Divine Word Father Miguel Virella, pictured front, is shown in this 2012 photo with other priests who were assigned to oversee and serve the restructuring of parishes in Asbury Park. Father Virella is now one of nine  Divine Word priests who will remain in the Diocese of Trenton and continue his ministry as pastor of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park. Craig Pittelli photo
Divine Word Father Miguel Virella, pictured front, is shown in this 2012 photo with other priests who were assigned to oversee and serve the restructuring of parishes in Asbury Park. Father Virella is now one of nine Divine Word priests who will remain in the Diocese of Trenton and continue his ministry as pastor of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park. Craig Pittelli photo
For 81 years, the service of the Society of the Divine Word Missionary Fathers and Brothers has made an indelible impression on the four counties of the Trenton Diocese.

Now a chapter of that ministry is coming to an end, as their Bordentown base property has been sold and three of the religious men will be leaving. However, nine Divine Word priests will continue to serve in parishes in Asbury Park, Browns Mills and Lakewood.

“I’m very happy that we will be staying in the Diocese,” said Divine Word Father Pedro Bou, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lakewood.

Mission Spirit

Divine Word Father Raymond T. Lennon wrote the definitive history of the order’s missionaries regional home base in Bordentown. He’s retired from active ministry now and resides in the Chicago Province Center in Techny, Ill., home to fathers and brothers serving the Caribbean, Canada and the United States.

“The mission brought so much to the Diocese,” Father Lennon said. “Most of us were serving in foreign countries, and when we were assigned back to Bordentown, we brought a mission spirit to the community.”

That mission spirit combined with the global outlook of the SVD clergy had a “tremendous effect on the people,” said Father Lennon, who served as provincial superior from 1982 to 1990.

From Bordentown, the fathers and brothers served as many as 15 parishes around the Diocese, ministered as prison chaplains and maintained a long ministry to the Poor Clares in Chesterfield from the 1940s to today, Father Lennon recalled.

At times, the need was overwhelming. “Especially after 9/11,” he said. “A lot of people were suffering, and they came for counseling. On weekends, we all went out to 10 or 12 parishes to serve liturgies. It had a big impact.”

A Home Base Farewell

Bishop William A. Griffin invited the Divine Word Missionaries to the Diocese in 1941 to serve African-American Catholics, and since that time, the historic property has served as the center of their widely expanded mission.

It’s a bittersweet time for all of the Divine Word fathers serving in the Diocese, especially those who are preparing to bid farewell to what was once a 200-plus acre campus for a flourishing seminary and high school and the headquarters for priests and brothers.

 “There are only three of us [in residence] here at this point,” said Divine Word Father Jefferson Pool, who serves as treasurer and is overseeing the transition.

“All of us are at retirement age. We have loved being part of this community, but it is just financially imprudent at this time to maintain this huge infrastructure,” said Father Pool, who has devoted decades to ministry in the region. “We love this place, but three people don’t need it for a retirement center.”

Father Pool, who keeps a photo on his desk of the 22 priests who resided there in the not-too-distant past, has been ensuring that the property is well-served in the future by new owners. The order is working with a coalition of state and municipal officials on a transition that would see the property preserved for municipal and public use.

Though now in Lakewood, Father Bou fondly recalled how his connection to Bordentown goes back to 1977, when he first arrived from Puerto Rico.

“From Lakewood to Yardville to Bordentown to Red Bank, to Lakewood again, I have hopped all over,” as needed, Father Bou said. But always there was the constant in Bordentown with its serenity, prayerful atmosphere, sense of community and history – as the property once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph.

“I try to take a day off and spend it there for community life. I get there early in the morning, have meals with the guys, relax and walk the grounds,” he said, noting that he will miss visiting his brothers once the  Bordentown facility closes. “Wednesday night is community night and one of the best things is that there are always people passing through from Africa, the Orient, Haiti.”