‘Distinguished’ Morton pastor makes relationship with students, staff priority
By Paul Thomas Moore
“I will miss the enthusiasm of the students.”
Msgr. Gerald Ward is discussing what life will be like when he moves to senior status in June, after serving 41 of his 44 years of priesthood in parishes affiliated with schools.
For his service to Catholic education, Msgr. Ward has been honored as the Distinguished Pastor of the Year by the Office of Catholic Schools. Also recognized at a Mass and luncheon in Peoria on May 9 were Debbie Marlier of Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island, Distinguished Teacher of the Year, and Randy Frakes of Immaculate Conception School in Monmouth, the Distinguished Principal of the Year.
One thing he won’t miss is the finances, he admitted. Ironically, money matters have been connected with his vocational path from the beginning.
After attending St. Thomas the Apostle School in Peoria Heights and then Bergan High School in Peoria, Msgr. Ward enrolled at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, to study accounting.
“I hated every class,” he said.
After a particularly discouraging income tax class, Msgr. Ward made the decision: “I’m not doing this my whole life.”
Still, he was attracted by the Benedictine community. While attending Mass, “All of a sudden I got this thing in my head — maybe I want to be a priest.”
The realization was reinforced in Peoria that summer while staying with his father, Dr. Clarence Ward, an ophthalmologist, and his mother, Mary. The family included two other sons — one now deceased — and a daughter.
His father helped him get a summer job in the OSF Saint Francis Medical Center kitchen, and the Sister in charge told him, “Jerry, you need to be a priest.”
“His love for Jesus Christ has been shared with every student, family, and staff member.” — Melissa Scholl, principal
Subsequently, Msgr. Ward served as pastor at St. Patrick, Eikhart, St. Thomas, Mt. Pulaski, and St. John, Middletown; and St. Patrick Church of Merna, Bloomington, and St. Mary, Downs. He has been the pastor of Blessed Sacrament in Morton since 2014.
In addition, he was parochial vicar of faith communities in Milan, Bloomington and Champaign, did prison ministry at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln, and was vicar for the Lincoln and Bloomington/Lincoln Vicariates.
He was named a Chaplain to His Holiness with the title of monsignor in 2009.
Msgr. Ward has been involved in Cursillo for more than 50 years, and considers it “one of the most effective evangelization tools in the diocese.”
SHARING LOVE FOR JESUS
As Msgr. Ward followed his calling to parishes around the diocese, he discovered he hadn’t left accounting behind after all, noting “I’ve had at least seven capital campaigns.” He found church fundraising easier than for schools because “it affected everybody.”
“You have to convince the parish that a school is a vital, important aspect of our life as a parish,” he explained.
He oversaw construction of the new St. Patrick Church of Merna and when he was appointed pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church and School in Morton, he thought his building days were done. He soon learned the school needed a new gym, but said the close bond between parish and school made it “a fairly easy sell.”
Part of that was the physical connectedness of the church and school. “It’s right here,” he said, from his office just down the hall from the church.
But more than that, he feels Morton is one of those communities where “people just live here — they live their life here. “ As a result, many graduates of the school are parishioners.
Msgr. Ward was nominated as the 2022-2023 Distinguished Pastor of the Year by Melissa Scholl, principal of Blessed Sacrament School.
She cited his presence in the building and “just being around and coming and talking to the kids.”
Msgr. Ward demonstrated the reassuring impact of that presence on a recent school stroll. Whether mingling with kindergarteners, or kibitzing with seventh-graders, pastor and students exhibited a relaxed sense of being on the same team.
As Scholl wrote in her nomination letter, “His love for Jesus Christ has been shared with every student, (Blessed Sacrament School) family, and staff member.”