Well-Lit Path

Aug. 19-Sept. 1,2004
Well-Lit Path
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
Father John Phelan Loses His Fight with Cancer

“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rains fall soft upon your fields, and until we meet again –– as surely we will, may God hold you in the palm of His hand –– as he surely does.”

Father Donald Karlen, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Boonville and close friend of Father John Phelan, read this Irish Blessing with great emotion at his friend’s funeral on Aug. 10 at Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse. Several hundred people, including family, friends and former parishioners, joined Bishops James Moynihan and Thomas Costello and more than 60 priests to pay their respects, mourn and warmly remember Father Phelan at his Mass of Christian burial. “I welcome you to the final liturgy and final Mass of our departed brother, John Phelan,” said Bishop Moynihan. “I am grateful to all those who have ministered to John, especially Father Karlen. It is always hard to lose one so young and so we grieve,” he said.

Father Phelan died on Aug. 4 after a long battle with cancer. He was 57 years old, the son of the late James A. and Marjorie Ellis Phelan. He was born in Syracuse and graduated from Most Holy Rosary School. Father Phelan completed studies at Wadhams Hall Seminary in Ogdensburg in 1970 and at Christ the King Seminary of St. Bonaventure University in Olean in 1974. Father Phelan was ordained by Bishop David Cunningham at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral on May 18, 1974.

He was a Roman Catholic priest for the Diocese of Syracuse for 30 years. For 28 years, Father Phelan was an associate priest of Madonna House Apostolate, based in Combermere, Canada. His diocesan assignments included associate pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Syracuse, St. Francis de Sales in Utica, St. Paul’s Church in Binghamton and St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus. Father Phelan’s first pastorate was at St. Patrick’s Church in Forrestport and St. Mary of the Snows’ Church in Otter Lake. His second pastorate was at St. Patrick’s Church in Jordan. Father Phelan was also director of the Emmaus House of Prayer in Endwell.

He is survived by his brother James A. Phelan of Syracuse; sister Martha (Jeff) Piccone of Egg Harbor City, NJ; and several nieces and nephews. During the homily, Father Karlen alluded to Catherine deHueck Doherty, Servant of God and Foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate with which Father Phelan was involved for close to 30 years. “Archbishop Raya, the first priest to wear the name of associate priest in the Madonna House family defines a saint as one who leaves behind a path of light on which we might walk,” said Father Karlen. “For Father Phelan, and I presume for Catherine, a saint is anyone who leaves behind them a life that would continue to do what the Little Mandate challenges us to do during our lifetime. Be a light for your neighbor’s feet.”

Addressing Father Phelan’s family, Father Karlen said, “John’s family members –– close and extended, you, with your encouragement and example helped him to accomplish what he accomplished. You were the lights for his path.” Father Karlen asked the congregation to recall the path Father John had walked with each one of them. “More than anything else in the last month, he wanted to be with you,” said Father Karlen, speaking to parishioners from St. Patrick’s Church in Jordan. “You were his light as he was yours.”

Father Karlen also spoke of Father Phelan’s great love for Scripture and said that he prayed the Scripture and knew them as well as a groom knows every word of love letters from his bride or as a son would cherish words from a dying father. “John said that nothing can improve on the sacred Scriptures. While he knew of personal grief first-hand with the death of a close friend and then his mother and father, God’s words illumined John’s path,” he said.

Included in his tribute, Father Karlen shared an Irish joke and other stories that he had enjoyed with Father Phelan that had the congregation laughing through their tears. “He was supposed to preach at my Mass of Christian burial,” said Father Karlen. “Instead, I am preaching at his Mass. He said to me, ‘Don’t you dare eulogize me. Preach, don’t eulogize.’” In his closing remarks, Father Karlen talked of Father Phelan’s love of Ireland. “He felt at home there,” said Father Karlen. “He never tired of going back. Days before his death, I asked him, ‘What color do you expect to find in heaven?’ John momentarily came out of his semi-coma and gave me one of those singular Phelan stares that could stop a train and said, ‘Why, green of course.’”

“I know that John carried the cross of Christ in his life,” said Bishop Moynihan. “Now he has been able to lay it down.” Father Phelan was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in DeWitt. Contributions may be made in his memory to St. Patrick’s Church of Jordan Restoration Fund, 28 N. Main St., Jordan, N.Y. 13080.

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