Missionary priest reflects on decades-long ministry

Father James Wuerth, a member of the Missionaries of the Holy Family congregation, ministered to families for more than four decades. (Record Photo by Jessica Able)

During four decades of ministry, Father James Wuerth spent many years serving families near the U.S. border with Mexico in south Texas.

In a recent interview at Nazareth Home, Father Wuerth lamented the suffering of immigrant families at the border and described the situation as “so bad it’s beyond words.”

“We all have the dignity of God, not by nature of our government, but by the nature of who we are as sons and daughters of Christ,” he said.

That inherent dignity and the sacred nature of the family are what initially attracted Father Wuerth more than 40 years ago to the Missionaries of the Holy Family. The international order has about 1,000 priests and brothers who provide pastoral care to families in 22 countries.

Now on what is his final mission, the 77-year-old Louisville native continues to be a witness for Christ and serves in a ministry of prayer and presence at Nazareth Home.

As the oldest of seven children, the priest’s young life centered around family and parish life. The Wuerth family first attended the old St. Ann Church and later Most Blessed Sacrament Church.

From a young age, Father Wuerth — known simply as Jimmy by his siblings — said he felt a tug toward the priesthood.

“I had it in my mind ever since I was a little boy, God willing. Even through the ups and downs” the idea of serving as a priest never left him, he said.

Along with his parents, Eddie and Mary Ruth, Father Wuerth was deeply influenced by his mom’s sister — Sister of Charity of Nazareth Francis Albert Mackey.

“The sisters had a lot of influence on us — all of the sisters,” he said, noting he and his siblings were educated by the Sisters of Charity.

He entered high school seminary at the old St. Thomas Seminary, where many diocesan priests studied.

While he was happy in his studies at St. Thomas, he had a pull to a religious community, he said, particularly the Missionaries of the Holy Family.

The community’s emphasis on the Holy Family  as the model of holiness for all families drew him in, he said.

Soon he began studying at Holy Family Seminary in St. Louis, where the U.S. province of the order is located. He was ordained June 13, 1971, which he said was the “happiest day of life.”

Following his ordination, he was assigned as associate pastor and hospital chaplain in Los Angeles. For the bulk of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, he moved between Missouri, south Texas and California. He even served for a brief time at his home parish of Most Blessed Sacrament.

Father Wuerth recalled the thousands of people he ministered to, noting with particular fondness the people of south Texas. He speaks Spanish and established connections with families there, he said.

He also taught courses in philosophy, theology and liturgy at Holy Family Seminary; served his community in a variety of leadership roles; and worked as a hospice chaplain.

Father Wuerth is also a musician and often played the organ and piano and led choirs at various parishes.

For much of his decades-long ministry, he moved every few years, many times every year — something common among missionary priests. Father Wuerth said he became used to the irregularity, and eventually grew to enjoy it.

“I went where I was needed,” he said. “I had a lot of family so I’d have visitors wherever I was every couple of months.”

In 2015 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and made the difficult decision to retire as pastor of St. Wenceslaus Church in St. Louis  where he served from 2000-2015. He lived for a time at Padua Place in San Antonio, Texas, a retirement community for priests and other religious. Earlier this year, he returned to Louisville and now lives at Nazareth.

Father Wuerth said he is grateful for his vocation. Almost a half century after his ordination, he said he looks upon his ministry as a gift from God.

“I’ve really enjoyed everything about it — everywhere I ministered,” he said with a wistful expression. “I’ve been totally happy in life.”

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