"Marist High School & Me" by: Rev. Thomas M. Cembor, D. Min. '69

Updated: Sep 25, 2018

The Felician Sisters at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Grammar School treated each student individually even though the size of the classes would be unheard of and unacceptable today for one teacher without an aide. Each class of each day began with prayer. Sundays brought some of us together for the nine o’clock mass. My parents sat across the aisle and encouraged me to sit with sister who sat alone but who somehow didn’t appear to be alone. Extra class work, lots of homework, extracurricular activities and time with the nuns, each in its own way formed the foundation of what was to follow.

Waiting for the acceptance letter to Marist High School was excruciating. What a relief when it arrived. I wanted to go to Marist because Bayonne High School was too large and I was afraid of getting lost in it. But the main reason? I thought Marist had a better chance of helping me hold onto my vocation to priesthood, a vocation I felt I had since I could answer the question on my own, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

James Gerard Dixon, Ray Armstrong, Gerry Callahan, Frank Sweeney, Dennis Heaver, Woody Duke. All Marist Brothers, among others, who took the lump of clay that I was when I walked through the doors on 57th Street and the Boulevard and began to mold me. Each one plopped on a layer and smoothed it out. Some chiseled, some stabbed, some cut deep. Some scraped away layers gone bad while others puttied new patches. Brother Dixon taught advanced math and physics. However, he wasn’t persuasive enough to direct me toward advanced studies in math and science. My spirit was already leaning towards the humanities which Brother Heaver celebrated with eye-opening ventures into art and music. Trips to NYC museums and research papers on artists and their styles truly freed my spirit to explore my inner recesses. He also encouraged creativity after school with my involvement in yearbook and the school newspaper.

Brother Armstrong, young and strong as I recall, had a way with words, literally. He not only taught English, he breathed it, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on me and my love of reading today. He and Brother Callahan formed a singing group, each gifted guitarists. I carry a tune pretty well today even without a bucket because of the fun I had in learning to love to sing. Brother Sweeney made my college work flow more easily as he taught the most practical course I ever took—typing. And, while his name conjured memories of former President Wilson, who knew that one of my teachers would share the name of a future beloved animation? Brother Duke was as dynamic and life loving as Toy Story’s famous character, Woody, long before it was envisioned.

All vocations, whether it be to teaching, music, art, journalism, science, engineering, computer science, medicine, religious life or priesthood, come from that inner voice placed in us by our loving creator.

How carefully we listen to it, how attentive we are to how we affect the world around us, and, ultimately, how we feel about what we have done, all determine the road we travel to fulfilling God’s loving plan for us. One word for it is conscience. The Marist Brothers and the community of the school and what it represented in the second half of the 1960s held true to the vision of the founder, Saint Marcellin Champagnat, “To make Jesus known and loved through the education of Christian youth.”

So many other men, as well, not having the title of Brother were influential in the forming of my vocation, men like Cas Jakubik, Henry Gesek, William Howe, carefully screened for hire to be certain they embraced the same ideals. Whether they taught human sexuality, Latin, English, math or history, as these men did, they taught character, values, ethics, and religion, as much as their counterparts. Marist High School followed upon the Felician Sisters as a stepping stone to Seton Hall University and Immaculate Conception Seminary. A grammar school and high school diploma led to degrees in social work, divinity, and ultimately, a doctorate in ministry in 1984 from Drew University. A solemn procession down the aisle of then Sacred Heart Cathedral in Newark on May 26, 1979 allowed me to round off that long ago asked question solemnized by the choir belting, “Tu es sacerdos.” But, this would only be the beginning of another chapter in my life.

In the years that followed, I would draw from the inspiration of the brothers and the community of Marist High School as I served in various parishes for 27 years throughout the Archdiocese of Newark, beginning with St. Mary’s in Nutley and ending with St. Raphael’s in Livingston, including nine years as pastor of St. Leo’s in Irvington. These last twelve years directed me to specialize in hospital ministry as Catholic Chaplain and Director of Pastoral Care at Hackensack Meridian Health Mountainside Medical Center, in Montclair.

I’m not sure how one measures success. Framed degrees and diplomas on office walls mark accomplishments and indicate hard work. The way we nurture people on life’s journey, however, using the gifts and talents we have discovered we have and which have been nourished and encouraged along the way may be better indicators. More importantly are the seeds carefully planted, and those who cared for the garden of the soul. To that end, I thank the Marist High School community, those men, brothers and others, who respected me and my schoolmates and cared for us as they fulfilled their tasks.

The Mission Statement of Marist High School is well said and well lived:

“Inspired by Saint Marcellin Champagnat, Marist High School stands in the Marist Brothers of the School’s tradition of Catholic education: a tradition whose highest values are the sacred integrity of the individual and his/her Christian responsibility to his/her society; a tradition whose ultimate aim is to make Jesus known and loved among the students. This mission is carried out by a dedicated faculty and staff. Marist High School strives to create a community of lifelong, Christian learners who are prepared to take their places as open-minded, generous, educated members of a complex, diverse society.”

~On Behalf of The Shield and Marist High School, Thank you Fr. Tom Cembor for your contribution!

Submitted by Kayla Fonseca on behalf of Rev. Cembor

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