By Katherine Long
Father John P. Fenlon entered into his eternal rest on April 9, 2016. He was 72 years old.
Family, friends, former parishioners and many brother priests filled St. Leo’s Church in Tully for his funeral Mass April 12, including principal celebrant Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and homilist Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello.
Bishop Costello recalled in his homily the first time he met Father Fenlon: When he celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at St. Leo’s 56 years ago, a Mass at which young John and his brother Lawrence were altar servers.
Father Fenlon was a native of Tully and St. Leo’s Church. Lawrence Fenlon detailed and celebrated the family’s commitment to the parish over five generations at the close of the funeral liturgy, at the request of Father Fenlon.
A 1962 graduate of Tully Central High School, Father Fenlon went on to studies at St. Bonaventure University and Christ the King Seminary in Allegany, N.Y. He would later study at the School of Applied Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
Father Fenlon was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Syracuse May 16, 1970. His decades of service included the following ministries: chaplain at Lourdes Camp in Skaneateles; assistant pastor at St. Patrick’s in Binghamton; assistant pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes in Syracuse; associate pastor at St. Therese in Syracuse; associate pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption in Rome; temporary administrator at St. Malachy’s in Sherburne; associate pastor at Most Holy Rosary in Syracuse; pastor at St. Anne’s in Parish and St. Patrick’s in Williamstown; associate pastor and pastor at St. Mary’s in Cortland; parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse; parochial vicar at St. Ambrose in Endicott; and pastor at St. Patrick’s and St. Brigid-St. Joseph in Syracuse, retiring from that pastorate in 2013.
Bishop Costello said Father Fenlon reminded him of their first meeting some 15 years after it, when the two shared ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes in Syracuse. Sometime during that period, Father Fenlon caught Bishop Costello “in that captivating look of his” and asked how long he wanted to live. Thinking himself wise and humble, Bishop Costello said he answered, “As long as I can take care of myself. I want to be independent. I’d rather not have to rely on anybody else.”
“He said, ‘Interesting. I want to live forever,’” Bishop Costello recalled. “That wish has been granted. Forever has begun. But what a journey it’s been to get here.”
Father Fenlon was a man of prayer, Bishop Costello said, reserving time for reading, reflection, prayer, and “for preparing liturgies which were always invariably moving and meaningfully celebrated.”
“John Fenlon was a man of the Word,” Bishop Costello continued. “For him those words were alive and he tried mightily to make them live for others.”
God blessed Father Fenlon with an extraordinary voice and he could have been a media star, Bishop Costello said. But rather he chose to use those gifts to spread the Good News. “John’s proclamation of the scriptures was arresting…. We listened, we heard, the word became alive,” he said.
Father Fenlon was also a community builder, Bishop Costello affirmed. He called everyone to ministry by reason of their baptisms, he said. “Where John was, people came together, they discussed, they prayed, they discerned, and they acted.”
“John Fenlon taught us to love, to love each other. He taught us that we exist because we are loved and because we love in return,” he said.
Finally, Father Fenlon was a victim with Christ. Sometimes the priest is called another Christ, called to act in Christ’s name, Bishop Costello said. “But for a very few, the identification with Jesus is even deeper. A select few are chosen to share in Christ’s suffering, chosen to be victims with Christ, and such was John’s vocation in these later years.”
Father Fenlon once asked for an assignment that would allow him to minister to the sick, the dying, and the bereaved, Bishop Costello noted, and though the bishop wasn’t able to answer his request, God did: “God’s way was to make John not the minister to the sick, but the victim who associated himself with the suffering of Christ.”
“Now in all honesty, John was not always the most patient patient,” Bishop Costello said to gentle laughter from those assembled, but his acceptance “was perhaps the greatest source of grace ever mediated for others” through his priesthood.
Bishop Costello closed with words of comfort to Father Fenlon’s family and those who loved him: “He lives forever.”
Father Fenlon was predeceased by his parents, Paul and Gertrude Fenlon, and his sister Julianne (Rey). He is survived by his brother Lawrence (Patricia) of Newark, Del.; his sisters, Mary Fenlon of Tully, and Dr. Christine Fenlon (Dr. Timothy Howland) of Vestal; and six nieces and nephews.
Donations in Father Fenlon’s memory may be made to St. Mary’s School, 61 North Main St., Cortland, N.Y. 13045 or St. Leo’s Food Pantry, P.O. Box 574, Tully, N.Y. 13159.