Ireland House Oral History Collection

Subject name goes here.

Msgr. Gerald J. Ryan, 17 November 2005. Photograph by Linda Dowling Almeida.

Created/Published:

17 November 2005

1 hour 40 minutes

Preferred Citation:

Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University

Biographical Note:

Monsignor Gerald J. Ryan, the sixth pastor of St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church in New York’s South Bronx, was born on West 141st Street in Harlem, New York City in 1920. His mother, from Co. Limerick, worked as a cook before her marriage and his father, from Co. Tipperary, was a motorman on the IRT subway. The family moved to Pelham Bay in the east Bronx when Ryan, the fifth of six children, was two. There he attended P.S. 71 for three years (1925–1928), moving to the new parish school of Our Lady of the Assumption on Mahan Avenue to complete his elementary education in 1933. After graduating from Cathedral Preparatory High School and College, Ryan completed his education and seminary training at St. Joseph’s in Yonkers, New York.

Fr. Ryan was ordained on 27 January 1945 by Francis Cardinal Spellman. His first assignment was to St. Anthony of Padua, a primarily African-American parish located on East 166th Street in the Bronx, where he remained for the next twenty-one years. While there Fr. Ryan became interested in the civil rights movement. He was in Washington, D.C. for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on 28 August 1963 and also marched with King on several occasions, including in the voting rights demonstration on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on 9 March 1965.(1)

In 1966, Fr. Ryan was appointed pastor of St. Luke’s in the South Bronx (623 East 138th Street), which is where he was serving at the time of this interview. He succeeded Msgr. Robert B. Mulcahey, who had been pastor of St. Luke’s since 1931.(2) By the late 1960s, the neighborhood that formed the parish of St. Luke’s, as well as other sections of the Bronx, was experiencing a major ethnic shift. The Irish and Italians who had been its principal residents were gradually replaced by Puerto Rican families. To make the necessary personal and professional adjustments, Fr. Ryan went to school to learn Spanish, and visited Spain and Puerto Rico. In the tough years of the 1970s, when the South Bronx was ravaged by drug addiction, crime, and decaying infrastructure, Fr. Ryan and dedicated parishioners renovated St. Luke’s for its 75th Anniversary in 1972 and converted the lower church into a desperately needed community center. He became a role model for local young people. “The young people, in turn, influenced Father Ryan; and, over time, his style of clothing, his long hair, his beard, reflected their styles, and became part of his St. Luke’s persona.”(3)

In October 1995, after fifty years in the priesthood, Gerald Ryan was made a monsignor by John Cardinal O’Connor and two years later presided over the centennial celebrations for St. Luke’s, which was serving 600 families and 400 school-age children by 1997. At the time of this interview, Msgr. Ryan was 85 and still overseeing a majority of the masses at St. Luke’s, in addition to leading Wednesday night “rap” sessions for troubled teens in the parish and practicing Tai Chi regularly. He is the longest serving pastor in the Archdiocese of New York.

Click on image to enlarge.

  1. Msgr. Gerald J. Ryan, sixth pastor of St. Luke’s, 1997. Reproduced from <em>The History of St. Luke’s Parish</em> (1997), courtesy of Msgr. Ryan.
  2. St. Luke’s Convent, Rectory and Church, East 138th Street, Bronx, New York. Reproduced from <em>The History of St. Luke’s Parish</em> (1997), courtesy of Msgr. Ryan.
  3. Designed in the Renaissance style by Anthony F. A. Schmitt and built between 1915 and 1918, St. Luke’s can seat 1,200 people. This view is from the choir loft on the occasion of Msgr. Ryan’s 50th Anniversary Mass, 29 January 1995. Reproduced from <em>The History of St. Luke’s Parish</em> (1997), courtesy of Msgr. Ryan.
  4. Roland Chapdelaine, <em>The History of St. Luke’s Parish, 1897–1997: A Century of Service to the People of Mott Haven</em> (Bronx, NY: St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church, 1997).

Interviewers:

Photo Credit:

  1. Msgr. Gerald J. Ryan, 17 November 2005. Photograph by Linda Dowling Almeida.
  2. Msgr. Gerald J. Ryan, sixth pastor of St. Luke’s, 1997. Reproduced from The History of St. Luke’s Parish (1997), courtesy of Msgr. Ryan.
  3. St. Luke’s Convent, Rectory and Church, East 138th Street, Bronx, New York. Reproduced from The History of St. Luke’s Parish (1997), courtesy of Msgr. Ryan.
  4. Designed in the Renaissance style by Anthony F. A. Schmitt and built between 1915 and 1918, St. Luke’s can seat 1,200 people. This view is from the choir loft on the occasion of Msgr. Ryan’s 50th Anniversary Mass, 29 January 1995. Reproduced from The History of St. Luke’s Parish (1997), courtesy of Msgr. Ryan.
  5. Roland Chapdelaine, The History of St. Luke’s Parish, 1897–1997: A Century of Service to the People of Mott Haven (Bronx, NY: St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church, 1997).

Notes:

  1. This was two days after “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers and sheriffs fired on civil rights marchers to stop them from crossing the Pettus Bridge.
  2. For years the religious and spiritual needs of Mary Mallon were served by the priests of St. Luke’s and she was buried from there on 12 November 1938. “Typhoid Mary Buried,” New York Times, 13 November 1938, p. 30.
  3. Roland Chapdelaine, The History of St. Luke’s Parish, 1897–1997: A Century of Service to the People of Mott Haven (Bronx, NY: St. Luke’s Roman Catholic Church, 1997).
  4. The IRT subway service to Pelham Bay in the east Bronx commenced in December 1920 and Ryan’s father probably moved the family to the area for convenience. Motormen typically lived near the end of their day’s work. Marion R. Casey, “‘From the East Side to the Seaside’: Irish Americans on the Move in New York City” in Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, eds. The New York Irish (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 403.
  5. St. Raymond’s Roman Catholic Church at Castle Hill & Tremont Avenues is in the Parkchester section of the Bronx.
  6. The Montgomery, Alabama civil rights march took place on 24 March 1965.
  7. The Ortiz Funeral Home at 310 Willis Avenue in the Bronx.
  8. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a soft Chinese martial art practiced for health and longevity.
  9. St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church is at East 138th Street and Alexander Avenue, about three blocks west of St. Luke’s.
  10. Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir (NY: Scribner’s, 1996).
  11. Wilkins Micawber is a fictional character in Charles Dicken’s novel David Copperfield (1850).