A Priest for all Seasons
Fr. Jim Wenzel ‘retires’ but his work — and legacy — continue
“I will never retire from being a priest,” said the Rev. James McFadden Andrew Wenzel, O.S.A., “or an Augustinian!”
In the fall of 2014, however, Fr. Jim did make the decision to retire from full-time ministry at Merrimack, after 63 years as an Augustinian friar, 58 years as a priest, and 15 years serving at his alma mater.
His has been a strong and loving presence on the Merrimack campus — as a priest, a friend, an advisor, a teacher and an Augustinian. Throughout his ministry, Fr. Jim has promoted educational and spiritual programs to foster a love and understanding of St. Augustine of Hippo and the order named for that Father of the Church, which founded and continues to sponsor Merrimack.
He lives his ministry and his Augustinian heritage every day.
In 1947, when Fr. Jim’s parents first brought him to Merrimack, the Augustinian college that had just opened in the Merrimack Valley, he was none too impressed. Campus consisted of one building on a flat, barren parcel of land; there was nothing but promise to go by, he remembered. But after meeting Fr. Joseph Gildea, O.S.A. — one of the school’s original faculty members, serving as dean of languages — he decided to take a chance.
“God brings you to things for a reason,” said Fr. Jim. “I had no intentions of being a priest, either.”
The rest is history. After serving in a variety of postings over what would for most people be a full career, Fr. Jim came full circle back to Merrimack in 1999, and here — at the Elm Street friary — he remains.
From 1999 to 2011, Fr. Jim taught the course “The Life and Times of St. Augustine of Hippo,” two sections each semester, getting to know a good number of students — now alumni — over the years. “Hopefully, the course made the students more aware of their Augustinian roots,” he said.
In addition to classroom learning, Fr. Jim wanted his students to walk in the saint’s footsteps. In 1999, he established the unique experience of “Pellegrinaggio in Italia Agostiniana.” Over his 15 years at Merrimack, he has led more than 500 students, faculty, alumni, administrators, staff, parents and friends of the college on a pilgrimage to Italy, visiting important places in Augustine’s life, for 10 days each March during Spring Break.
“Each year has been an incredible experience of being part of a community of friends, learning about St. Augustine and the Augustinian friars by visiting those places in Italy that were a key part of Augustine’s history, while experiencing Augustinian hospitality in the country where the friars began in 1244,” he said.
His ministry, of course, has extended beyond the class and chapel to the playing fields (and rinks) of his beloved Warriors. As part of the Campus Ministry team at Merrimack, he has served as chaplain at various times for football, men’s soccer, hockey, basketball, baseball, women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse.
“Here, too,” said Fr. Jim, “this experience has enriched my life because of the friendships that I made through this kind of contact.”
In addition to his ministry on campus, Fr. Jim continues to celebrate the Sunday Liturgy at his home parish of St. Joseph’s Church in Wakefield. There he has witnessed numerous marriages of Merrimack alumni, baptized their children, and even celebrated the funerals of loved ones.
The signs of Fr. Jim’s long and deep association with Merrimack are everywhere on the North Andover campus.
In celebration of his 50th anniversary as an Augustinian friar, Fr. Jim worked tirelessly to construct a labyrinth, near Austin Hall on Flaherty Way. A labyrinth, he explained, is a metaphor for life’s journey and an opportunity to look inward to one’s heart. At the center of the Merrimack labyrinth is a granite stone with the Augustinian logo embedded within, and the admonition: “Be of one mind and heart intent upon God.”
The labyrinth was funded by contributions and gifts on the occasion of his ordination anniversary. It was constructed by Jon Murray of campus facilities, with the help of student Michael Lane ’11, as well as the assistance of students, faculty and staff to complete the project on time. At the dedication on October 17, 2009, hundreds of friends, colleagues, former students, and family members filled the labyrinth, a tribute to the man behind the idea.
The labyrinth was dedicated to the memory of Fr. Jim’s parents, William Lawrence Wenzel Sr. and Gertrude Frances (McFadden).
Those names also grace the Wenzel-McFadden Augustinian Collection, housed in McQuade Library, which Fr. Jim established in 2001. “The collection has served as a resource in helping develop and foster research on the thoughts of St. Augustine,” he said.
The collection consists of over 521 books in Latin, French, Italian and English, and includes the works of St. Augustine, scholarly commentaries, books by priests and brothers, and tomes about the Augustinian Order.
As part of his legacy, Merrimack is offering alumni and friends the opportunity to honor Fr. Jim through the Wenzel Society, which recognizes those who help continue the ministry and mission to which this proud Augustinian dedicated so much of his life and energy.
That dedication, however, is far from its end.
In spite of his retirement, you can be sure that Fr. Jim will continue his longtime association with Merrimack Athletics; he will continue to reside at St. Ambrose Friary and maintain his office in the Sakowich Campus Center; he will continue to celebrate some of the daily noon Masses in Austin Hall; and he will continue to foster the personal relationships with his many friends, colleagues and alumni.
In the words of one of his great fans on the football team: “Fr. Jim keeps popping up everywhere!”
Through Fr. Jim’s efforts, students make Best Buddies
Through the guidance of Fr. Jim Wenzel, the Best Buddies chapter at Merrimack began in 2002.
When he returned to Merrimack in 1999, Fr. Jim reconnected with a group of old friends from St. Augustine’s Parish in Andover, where he had ministered to special needs individuals when he was an associate pastor. Fr. Jim began a monthly Mass at the college for these friends, their parents, and families, which he continues to celebrate in Austin Hall. Under his direction and at his urging, students took up the cause and created Merrimack’s Best Buddies chapter.
Anthony Shriver, son of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, created Best Buddies International to pair special-needs children with college students, creating one-on-one friendships. The Merrimack chapter has been highly successful, engaging hundreds of students in the project, and in 2013-14 Merrimack was named the best college chapter in Massachusetts.
Throughout the academic year, Merrimack students plan events, such as the annual Halloween party, invite their buddies to movies or sporting events, or just hang out. The friendships are lasting and special to all who participate.
After a recent monthly Mass for Best Buddies and their families, Fr. Jim and his friends hosted a social gathering in Austin Hall. “Both events were somewhat religious experiences for me, in the sense that I am simply grateful to God for allowing me to share in the lives of very special people, not only the special needs individuals but for the caregivers as well,” says Fr. Jim.
“Interacting with them always teaches me how blessed my life is and has been.“