LIMERICK SON, INSPIRED BING CROSBY IN THE BELLS OF ST. MARYS (1945)

MONSIGNOR GERALD J. RYAN, THE SIXTH PASTOR OF ST. LUKE’S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN NEW YORK’S SOUTH BRONX WAS BORN ON WEST 141ST STREET IN HARLEM, NEW YORK CITY, IN 1920. HIS MOTHER, FROM CO. LIMERICK, WORKED AS A COOK BEFORE HER MARRIAGE AND HIS FATHER, FROM CO. TIPPERARY, WAS A MOTORMAN ON THE IRT SUBWAY. THE FAMILY MOVED TO PELHAM BAY IN THE EAST BRONX WHEN RYAN, THE FIFTH OF SIX CHILDREN, WAS TWO.

HE ATTENDED P.S. 71 FOR THREE YEARS (1925–1928), MOVING TO THE NEW PARISH SCHOOL OF OUR LADY OF THE ASSUMPTION ON MAHAN AVENUE TO COMPLETE HIS ELEMENTARY EDUCATION IN 1933. AFTER GRADUATING FROM CATHEDRAL PREPARATORY HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE, RYAN COMPLETED HIS EDUCATION AND SEMINARY TRAINING AT ST. JOSEPH’S IN YONKERS, NEW YORK.

FR. RYAN WAS ORDAINED ON 27 JANUARY 1945 BY FRANCIS CARDINAL SPELLMAN. HIS FIRST ASSIGNMENT WAS TO ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA, A PRIMARILY AFRICAN-AMERICAN PARISH LOCATED ON EAST 166TH STREET IN THE BRONX, WHERE REMAINED FOR THE NEXT TWENTY-ONE YEARS. WHILE THERE, FR. RYAN BECAME INTERESTED IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT. HE WAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C., FOR DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.’S “I HAVE A DREAM” SPEECH ON 28 AUGUST 1963 AND ALSO MARCHED WITH KING ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS, INCLUDING IN THE VOTING RIGHTS DEMONSTRATION ON THE EDMUND PETTUS BRIDGE IN SELMA, ALABAMA ON 9 MARCH 1965.

IN 1966, FR. RYAN WAS APPOINTED PASTOR OF ST. LUKE’S IN THE SOUTH BRONX (623 EAST 138TH STREET), WHICH IS WHERE HE WAS SERVING AT THE TIME OF THIS INTERVIEW. HE SUCCEEDED MSGR. ROBERT B. MULCAHEY, WHO HAD BEEN PASTOR OF ST. LUKE’S SINCE 1931. BY THE LATE 1960S, THE NEIGHBORHOOD THAT FORMED THE PARISH OF ST. LUKE’S, AS WELL AS OTHER SECTIONS OF THE BRONX, WAS EXPERIENCING A MAJOR ETHNIC SHIFT. THE IRISH AND ITALIANS, WHO HAD BEEN ITS PRINCIPAL RESIDENTS, WERE GRADUALLY REPLACED BY PUERTO RICAN FAMILIES.

TO MAKE THE NECESSARY PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL ADJUSTMENTS, FR. RYAN WENT TO SCHOOL TO LEARN SPANISH AND VISITED SPAIN AND PUERTO RICO. IN THE TOUGH YEARS OF THE 1970S, WHEN THE SOUTH BRONX WAS RAVAGED BY DRUG ADDICTION, CRIME, AND DECAYING INFRASTRUCTURE, FR. RYAN AND DEDICATED PARISHIONERS RENOVATED ST. LUKE’S FOR ITS 75TH ANNIVERSARY IN 1972 AND CONVERTED THE LOWER CHURCH INTO A DESPERATELY NEEDED COMMUNITY CENTER.

HE BECAME A ROLE MODEL FOR LOCAL YOUNG PEOPLE. “THE YOUNG PEOPLE, IN TURN, INFLUENCED FATHER RYAN; AND, OVER TIME, HIS STYLE OF CLOTHING, HIS LONG HAIR, HIS BEARD, REFLECTED THEIR STYLES, AND BECAME PART OF HIS ST. LUKE’S PERSONA.” IN OCTOBER 1995, AFTER FIFTY YEARS IN THE PRIESTHOOD, GERALD RYAN WAS MADE A MONSIGNOR BY JOHN CARDINAL O’CONNOR AND TWO YEARS LATER PRESIDED OVER THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS FOR ST. LUKE’S, WHICH WAS SERVING 600 FAMILIES AND 400 SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN BY 1997. AT THE TIME OF THIS INTERVIEW, MSGR. RYAN WAS 85 AND STILL OVERSEEING A MAJORITY OF THE MASSES AT ST. LUKE’S, IN ADDITION TO LEADING WEDNESDAY NIGHT “RAP” SESSIONS FOR TROUBLED TEENS IN THE PARISH AND PRACTICING TAI CHI REGULARLY. HE WAS THE LONGEST-SERVING PASTOR IN THE ARCHDIOCESE OF NEW YORK.

CREDIT: THE SOUTH BRONK NETWORK (2014)

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