Dear Clergy and Laity of the Diocese of New Jersey,
Since we are surrounded by so great cloud of witnesses . . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith . . .
Recently, two of our diocesan churches were in the news, and for good reasons!
On Sunday, May 2, Dean Brian Burgess, Rector of Christ Church, Woodbury, continued a long-standing tradition of that parish and, in partnership with the Gloucester County Fire Chiefs Association, celebrated the Feast of St. Florian with a Blessing of Firetrucks. The story was picked up by the South County Times and NJ.com.
Joe Warner, NJ Advance Media
Father Brian Burgess of Christ Episcopal Church blesses a fire truck from Woodbury Heights Fire Company during a celebration of the Feast of St. Florian in Woodbury, Sunday, May 2, 2021.With vested acolytes, candles, crosses, incense and thurifer, holy water (lots of holy water, but not out of a firehose) firetrucks from across the county, including Woodbury, Wenonah, Deptford, and other towns were blessed. First responders—many of them volunteers—who serve their communities and often risk their lives for others were also prayed over and blessed. The observance of St. Florian is an annual opportunity to give thanks for their service and to pray for their continued protection.
According to the Catholic Online website, St. Florian was an officer of the Roman Army “who occupied a high administrative post in Noricum, now part of Austria.” It is reported that he formed a unit of Roman soldiers to fight fires, which is how he has become the patron saint of firefighters and other first responders. Florian was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian because he would not renounce his Christian faith.” His legendary “Acts” state that he “gave himself up at Lorch to the soldiers of Aquilinus, the governor, when they were rounding up the Christians, and after making a bold confession, he was twice scourged, half-flayed alive, set on fire, and finally thrown into the river Enns with a stone around his neck.” According to Catholic Online:
His body, recovered and buried by a pious woman, was eventually removed to the Augustinian Abbey of St. Florian, near Linz. It is said to have been at a later date translated to Rome, and Pope Lucius III, in 1138, gave some of the saint’s relics to King Casimir of Poland and to the Bishop of Cracow. Since that time, St. Florian has been regarded as a patron of Poland as well as of Linz, Upper Austria and of firemen. There has been popular devotion to St. Florian in many parts of central Europe, and the tradition as to his martyrdom, not far from the spot where the Enns flows into the Danube, is ancient and reliable. Many miracles of healing are attributed to his intercession and he is invoked as a powerful protector in danger from fire or water. His feast day is May 4th.
I am grateful to Dean Burgess for his leadership in this and many other ways and also to many other of our clergy who sponsor similar services in their communities and who also honor a Saint many don’t even know about.
On May 6, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story titled, “Volunteers are the ‘miracle’ ingredient at the Open Door Clinic at St. Wilfrid’s in Camden.” In 2010, parish leader Norman Valentine and others of St. Wilfrid’s recognized critical health services were not immediately available to people who needed them in Camden and Pennsauken and decided to do something about this. They contacted Fr. Pat Close who at that time was the Rector of Grace Church, Haddonfield. He reached out to First Presbyterian Church of Haddonfield, and out of this three-way collaboration the Open Door Clinic at St. Wilfrid’s was born.
Norman Valentine has been the driving force behind the clinic’s enduring success from the beginning and is still its strongest advocate today. Although St. Wilfrid’s has struggled as a church, the clinic, which operates on the third Saturday of every month, reaches up to 100 people each month. As the article reports, health services were curtailed because of the pandemic. This didn’t stop St. Wilfrid’s, which worked with the Food Pantry of South Jersey to meet the needs of the food insecure whose numbers have grown as a result of the pandemic. And it’s not just about food. As the Inquirer story reported, “Last winter, volunteers saw that many recipients waiting in line lacked appropriate cold-weather outerwear. They were quickly able to find and donate more than 100 coats, along with boots, hats, and other winter gear to those in need.”
St. Wilfrid is another saint who is unfamiliar to many. Again the Catholic Online website is helpful informing us that Wilfrid was born in Northumberland, England in 634 and educated at Lindesfarne. After spending time in Lyons and Rome, he returned to England, where he was elected abbot of the monastery at Ripon in 658. He is most remembered for his advocacy of Roman rules and practices in opposition to the Celtic practices that were so much a part of the faith throughout most of Northern England at the time. His advocacy helped decide for the Roman ways at the historic Council of Whitby in 664, which determined the future direction of the Church of England. Wilfrid was appointed Archbishop of York, but engaged in a number of controversies with the Archbishop of Canterbury that had to be mediated by Rome. He eventually retired to Ripon and lived out his life “in prayer and penitential practices.” Catholic Online notes, “He was also a dedicated pastor and a zealous and skilled missionary; his brief time spent in Friesland in 678-679 was the starting point for the great English mission to the Germanic peoples of continental Europe. His feast day is October 12th.”
I find the stories of the saints inspire me. Across our diocese amazing things happen because of modern disciples like Norman Valentine who see a need and call for the church to respond. They know what it means to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Thanks be to God for them. They inspire me too. I hope they also inspire you.
Blessings and peace.
The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, D.D.
12th Bishop of New Jersey