Before entering into retirement, Msgr. Walsh celebrates his last Mass as pastor of St. James Parish, Pennington; St. Alphonso Parish, Hopewell, and St. George Parish, Titusville, on June 27. An outdoor celebration was held in his honor. Hal Brown photo
Before entering into retirement, Msgr. Walsh celebrates his last Mass as pastor of St. James Parish, Pennington; St. Alphonso Parish, Hopewell, and St. George Parish, Titusville, on June 27. An outdoor celebration was held in his honor. Hal Brown photo

Msgr. Michael J. Walsh may have done a lot in his 48 years of priesthood, such as being pastor of six parishes; holding numerous diocesan positions and overseeing two major parish building projects.

But what has been most fulfilling for him as a priest is meeting the needs of the people he was called to serve.

“My ministry was about being with people and helping them become centered on the Eucharist,” said Msgr. Walsh, who retired as of July 1. “That was the driving force for me – to experience God’s people wherever they were.”

For Michael Joseph Walsh, meeting the needs of people was something he learned early on in his native Ireland, where he was born in Limerick in 1949. His family’s home was on a farm and he and his siblings were raised in a faith-filled Catholic home. Their strong faith, he said of his parents, was evidenced by their actions. He remembered his father blessing the crops and animals on the farm and his family kneeling down to pray the Rosary.

“It wasn’t easy for my parents,” he said. “They never went to high school, but they took care of us. They molded us physically, spiritually and emotionally in a very gentle way.”

As a young man, Msgr. Walsh’s vocation to the priesthood developed gradually and was fostered through people he encountered. One person, Msgr. Walsh credited, was Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary. “Through Frank, I made the connection to a lot of good priests,” and it was seeing how faithful they were to their vocation “that I started thinking about saying yes to my own vocation.” He enrolled in St. Patrick College, Thurles, to study for the priesthood and was ordained June 9, 1973.

Two months later, Msgr. Walsh made a transatlantic move from Ireland to New Jersey and began his priestly service in the Diocese of Trenton. His decision was based largely on knowing that while vocations were plentiful in Ireland, more were needed in the U.S. The connection from Ireland to New Jersey was mostly made through his aunt, who lived in Elizabeth, as well as a priest friend who lived in the next town in Ireland and had connections to Trenton.

PHOTO GALLERIES:Religious Anniversaries and Retirements 2021

After serving six years in his first assignment as parochial vicar of St. Raphael Parish (now part of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish), Hamilton, his ministry broadened in 1979 when he became associate director of the diocesan Office of the Permanent Diaconate. He found it exciting to be part of an evolving ministry that was established in the Diocese just five years earlier in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for restoring the permanent diaconate.

“They are a reflection of life lived … they are every place people are,” he has said of men in the diaconate. “… They are in the corners of life that priests don’t have the opportunity to be in.”

Along with serving for 16 years in the diaconate office, including as its director, Msgr. Walsh was chaplain of Morris Hall Home for the Aged, Lawrenceville, where he ministered to people who had lived through difficult life experiences, such as serving in war.

“I was their chaplain, but they were the ones who were blessing me with their faith and stories,” he said.

Msgr. Walsh, who was made a monsignor in 1995, and went on to serve as pastor of Holy Angels, Hamilton, and St. Mary of the Lake (now part of Our Lady of Guadalupe), Lakewood. In 2002, he became pastor of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, where he shepherded the construction of a new $12 million complex that included a 1,200-seat capacity church, along with parish offices and rectory, all with the goal to spiritually provide for the area’s growing Catholic population.

After overseeing the building of a brick and mortar church, Monsignor’s next assignment involved him overseeing a spiritual building in which he worked to create harmony among the three parishes where he was pastor – St. James, Pennington; St. George, Titusville, and St. Alphonsus, Hopewell. While the parishes remained distinct communities, they were linked together under one leadership in what came to be known as the “Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley.”

“There were so many people working together in the midst of the newness of this situation,” he said of the linked communities. “They prayerfully said that this is what we are called to do in this time in history.”

One prayerful and enjoyable way he brought the three linked parishes together was for an outdoor “Mass on the Grass,” held on the properties of each parish.

“The parishioners liked it,” he said. “They saw it as a way to engage with the Church. All we did was try, wherever we could, to have people meet the Lord.”

While pastoring three parishes, Msgr. Walsh was also episcopal vicar of Mercer County – serving as a representative to Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., at various events, including celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation for young people in parishes around the county.

Throughout his different parish assignments, Msgr. Walsh offered strong encouragement and support for the laity. He hoped they would not only accept responsibility for serving their parish, but more importantly, he wanted them to embrace that “it is through their Baptism that they share in the ministry in the life of the Church.

“Let’s face it, there are some who are called to ordained ministry such as priests and deacons, but all are called to leadership by being ministers to one another to create a climate of Church,” he said. Monsignor added, “It’s in the parishes where you find the people of God, these wonderful people, who come with wonderful gifts and it’s important for parish leaders to help them foster those gifts that all could be used for the good of the Church.”

In retirement, Msgr. Walsh hopes to make more extended trips to Ireland to see his “very tight-knit” family, which includes three sisters and a brother and their families. In the meantime, he’s fulfilling his love of being with people by celebrating Mass and other Sacraments each week in St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, and St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, where “I want to connect with the people in the parishes. And if I can help share in meeting their needs, that would be great.”