‘Do this in remembrance of me’: Three priests celebrate nearly 300 years of life
Angelus News Dec. 4, 2014
Msgrs. Felix Diomartich, Richard Murray and John Fosselman have spent their lives serving others. These three priests — who are preparing to celebrate 100 years of life — have brought Catholics in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles closer to God through their words and through the sacraments.
Their tireless example continues to inspire the faithful to be more like Christ.MSGR. FELIX DIOMARTICH, 100
Born in Zlarin, Croatia on the eve of All Saints, 1914, Felix Diomartich knows well the ravages of war and its terrifying life-changing experiences, experiences he drew upon to best serve the Hungarian and German immigrant parishioners at St. Stephen Church, Los Angeles, where he was pastor.
Msgr. Diomartich, whose father was being held in a concentration camp on a ship when he was born and did not see baby Felix until 1918, is one of four children.
As a young boy, Felix was an altar server. One of the parish priests asked him to think about becoming a priest, and the thought stayed with him. As a young seminarian studying in Rome, Felix suffered from poor health and at one point was unable to walk for six months.
He completed his student work and began studies in theology while recuperating from this ailment. In 1937, he was ordained in his beloved childhood church. In spite of years of war and political turmoil, the church still stands and Msgr. Diomartich was fortunate to see it once more about 12 years ago.
Msgr. Diomartich experienced both surprise and sadness at seeing his hometown when he visited. “Only old people live in Zlarin today…no children, no young people.” Under Tito’s regime after WWII, more than 650 priests and countless religious women and men were killed. “It was inhuman what was going on,” he said. “The people were as nothing to Tito.”
In 1939, Father Diomartich studied more theology and canon law in Rome. He then worked in New York for three years, and it was during that time that he met Cardinal James F. McIntyre, who asked him to come to Los Angeles to minister to the Croatian immigrant population here. Father Felix Diomartich came to Los Angeles in 1949 and served on the marriage tribunal for a year.
In addition to serving the people of St. Anthony Croatian parish for nearly 60 years and providing services for the Croation population in San Pedro, Msgr. Diomartich remained as pastor emeritus until he moved to Nazareth House.
Msgr. Diomartich was wonderful at leading building projects — for churches and other parish buildings. “We built it and paid for it all, too,” he says of his years as pastor. “The people gave and they liked what they accomplished.”
For him, his greatest joy as a priest was to be able to help “when people don’t see any light or joy. If you can hear them, you can help them. If people are sick or dying or in any sort of need, it is an opportunity to assist,” he says.
“Once I started I never really looked back. There were difficulties at times, but not that much. The people helped so much,” he says. “If you asked for one thing you received two. Recognizing God’s goodness in people you try even harder. My name is there, but God really does it all,” Msgr. Diomartich added.
“I am only sorry that I did not do enough. God has been good to me and I am just sorry I did not do more. If you can lead others to God, that is enough. God has been so good to me…spiritually, materially, health-wise. God gave me more than I deserved. I take God’s hands and I can go. I say, may I stay in your grace,” says this 100-year-old priest.
Father Kevin Rettig adds, “Excellent priests such as Msgr. Diomartich have been a source of comfort for many thousands; they have created a home for the people and have been an indispensable bridge between the old homeland and the new. It is not merely a matter of speaking the mother tongue, though this is vital; much more important is the gentle understanding offered by one human heart to another. During his century of life, Monsignor has not only witnessed history, he has made it.”MSGR. RICHARD MURRAY, 99
Born Sept. 11, 1915 in Alexandria, Louisiana, Msgr. Richard Murray was the ninth of his mother’s eleven children. Surrounded by parents and his 10 siblings, family was very important. With the flu epidemic, war, and “no labor unions, so to speak,” to protect workers, life was difficult for most, says Msgr. Murray of the reason his large family came to Los Angeles.
At the time, Msgr. Murray continues, “there was not a single boulevard stop nor a signal” in Los Angeles.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, the family moved to St. Cecilia Parish in Los Angeles where the children went to the CSJ-run parish school. “The sisters were good, but tough,” he says. “And I knew all the CSJs.”
One of his blood sisters became a Sister of Mercy and lived until she was 99, says Msgr. Murray. “She was in charge of St. John’s Military Academy,” he adds proudly. “My mother lived to be 95 and two sisters were 99. Almost all of my family made it to the 90s.”
This past September, Msgr. Murray celebrated his 99th birthday in St. Bernardine of Siena Parish, where he continues to reside as founding pastor emeritus.
“The best part of my priesthood from 1962 to now has been here,” he proudly says. Pastor for 27 years, from 1962-1989, Msgr. Murray still is involved and tries to help his brother priests. He celebrates the 7 a.m. Mass every Sunday and always checks over the weekly Mass schedule. If an associate, or the pastor Msgr. Robert McNamara, is assigned more than one Mass a day, he asks if he can celebrate the priest’s earliest Mass in his place.
Working together and learning from others has been the hallmark of this pastor emeritus of St. Bernadine of Siena since the founding of the parish. When he was first named pastor, Msgr. Murray says he felt as if he did not know what to do.
Thankfully, he says, “I was at the right place at the right time. It was the best part of my priesthood. People made a difference, and other priests, too. You just have to be with the people in good times and in bad.”
Msgr. Murray’s message of familial togetherness is still evident today, when if someone calls to say a parishioner or relative is in the hospital, one of the priests will always go to visit and see the family. That is just how family works — to be there in time of need.
When St. Bernardine was founded, Msgr. Murray and parishioners worked together to build parish buildings. Families were young and people came forward to divide into working committees, or what he called guilds. Guilds were built for the organizational level and the spiritual level.
Referring to land around the church buildings, he says, “All this was just dirt then. We had to move a mountain, and I bought another acre or so. But I really did not know what I was doing, so I never missed a meeting.”
The parish used Chaminade High School for Mass each Sunday until the church was built. “We will build a beautiful tribute,” said Msgr. Murray to the parish. And they did.
Parishioner since 1973, May Slago and her late husband Larry got to know Msgr. Murray well over the years. Larry would go on hunting and fishing trips with a group of parishioners and Msgr. Murray.
“He started the guilds, we would have events, and he always came,” May said. “He was so wonderful to visit the sick, and still does. People in the parish take turns taking him today. He believes in this strongly. He is a dear person and always so interested in people. Being there with the people, they just had a great time together. He isn’t into titles. He likes to visit people in their homes. He has always loved being with his parishioners. He has always been a truly pastoral man. That is Msgr. Murray.”MSGR. JOHN FOSSELMAN, 98
Father Frank Whatley, OSST, chaplain at Nazareth House, a nursing home where many retired and elderly priests reside, describes his friend Msgr. John Fosselman as “a kind, generous and caring presence in this home and in my life. I’m so glad God saw fit to bring this prayerful mentor and friend into my life.”
A quiet, faithful priest, John Fosselman was born July 11, 1916, in Waverly, Iowa. His family came to California when he was 8.
His father, Christian Fosselman and mother, Elizabeth Green Fosselman, along with their three girls and four boys, moved west and settled in the Pasadena area. Christian Fosselman set up an ice cream shop in Alhambra.
After coming to California, the Fosselman family lived in Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, and after completing his education a young John entered the seminary to become a priest. Since St. John’s Seminary was not yet complete, he attended the seminary outside the archdiocese. When St. John’s was completed in 1939, both he and Msgr. Richard Murray were among the first students to finish their studies there. Father Fosselman was ordained on April 22, 1942.
At 98, one of Msgr. John Fosselman’s clearest memories is that his father made the best and creamiest ice cream in the world. He describes the taste with a wonderful smile. Today, Fosselman Ice Cream is run by nephews Christian and John and is located on Main Street in Alhambra.
Two photographs in Msgr. John Fosselman’s room at Nazareth House tell much about this dedicated priest and his love of family and ministry. A small end table holds photographs of his beloved mother and sister Josephine, who entered religious life with the Sisters of Social Service and took the name Sister Phillipa, after a 7th child, Phillip, who died of crib death. This close-knit Iowa family never forgot him.
Msgr. Fosselman battles some memory loss today, but he is very clear about the most important things in his life — his great love of family and likewise his love of living and working with Hispanic families that have made up his parishes, especially in his years as pastor at Assumption Parish in Boyle Heights.
From his ordination until 1990, he ministered as associate pastor at Santa Isabel Parish in Los Angeles, Santa Clara Parish in Oxnard, and pastor of Assumption Parish in Los Angeles. He delighted in the parishes where he worked, especially those where Spanish was commonly spoken, like Assumption Parish.
Father John “truly was a servant of God. He worked totally for his maker,” says nephew and namesake John Fosselman. His attitude was always, “I am here to serve and nothing else is more important. No distraction from serving God was in his life.” And he was a “listener and Father John was assimilated where he lived and he loved it. He always spoke in Spanish at Boyle Heights.”
Nephew John also remembers how Father John would go to a priests’ retreat in Guadalajara, Mexico. “He prized that more than anything,” says his nephew. “He would go there a couple weeks when he could and he just loved it. He had a true affinity for the Hispanic community, especially his parish.”
His sister-in-law Mary Fosselman, widow of Msgr. Fosselman’s brother Bill, emphasizes how the family was exceedingly generous and looked out for those less fortunate.
His nephews, Chris and John, who now run Fosselman Ice Cream, say that former parishioners still come in and ask about their uncle. His niece Julie Fosselman Schnieders says that for her oldest uncle “people always came first” and he was always “very humble” —never put himself before others.
Always a modest man, peaceful and thoughtful, “he was all that a priest should be,” says John. “He is what he always wanted to be. Truly his calling is what he became.”
When the archdiocese set the mandatory age of retirement for pastors, Msgr. Fosselman reluctantly left the parish he dearly loved, and began ministry as a chaplain at Rancho Los Amigos in Downey. In 1990 he moved to Nazareth House and has remained there in residence to this day, still very friendly and with a kind smile for everyone.
Every day, Msgr. Fosselman joins his brother priests for Mass as they concelebrate in the chapel at Nazareth House. Like most of his brother priests there, they stay seated in pews or wheelchairs and during the consecration, raising their hands as a group while mouthing the words, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given for you.” And after the consecration of the blood, “Do this in memory of me.” After a lifetime of service, these sacred words are always remembered.