It’s been five months since the untimely passing of the Rev. Gary Mensinger and they are still crying on North Main Street. I fully understand. I am still crying myself.
Father Gary was pastor of both St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church, Pittston, and St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, Swoyersville. He died on Dec. 6, the Feast Day of St. Nicholas of Myra. He was just 50 years old.
It was roughly a year ago that I got to experience the wit, wisdom and warmth of Father Gary that his parishioners had basked in for the previous five years. That’s when the two of us served on the committee planning the inaugural Pittston Day of Prayer celebrated last May. In February, we met with heavy hearts and fond memories of Father Gary as we began to plan the second annual Day of Prayer. It would have been held Saturday. How ironic that the very reason a day of community prayer is even more important this year is the very reason we had to cancel it.
Father Gary was particularly delighted that his parishioners had been invited to participate last year. “We tend to hide up there on North Main Street, content that no one knows who we are,” he said. “But I keep telling our people, it’s time we played a bigger role in the community.”
“That sounds just like him,” parishioner Judy Smith told me on the phone Monday evening. “He wanted us to be better known. When we’d have our flea market, people would be lined up before the doors were open and Father Gary would go right down the line shaking hands and welcoming each one of them.”
Judy said Father Gary became part of the Smith family. “He arrived at St. Michael’s just as my husband and future daughter-in-law were converting,” she said. “He helped them through the process and baptized them both. He celebrated my son and daughter-in-law’s wedding and has baptized their three children.”
They always invited Father Gary to their Fourth of July family outings and he enthusiastically took part in the watermelon seed spitting contests. “Then he’d be down on the floor playing with all the kids,” she said.
The charm of Father Gary, the quality that made him beloved by all of his parishioners, is perhaps best illustrated by a story his fellow Byzantine priest and friend Father James Hayer told at his funeral Mass. As a young man, Gary Mensinger was somewhat of a figure in his native Freeland. He worked on the community ambulance, was a volunteer firefighter, and became the youngest person ever elected to the Freeland Borough Council. Then he decided to become a priest.
The Rev. Hayer, a boyhood friend of Gary, was already ordained. He said when he went to get his haircut, Gordy, the well-known town barber, gave him a hard time. “How could you guys let Gary into the seminary?” he shouted.
“What do you mean?” Father Hayer inquired. “You know what I mean,” Gordy answered. “Gary’s not holy. Gary’s normal.”
That, Father Hayer told the mourners, is why Gary Mensinger was such a great priest. “He was himself,” he said. And that’s all God wanted him to be.
“Father Gary candidly shared his vocation story often,” parishioner Mary Anne Fedor wrote in an online tribute. “The path to his vocation was not a direct one. In wonder, he felt the awesome privilege of the priesthood, of God using an ordinary person like himself as an instrument to bring the healing power of the sacraments to others.”
“His energy was visible and palpable when he talked about one thing that empowered him the most: compassion! Father Gary unraveled the word to reveal what it meant to him personally. In his bold dynamic style, he’d light up with excitement, do a kind of air-fist-pump dance proclaiming, ‘Compassion means ‘with passion!’ It’s all about being passionate folks!’ He’d drill the point home that he wanted us to approach everything in life with full blown zeal, no holding back.”
Linda Hando, secretary at St. Michael’s, recalls Father Gary throwing himself into everything. “He was driven by love,” she said. “Love for children, love for animals, love for his parishioners, and most importantly love for his mother.” At his funeral, Father Hayer talked about Mrs. Helen Mensinger’s unique grief. “When a child buries a parent,” he said, “the child cries. But when a parent buries a child, the world cries.”
Yet, as Mary Anne Fedor writes, “The Office of Christian Burial was one of his favorite priestly acts … it represented the honor of assisting souls on their journey home.”
Father Hayer underscored that. “Remember,” he said, “while we on Earth are saying farewell, in Heaven they are saying, welcome home.”
And back on North Main Street, as parishioners still grieve, they’ve already extended, in true Father Gary fashion, a warm welcome to the Rev. Andrii Dumnych, who arrived directly from the Ukraine with his wife and three young children, to serve their needs.
“We’re glad to have him,” Linda Hando said. “He’s committed to learning English. He’s always asking me what different words mean. He wants to talk with every American he can.”
One might say Father Andrii is approaching his new role with passion. One might add, Father Gary is surely pleased.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.