For nearly 30 years, Msgr. John K. Dermond has been a pillar in the City of Trenton, serving as the pastoral leader of two Catholic parishes. He was pastor of St. Francis of Assisium, located on Front Street, from 1983 until the parish was closed in 2005. He was rector of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, where he has served since 2002.
Beyond his pastorates, he has served in several other Trenton-based parishes during his 43 years of priestly ministry, including Blessed Sacrament, Trenton, and St. Ann, Lawrenceville.
Now, a major change has come into his ministerial life. At the behest of Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., Msgr. Dermond, as of July 1, stepped down in his role as the cathedral’s rector to devote his full-time energy and attention to serving as judicial vicar in the Diocesan Tribunal, a position to which he was appointed to by Bishop John C. Reiss in 1980 and has held ever since.
As Msgr. Dermond has spent the past several weeks packing his personal belongings and moving to Villa Vianney, the diocesan facility for retired priests in Lawrenceville, and finishing up business matters in the cathedral office, he reflected on what it has meant for him to spend the past nine years serving as the cathedral’s rector.
The responsibilities of a rector are essentially the same as those of a pastor, he said. However, the difference is that the bishop is the pastor of the cathedral. The rector acts as the director or administrator in the name of the bishop.
As the cathedral is the “Mother Church” of the diocese, Msgr. Dermond has also devoted a great deal of time in helping to plan and prepare the various diocesan liturgies that are held each year, such as the ordinations of priests and permanent deacons, the Bishop’s Anniversary Blessing which honors married couples, the Chrism Mass and Rite of Election.
Three of the most recent diocesan events taking place in the cathedral which Msgr. Dermond made special mention of are the episcopal ordination of Coadjutor Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., last July 30; the Mass marking Bishop O’Connell’s transition as the 10th bishop of the diocese on Dec. 8, and the Mass for Bishop Emeritus John M. Smith’s 50th anniversary as a priest held this past May 22.
“It’s a great honor to be pastor of any parish, but it’s a special honor to be rector of the Mother Church of the diocese,” said Msgr. Dermond, as he extended appreciation to both Bishop O’Connell and to Bishop Smith for the “trust they had in me and their support of my service there as rector.”
He also acknowledged the “wonderful” and long-standing collaborative relationships he has had with various diocesan offices and ministries in planning for diocesan events.
For Msgr. Dermond, what was most exciting and interesting about being the rector were ministering to the parishioners and working with the cathedral staff and volunteers.
“Since I had other diocesan responsibilities (as judicial vicar), it was very important that the people who worked at the cathedral were able to carry most of the ministry and they did a fabulous job,” he said.
While Msgr. Dermond had high praise for both the cathedral staff and his diocesan colleagues and the assistance they gave to prepare for liturgical events, he is not one to sit back and watch others do the work. His fastidious nature has found him working alongside them on every last detail, regardless of how mundane. He’s been known to check the sound system, organize the liturgical vestments and even make sure the hand soap dispensers were filled.
“Above all, the greatest thing about serving as rector of the cathedral is helping to enhance the diocesan celebrations that take place here and caring for the spiritual needs of the people who make up the parish of the cathedral,” he said.
Along with being the Mother Church of the diocese, Msgr. Dermond delighted in telling about how the cathedral is an active, vibrant parish community that serves as the spiritual home to more than 1,600 registered families. The majority of the families are Spanish speaking, and hail from various South American and Central American countries – Costa Rica, Honduras, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Dominican Republic and Chile. There are also a handful of folks from Haiti, Jamaica, a few from Nigeria and one from Liberia.
As for what he has learned from his 28 years as pastor of two inner city Trenton parishes, Msgr. Dermond cited two things – the year the city began hosting the Heritage Day festivals and having the parishes participate in the annual reenactment of the Battle of Trenton each Christmas morning.
Both events “gave our people a chance to be part of the wider community,” he said. The Heritage Days were not just about Church celebrations or civic celebrations or cultural celebrations. Heritage Days celebrated everyone’s heritages and they provided some of the greatest times for our Church to be involved in the community at large.”
Heritage Days also allowed the community “to see that the Catholic Church had a vested interest and active participation in the city,” he said.
Another enriching highlight for Msgr. Dermond was learning from his parishioners “about the many different customs, devotions and understandings about the Catholic faith as they are rooted in the cultures of Catholics from other countries.”
He then noted how he whole-heartedly welcomed the opportunity to learn different languages in order to minister to his parishioners more effectively. During the years he was pastor of St. Francis of Assisium, which ministered to the Haitian community, he learned French and Creole. Because of the cathedral’s large Hispanic population, he learned how to read, write and speak Spanish.
Along with mastering new languages, he smiled and said that he’s also had some “new adventures in gastronomy.”
“I’ve learned to appreciate the foods of different countries from Central and South America,” he said, but refrained from divulging his favorite dish.
“I discovered something in everyone’s cuisine that I really like.”
As Msgr. Dermond prepared to bid farewell to his post at the cathedral, he noted that the last diocesan event he was present for as rector was the ordination of priests on June 4, a celebration he found to be most meaningful.
“Even if I wasn’t rector, for me to be present for an ordination of priests in the cathedral is really a celebration of my own priesthood as well,” he said.
“That day – ordination day – is a great reminder of my own ordination day. And, it is very significant for me because I was ordained in that cathedral too,” he said, then quipped even though “it might have been many years ago.”
“It’s always a very joyful day and is a real blessing for me anytime we celebrate the ordination of priests,” he said.
Then, as he extended warm words of welcome to his successor, Father Joseph Roldan, Msgr. Dermond shared some insights and special hopes that he has for the future of the diocese’s mother Church.
“I want people from throughout the diocese to come and visit the cathedral,” he said, and for them to understand that in their being members of the Diocese of Trenton, the cathedral “is their church too.”
“Mostly every country in the world is represented somehow in this great Diocese of Trenton, and I would like the cathedral to be viewed as a place that celebrates the heritages of people from all over the world,” said Msgr. Dermond.
Above all, Msgr. Dermond continued, “I want people of the diocese to realize this: as Catholics, we are in communion with the Church through the pope and with our bishop. That is something that has been emphasized from the earliest days of the Church,” he said.
“So for the people of the diocese, our cathedral should serve as a great symbol and be seen as a place where we can celebrate the unity of our Church with our bishop, where we can acknowledge our fidelity to him, and our openness to his teaching in the name of Christ.”
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