Just two months after becoming a priest, Father Michael J. Walsh realized his native Ireland had plentiful vocations and his talents were needed elsewhere. A priest friend with a connection in Trenton, as well as his aunt living in Elizabeth, led him to the Garden State and his first American assignment: a six-year term as parochial vicar in St. Raphael Parish (now part of St. Raphael-Holy Angels Parish), Hamilton.
PHOTO GALLERY: Msgr. Walsh 50th Anniversary
This July, Msgr. Walsh marked 50 years of being able “to bring God’s message to people in all circumstances of life,” which he called his favorite responsibility during the course of his more than 18,200 days of his priestly service. “God is speaking to us in all those circumstances.”
Born in Limerick in 1949, young Michael’s family lived on a farm and fit prayer into their daily lives. His vocation to the priesthood was a gradual journey, inspired by those his path intersected. One such fellow journeyman was Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, who connected him to faithful priests and inspired his enrolling in St. Patrick’s College, Thurles, to study for the priesthood. He was ordained June 9, 1973, and several months later arrived in Hamilton.
In 1979, just five years after the Second Vatican Council’s restoration of the permanent diaconate, Father Walsh became associate director, and eventually director, of the diocesan office that oversaw these men eager to take their place as God’s servants. He also served as chaplain of Morris Hall Home for the Aged, Lawrenceville, where he said he felt blessed with the priest residents’ stories of faith and inspiration.
He was made a monsignor in 1995 and continued his service to the Diocese, first as pastor of Holy Angels, Hamilton, and St. Mary of the Lake (now part of Our Lady of Guadalupe), Lakewood. The pastorate of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, in 2002 was next; there, he oversaw the construction of a new $12 million physical plant that included a 1,200-seat church, parish offices and a rectory, all to better enable God’s message to flourish among the area’s growing Catholic population.
Msgr. Walsh’s next assignment resembled a shamrock from the land of his birth: three separate parts better served as one. He became pastor of three distinct yet linked communities — St. James, Pennington; St. George, Titusville; and St. Alphonsus, Hopewell. Indicating to all the triune faith congregations were indeed linked and shared one leader, they became known as the “Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley.”
While shepherding the three parishes, Msgr. Walsh also served as episcopal vicar of Mercer County, representing Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., at various events such as celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation.
When asked to reflect upon the challenges he has encountered during his priesthood, Msgr. Walsh looked to his fellow active brother priests.
“There are fewer priests than when I started,” he said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but over the course of my ministry. Now, retired priests still are active; the responsibilities are greater and energy is less.”
Msgr. Walsh’s retirement is in name only: He assists in both St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, and St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel, by celebrating daily Mass and alternating weekends. “I love being part of parish life, sharing in the life of the people,” he explained.
As for his counsel to men considering making their own 18,200 days (or more) of a priestly journey, the monsignor advises them to take a measured step.
“I’d encourage them not to feel it’s an impossible mission,” Msgr. Walsh said. “It can be lived, and it is an opportunity to serve God’s people, but do not decide too quickly or too easily. (They should) talk to priests they know, then give it their best shot.”