.- As his 99th birthday approaches, Missionhurst Father John Morel hardly seems as if he’s a man reaching the century mark. Sure, he sometimes struggles to remember certain dates. And he said he now feels the incline on the walk from the Missionhurst chapel in Arlington to his residence next door.
But Father Morel clearly still can recall memories from his childhood — events and dates and even who-said-what-whens. He reads the newspaper every day and watches the Missionhurst campus comings and goings from his second-floor room in the big brick priests’ residence.
Since his retirement in 2002 from being pastor of Our Lady of the Blue Ridge Church in Madison, Father Morel has been living with his fellow retired Missionhurst priests on their north Arlington property. After 32 years in the Arlington Diocese, Northern Virginia has become his home even though he was born nearly 4,000 miles away.
Born in Brussels Nov. 18, 1913, Father Morel lived through two world wars, segregation, the civil rights movement, the 1960s riots in Detroit — and that was all before he moved to Virginia in 1980.
His parents, Lawrence and Alice, raised him Catholic and sent him to Catholic school. After Alice died when he was 11, his “Papa” (who lived until he was 103) remarried Marie.
While in school and influenced by the priests around and teaching him, Father Morel began to consider the priesthood, but he had some concerns — mostly that he wasn’t “good enough.”
He began to see a spiritual director who assured him: “Nobody is good enough to become a priest, but just try to do your honest best … and God will show you the way.”
Father Morel began borrowing magazines from his spiritual director, and one day picked up the one belonging to the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM), known as Missionhurst priests in the United States. He was transfixed by a photograph on the wall of a man “with a big heavy coat and a cap with flaps” atop a small horse. He found out that the man was his spiritual director’s best friend and a Missionhurst missionary in China.
Carrying all these things in his heart, Father Morel went to Mass and stayed after to pray.
“I didn’t do much meditation,” he said. “I would just sit there and tell Jesus that I love Him very much and to tell me please what He wants me to do with my life. One day it was so clear: ‘You go to Missionhurst.’”
“What a relief,” Father Morel said. “I don’t have to worry anymore.”
And, as an added bonus, he found out that the CICM house was right there in Brussels, only a short trolley ride away.
The life of a missionary
Father Morel entered the CICM order Sept. 7, 1933, and was ordained Aug. 6, 1939. At that point, the missionaries were very active in China, and Father Morel assumed he’d join his confreres there. But God and the Communists had other plans, and China was closed off to those doing mission work.
Instead, Father Morel spent four years as a parish priest in Brugge, Belgium, before being sent west in 1946 to the United States and St. Ignatius Church in Philadelphia. At that time, race was a big factor in the inner-city church, but Father Morel quickly realized that the only thing different between a black person and a white person truly was color. When receiving Communion, their hands and their tongues were the same as anybody else’s, he said.
“For Jesus there is no difference,” he said. “When you dealt with a black person, there was no difference. His motivation, his longings, his pains are the same.”
Still, he said, speaking on the heels of the re-election of President Barack Obama,
“I never thought that in my lifetime there would be a black president.”
After nine years in Philadelphia, Father Morel was sent in 1954 to St. Leo Church in Detroit — another challenging assignment in the time of the civil rights movement and race riots. In downtown Detroit white people moved to the suburbs and African-Americans moved to the city, he said. But no one ever touched church property. And he knew the community members appreciated the presence of the church and the school.
In 1980, Father Morel came to the Arlington Diocese. For several years he lived at Missionhurst, taking care of the order’s many aging priests. In 1989, he was appointed pastor of Our Lady of the Blue Ridge, where he stayed until his retirement in 2002.
Madison was a total change from his former urban parishes. When he arrived, the parish was primitive: no sanctuary, Mass in the basement and three liturgies with few congregants. He also was hesitant about being in a part of the country where Catholics were, by far, the minority.
“I’ll have to be very careful here and learn and watch my words and watch my doings,” he thought. But then, one after the other, the ministers and pastors from surrounding churches called to introduce themselves.
“I was very, very welcomed,” he said.
In his 13 years in Madison he built up the church, literally and figuratively. Among the Blue Ridge Mountains and unable to see any other house from his own, he embraced the outdoors.
“I am a nature man,” he said. “I always loved gardens or parks and woods and rivers.”
99 years strong
Approaching his 99th birthday this weekend, Father Morel is not quite as mobile as he used to be. When he first moved back to Missionhurst in 2002 he could walk everywhere and would regularly work in the garden. Now he uses a cane or a walker (which he calls his “Cadillac”) and tries daily to complete five laps around the property — meditating on one line of the Apostles Creed per lap.
Though Father Morel no longer does any pastoral ministry, he stays as busy as he can and he’s grateful to be where he is.
A stack of birthday cards sit on his desk, with messages from former parishioners and his Missionhurst confreres. You never realize what an impact you can have on people, he said, and he is grateful for the acknowledgments.
“I’m well taken care of,” he said. “And God blesses me with good health.”
Posted with permission from Catholic Herald, official newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington, Va.