Upon a long folding table in the narthex of St. Denis Church, Manasquan, amidst framed portraits and a book of photographs, lay four black hats which served as a fitting summary of the life of the late Father Joseph J. Miele.

The two old-style priest birettas recalled his more than 60 years of service to the people of God, while the two baseball caps emblazoned with U.S. Navy emblems told the story of the World War II veteran’s service to country. Mounted nearby was an electric billboard with a picture of the smiling priest in his prime and the phrase with which he ended every homily: “Remember, Jesus loves you, and I love you.”

That mutual love and respect was ever-present Oct. 21 at the Mass of Christian Burial for Father Miele, who died Oct. 13 at age 97. Father William J. P. Lago, St. Denis pastor and principal celebrant, was joined by numerous priests of the Diocese who concelebrated and buoyed by the prayerful presence of hundreds of the flock Father Miele once nurtured.

Franciscan Father Francis X. Berna, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, delivered a heartfelt eulogy for his long-time friend just before the funeral Mass. He recalled the diligence Father Miele displayed when interviewing priests to serve as summer assistants in St. Denis Parish, sparking the younger priest’s admiration and friendship with the retired-in-name-only cleric.

Father Berna recalled his friend’s greatest achievement as pastor being the revitalization of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Red Bank, where he was responsible for “a new parish center, classrooms for religious education, and a passion for the liturgy with conscious, active participation of the congregation.”

Upon his retirement from active ministry in 1999, Father Miele told the fellow priest, “I can finally do what I was ordained to do without the work of a pastor,” and continued to serve “with the Eucharist at the heart of his life.”

“What aN amazing witness in his life as a priest,” declared Father Lago in his homily about the priest who was lovingly dubbed “Father Joe” by all. He reminded people of Jesus’ love for them, and he loved us as well,” the pastor continued. “I was ordained in 1999, and he retired in ’99. He was much older than I, but he helped out in amazing ways; he came to every single thing at the church, supported the kids and was grandfatherly in a familial way.”

PHOTO GALLERY: FUNERAL MASS OF FATHER JOSEPH J. MIELE

Father Lago reminded the congregation of details of the priest’s “epic life,” including his term as founding pastor of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside. He asserted, “There were so many facets to his life. Think of all the different lives he touched. It was a web of love, a connection across so many parishes and people and places in their lives … Let us celebrate the great gift his priesthood is. He will be forever in our memories.”

Born in 1925 in South Philadelphia, Father Miele attended Our Lady of the Rosary School and West Philadelphia Catholic School for Boys, graduating in 1943. Following his graduation from high school, he entered the Navy and received his basic training at the Sampson Naval Training Station, Sampson, N.Y.

After training as an engineer, he was assigned to the USS Augusta CA31 as an electrician’s mate. During his enlistment, the USS Augusta served as an Atlantic Fleet flagship in the Normandy Invasion, the Invasion of Southern France and transported President Harry S. Truman to the Potsdam Conference.

Following his honorable discharge from the Navy in 1946, Father Miele returned to Philadelphia and began studies in La Salle College (now University), graduating with a bachelor of science degree in accounting in 1949. He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, Pa., and completed his studies in Our Lady of the Angels Seminary, Niagara University, Niagara, N.Y.

Father Miele was ordained a priest by Bishop George W. Ahr May 26, 1956, in St. Anthony Church, (now part of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish) Hamilton. He served as parochial vicar in a number of parishes including St. Ann, Raritan (now in the Metuchen Diocese); St. Joachim, (now part of Our Lady of the Angels), Trenton; St. Mary of Mount Virgin, New Brunswick (now in the Metuchen Diocese); St. Mary, Deal, (now part of Our Lady of Hope Parish, West Long Branch), and St. Joseph, North Plainfield (now in the Metuchen Diocese).

In September 1971, Bishop Ahr assigned Father Miele to full-time studies at Fordham University, N.Y., where he earned a master’s degree in religious studies. After graduating from Fordham in May 1972, Father Miele was named the founding pastor of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, where he served for 12 years until he was transferred to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Seaside Heights (now part of St. Junipero Serra Parish, Seaside Park), where he served as pastor from 1984 until 1991.

On Jan. 11, 1991, Bishop John C. Reiss appointed Father Miele as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Red Bank, where he spearheaded the construction of the new parish center, established a parish pastoral council and implemented social concerns ministries.

Father Miele retired as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish Jan. 15, 1999 and continued to serve as a weekend assistant in several parishes including St. Denis Parish. Other assignments he has held include serving on the Second Vatican Council Liturgical Commission for the Diocese.

As the casket containing the mortal remains of Father Miele was slowly wheeled out to the strains of “Lead Me, Lord” sung by the choir, Father Lago invited each of the concelebrating priests to sprinkle it with holy water.

Members of the congregation shared their reflections on the priest whose long life of service had come to an end.

“He was just wonderful to my parents,” exclaimed Debbie McNish of St. Anthony Parish. “He and my father were like brothers.”

“I loved his homilies,” said Roy Gabler as his wife, Martine, nodded in agreement. “He was very close to our Lord, always gave a wonderful message, and really did end each homily with, ‘Remember, Jesus loves you and I love you.”

Father Miele was predeceased by his parents and a brother. He is survived by several cousins and their families. He was buried in St. Catharine Mausoleum, Sea Girt. Memorial donations may be made to the St. Denis Building & Maintenance Fund, 90 Union Ave., Manasquan, N.J. 08736.