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At multicultural parishes and after 9/11, Franciscan priest has served workers

Wearing a white hard hat, Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, the pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, speaks at an April 2022 Mass at that church honoring construction workers who died over that past year in workplace accidents in Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia, as part of the annual commemoration of International Workers Memorial Day. In 2023, Father Jordan is marking his 40th anniversary as a priest. (Catholic Standard photo by Andrew Biraj)

Now in his 40th year as a priest, Father Brian Jordan most often can be seen in the long brown robes of his Franciscan religious order.

But over the years, he has also worn running shoes, shorts and a T-shirt while competing in 61 marathons, including 21 times in both the New York Marathon and Boston Marathon, 10 times in the Chicago Marathon, six times in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and once each in marathons in Philadelphia, Toronto and Dublin, Ireland.

"I ran for spiritual growth, physical exercise, mental perseverance and reducing psychological stress,” he said.

The Franciscan priest, who is 68 years old and in his second stint as the pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, no longer runs marathons after having double knee replacement surgery about five years ago. He noted, “Now with brand new knees, I do extensive walks five times per week. Not the same as running, but it works for me at my age."

And for the past 15 years, Father Jordan has also donned a hard hat along with his priestly vestments, while celebrating an annual Memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City for construction workers killed on the job. For the past three years, the priest has also helped lead a Mass at St. Camillus Church for construction workers killed on the job in Washington, D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia, as part of International Workers’ Memorial Day, an annual commemoration held around April 28.

At an April 2022 Mass at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, the pastor there, incenses hard hats with the names of 20 construction workers who died that past year in workplace accidents. (Catholic Standard photo by Andrew Biraj)

The example of his parents and the Franciscan priests at his college helped inspire Father Jordan’s vocation to the priesthood and his service to working people. The native of Brooklyn, New York, is the middle of the seven children of the late Jerry and Eileen Jordan. Remembering his father, a World War II Navy veteran and former member of the Teamsters Union who died in February, Father Jordan said he learned from his dad’s example of “faith, perseverance and compassion, (and) undying love for God and neighbor… I learned about solidarity, providing for the family, and the dignity of human labor” from him.

While studying for his history degree at Siena College in Loudonville, New York, and contemplating a possible career as a lawyer, Brian Jordan was inspired by the college’s Franciscan priests, especially Father Richard O’Connor, who taught philosophy and classical languages there and had been a Catholic chaplain at the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. Another Franciscan priest who mentored him was Father Mychal Judge, who later became a chaplain for the New York Fire Department and who was the first certified fatality after he died as he was ministering to victims of  the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

“The Franciscans I met at Siena, they were earthy and intelligent, and they all seemed to get along with each other,” Father Jordan said. “They enjoyed what they did. It showed with their smiling and joking with each other, and their dedication.”

After entering that religious order and becoming a Franciscan friar, Father Jordan was ordained to the priesthood in 1983 by Washington Cardinal James Hickey at St. Camillus Church, which the Franciscans had begun staffing that year.

The new priest’s first assignment was as a parochial vicar at Holy Cross Parish in the Bronx, and he returned to St. Camillus to serve as pastor there from 1990 to 1996, and he has been pastor of the Silver Spring parish again since September 2020. Father Jordan said that when he first became the pastor there at the age of 35, he believes that he was the youngest pastor in the history of St. Camillus Parish, and now as he leads the parish at the age of 68, he thinks he might be its oldest pastor.

Over the years, Father Jordan also served in Bolivia and El Salvador, and as a priest at multicultural parishes in the Bronx and Manhattan in New York and in Boston. He earned a master of divinity degree from the Washington Theological Union, a doctor of ministry degree from Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts and a master of professional studies degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He also served as the  director of campus ministry at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Father Jordan was serving as a parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in midtown Manhattan. That day following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he went to Ground Zero to minister to survivors and bless bodies of the dead, and he learned that Father Judge had died there.

“He was a priest for all seasons,” Father Jordan said, remembering his friend and mentor.

For the next 10 months, Father Jordan  celebrated Masses at Ground Zero and ministered to the rescue and recovery workers of all faiths there.

“They were heroes,” he said, praising the first responders who died in the attack’s aftermath, and the rescue and recovery workers at the site. He noted that the nearly 2,800 people killed on 9/11 in New York included 343 members of the New York City Fire Department, 37 Port Authority police, 23 of the city’s police officers, and 61 union construction workers.

The construction workers involved in the demolition and clean-up at Ground Zero were “very religious and patriotic,” Father Jordan said. He believes that the number of those workers who later died of cancer from the toxins there may have exceeded the 9/11 death toll. “I’ve lost count of how many funerals I’ve done,” he said.

In the fall of 2001 after the terrorist attacks, Father Jordan presided at an outdoor Mass in Staten Island before he joined other runners in an emotional New York Marathon. He said he told the people there, “You and  I, we’re going to take back the Twin Towers, and we’re taking back New York City!”

Since returning to St. Camillus Parish as its pastor in 2020, that next spring Father Jordan inaugurated the annual Mass there praying for construction workers in the Washington area who died in workplace accidents during the past year.

At those Masses, white hard hats bearing the names of those workers, along with a rose, are placed on chairs arranged in a semicircle in the front of the sanctuary. The 2021 Mass memorialized 18 fallen workers, and the 2022 Mass honored 20 workers, and both years also remembered workers who had died from COVID-19. The 2023 Mass memorialized 40 fallen construction workers. Those Masses are attended by many members of building trades unions from the Washington area, whose unions require rigorous training and safety procedures.

In an interview, Father Jordan noted that most of the construction workers who die in those workplace accidents are Latino, and all of them have been nonunion workers.

At the 2021 Mass, the priest said some of the workers had died after having been crushed or suffocated in collapsed trenches, injured in falls, struck by vehicles or electrocuted.

Father Jordan noted that when he was ordained as a priest, he was told that his hands are sacred. He said that the hands of construction workers are also sacred. In an interview, he said, “They’re building, rebuilding, renovating, retrofitting. Their hands are just as sacred as mine, just as a surgeon, a nurse, (and) a chef has sacred hands.”

Reflecting on the dignity of work, the priest said, “Work doesn’t define our existence. It’s our relationship with God and people, that’s what defines our existence.” 

At the 2022 Mass for construction workers, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory donned a white hard hat and sprinkled holy water on the hard hats memorializing the fallen workers. In his homily, he noted that Jesus called workers in his time, and Christ likewise calls workers today, “to greatness, to generosity of spirit, to the very kingdom of God.”

The Mass for fallen construction workers in April 2023 was celebrated by new Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar-Ayala, who after fleeing war-torn El Salvador as a teenager, crossed the border into the United States as an undocumented immigrant with just his backpack and one change of clothes, and later worked in maintenance and construction, and as a janitor and a painter before entering the seminary and being ordained a priest.

Father Jordan praised the bishop, saying, “He’s a great role model. Through his own personal experience, he could identify with empathy and compassion the plight of Latino construction workers who are exploited every day on the worksite.”

At an April 2023 Mass at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar-Ayala, at right, sprinkles holy water on hard hats bearing the names of 40 construction workers who died in workplace accidents over the past year in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia. At left is Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, the pastor of St. Camillus, who has hosted the annual Mass commemorating International Workers Memorial Day. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Now back at St. Camillus where he was ordained and earlier served as pastor, Father Jordan said leading St. Camillus Parish then and now has been challenging. “I call it an ongoing serenity prayer. This place is 24/7,” he joked.

He noted that the parish unofficially has about 3,000 households, and its members are about 55 percent Latino, 20 percent African or African Caribbean or African American, 15 percent Anglo and about 10 percent Bangladeshi. Each weekend, the parish has four Masses in Spanish and four Masses in English, and one Mass in French, with Masses in Bengali about twice a month.

Reflecting on his 40th anniversary as a priest, he said, “The blessings are the people of God.” Father Jordan said that the greatest blessing of his priesthood is “to celebrate the body of Christ with the body of Christ,” celebrating the Eucharist “with people of all backgrounds, rich and poor, all ethnic groups, citizens or undocumented, gay or straight. We are (all) the people of God.”

And although May 14 was the actual date of his 40th anniversary, he said, “I didn’t celebrate it that day. It was Mother’s Day. You think the pastor  is going to supercede mothers? I’d be impeached!”

And Father Jordan, whose ministry has included serving workers, noted that he will be celebrating a Labor Day Mass on Wednesday Aug. 30 at 4 p.m. at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring. All unions and working people are invited, and light refreshments will be available after the Mass.

Franciscan Father Brian Jordan stands outside the friary at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he is serving as pastor for the second time as he marks the 40th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood this year. Father Jordan holds the white hard hat that he wears at an annual Mass hosted at St. Camillus Church each April to pray for construction workers who died in workplace accidents over the past year. (Catholic Standard photo by Mark Zimmermann)