By Rev. Alexander Santora/For the Jersey Journal
Monsignor James Turro is a man of a few words. Literally.
His homilies are legendary for being excessively brief: about four or six sentences. So, don’t unwrap a piece of hard candy or gaze too long at your missalette. It’s over.
“I fought against making the pulpit a classroom,” Turro told me as we sat in the dining room of Our Lady of Mercy Rectory in Park Ridge, where Turro resides with three other priests. “I wanted it to be more of a conversation, though one-sided.”
Officially retired from the Immaculate Conception at Seton Hall University faculty since 1992, Turro worked at the seminary until a few years ago, when he went to reside in the parish he has helped out on weekends for over 50 years.
And the parish, along with the entire Archdiocese of Newark, is ready to celebrate his 100th birthday on Jan. 26.
So, we took a walk back in time to the Jersey City Heights where he was born and raised. Turro lived on Bowers Street and recalled that the area was “not very Catholic” back then. The German Lutherans dominated not only the Heights but North Hudson, as well.
<He recalled a large Lutheran church on Bowers. He also mentioned that his Italian uncle opened a butcher shop on Bowers and told him that his first customer was a young girl who handed him an order written in German. His uncle, Turro said, eventually learned German so he could build up his business.
And it was a coincidence years later that when a talented and academically gifted Turro was sent to study in Rome he lived in a German seminary. Eventually, he received his doctorate in Germanics from New York University and became a polyglot, also speaking Italian and French, knowing Latin and Greek and able to read Hebrew.
Turro recalled his Heights neighborhood was “very pleasant with a sense of community.” He was a promising student at St. Paul of the Cross Elementary School and was destined to attend St. Peter’s Prep, where he graduated in 1940. He knew the Jesuits wanted him to enter the Society of Jesus but a diocesan priest steered him to enter Seton Hall, where he was degreed in Classical Languages, and the rest is history.
Turro also credited his two aunts, who became Sisters of Charity, for encouraging his vocation to the priesthood.
After ordination on May 22, 1948, he was assigned as a curate to Holy Trinity, Hackensack, and then was sent to Catholic University where he received a licentiate in Sacred Theology. Then was sent to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome where he received a licentiate in Sacred Scripture, which enabled him to return to his alma mater, Immaculate Conception Seminary in Mahwah, back then also known as Darlington.
There, Turro taught New Testament courses for over 60 years. He was one of the best seminary lecturers I ever had, using an economy of words and never repeating himself.
The Rev. Stanley Gomes, now the archdiocesan minister to retired priests, was also one of his students.
“He was always optimistic and pleasant about life, following the Gospels, the Good News of Jesus Christ,” Gomes said.
In 1959, Turro became the director of the seminary library, now named after him, which includes four books Turro authored, “Prayer” and “Reflections: Path to Prayer” (Paulist Press, 1962 and 1972), “Ezekiel” (Liturgical Press, 1967) and “Conversion: Reflections on Life and Faith” (Tabor Press, 1993).
The church has changed a lot during his priesthood and he said that while “I did not resent the Second Vatican Council,” he added, “I did not foresee the end result. There was a loss of reverence which was palpable in the Catholic church before this happened.”
Turro has served on the Presbyteral (Priests) Council, the Priest Personnel Board, “Advocate” editorial board and worked in the Tribunal, which processes annulments. He also has taught at Fordham, Fairfield, LaSalle and St. John’s — all universities — and Immaculata College. For many decades, Monsignor Turro taught part-time at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York; St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pennsylvania; and at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.
A highlight of his priesthood was an invitation from Mother Teresa, now a saint, to travel to India to give a spiritual retreat for her and her Missionaries of Charity.
Turro is the oldest Newark diocesan priest in years of ordination but not the oldest; the Rev. Joseph Coda is 103 and he’s from Hoboken.
“I cannot imagine being in any other profession, like being a doctor,” Turro said. And hundreds of priests are just as glad since he was respected by every one of them.
Gomes said it well: “He may have some physical limitations now, but his mind is traveling around the world as a scholar, thinker and an adventure seeker. I feel proud of my professor of scripture and wish him ‘cent’anni’ and more.”
The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030.
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