderator in 1971 – a school that now bears his name on its athletic field. A few years later, he was appointed pro-synodal judge of the diocesan tribunal in 1980.

In 1981, Msgr. Nolan was assigned as parochial vicar in St. Ann Parish, as well as chaplain of Rider College (now Rider University), both in Lawrenceville. In 1982, he was named an executive board at-large member of the Council of Priests and president of the Priests Senate. He was later reappointed as pro-synodal judge and as defender of the bond of the tribunal. Various additional roles included judge of the tribunal in 1992; appointment to the Board of Seminarian Recruitment for Vocations; chairman of the Continuing Education Committee and director of priest personnel. He was named a Chaplain to His Holiness with the title of monsignor by Pope John Paul II in September 1993.

Msgr. Nolan also served a five-year term on the diocesan College of Consultors, and on July 1, 2007, was appointed dean of the Northern Mercer Deanery. He continues to serve the Diocese as weekend assistant in parishes. Msgr. Nolan was recognized with the Spirit of St. Francis Award in 2012 by St. Francis Medical Center, Trenton, where he served as priest chaplain in retirement, and is a member of the board of trustees.

Finding strength

At the time of his 2011 retirement, Msgr. Nolan had been pastor of St. Paul Parish, Princeton, for 14 years, overseeing the growth of new outreach ministries, a remodel of the spiritual center and an addition to St. Paul School. The parishioners so fondly remembered his time there, that they and current pastor, Msgr. Joseph Rosie, invited Msgr. Nolan back to the parish for a 50th anniversary celebration June 2.

“Why did I become a priest? Because I came to believe the Lord was asking that of me,” he said during the homily of his anniversary Mass. “Fifty years later, I believe that he is still asking that of me … being a priest is like walking with the Lord. The long walk is part of the gift. There have been difficult days in those 50 years – but I can honestly say, not an unhappy day.”

His biggest challenge, he said, was “doing homilies every week … and finding time to get it all in – time to pray, time to reflect on the day – there’s always something to do.”

Msgr. Nolan’s love for stories and for people has shaped the way he ministered to and connected with those he served.

“The people are the joy, the love and the growth you see,” he explained. “The essence of life … is that you have to know you can love, but also know that you can be loved. When you have both, you realize the fullness of God.”