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Gerald Ryan 92 is New York City's Oldest working priest

It was the bell that first called to him. It was a Sunday afternoon in the mid-1920s, and his family was living in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. When his priest rang the bell during Mass, Gerald Ryan, then about 4, thought the beautiful sound was coming from the monstrance that held the host.

At age 7, he was hit by a car, and lost his hearing in one ear. The bell remained in his memory, as if Jesus were calling him in stereo.
Now, he is a monsignor, and he has been a priest for 67 years. He still runs a parish, St. Luke’s in Mott Haven, and he is 92, making him the oldest working priest in New York City.
“Maybe in the country,” Father Ryan said recently in his broad, courtly accent that is part Bronx, part Fred Astaire. “Maybe anywhere! I’ve been here forever.”
The priesthood is graying: the average age of Roman Catholic priests in the United States rose to 63 in 2009 from 35 in 1970, according to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. And with fewer young men entering seminaries, more priests are working past 75, the formal retirement age under canon law. In the New York Archdiocese, for example, where only one man was ordained into the priesthood this year, about 25 men over age 75 are still working as priests, and several are older than 85.
In Father Ryan’s tiny office, shaded by a burgundy roll-down shade held up with a paper clip, he reflected recently on his nearly 70 years in service. He has been at St. Luke’s since 1966; a certificate from Pope Benedict XVI, awarded on the occasion of 40 years in the parish, was propped up on a brown-painted radiator. An award from Father Ryan’s previous parish, where he started in 1945, was tucked behind a photograph of him with Pope John Paul II.
Father Ryan lives simply, with no air-conditioning, or even a fan, in his rectory quarters. For breakfast, he has toast, except on Thursdays, when he eats an egg. He buys quarts of soup, which he freezes and defrosts for lunch. A housekeeper fixes dinner.
His journey as a priest, he said, has been away from the formalities, trappings and titles of the church, in search of a deeper meaning of the Gospel.
“I think I have come a long, long way from when I was ordained,” he said. As a seminarian, he said, he liked the idea of saying Mass, hearing confession and being addressed as “father,” but that was “like a fairy tale.”
“It isn’t about serving the church in the way you have envisioned, from the altar, and from the position of authority and power,” he said. “But it is learning what human nature is, and what the struggles of people are. And where Jesus really is.”
Father Ryan was born in 1920 in Upper Manhattan to Irish immigrant parents; two years later, the family moved to Pelham Bay, after his father became a motorman for the IRT subway line. As a boy, Gerald Ryan was an altar server; he began seminary studies in high school.
“I never made a decision that I wanted to be a priest,” he said. “I just grew up with the idea.”
In the 1960s, he joined the March on Washington, and stood with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. In the 1970s, he grew his thick reddish hair down to his shoulders and helped to build low-income housing for Spanish-speaking immigrants in the South Bronx.
His first assignment as a priest — at St. Anthony of Padua on East 166th Street in the Bronx — shocked him. The neighborhood was predominantly black, and he had grown up, he said, “with the idea, being white, that Roman Catholics were white people that went to church and kept the Commandments.” But, he said, he soon fell in love with the parish, with its sense of solidarity, brotherhood and faith. And when the civil rights movement started, he joined it.
The Bronx, meanwhile, was changing. A flood of Spanish speakers began to arrive, many from Puerto Rico, so Father Ryan enrolled in a Berlitz class and started to minister in Spanish. Then he was transferred to St. Luke’s, a parish whose population was changing rapidly to predominantly poor Spanish-speaking residents from predominantly working-class white.
Working with the city, he helped lead a church effort to build two housing projects, St. Francis and George Hardy. Then the 1970s arrived, and the South Bronx started to burn. Father Ryan opened the parish basement as a community center, but mostly his contribution was that he remained as others fled, ministering to local Catholics and keeping open the parish school
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