Story by Christina Leslie, Correspondent
“Each time I go to a new church, I go into town and get lost on purpose,” admitted Msgr. Ralph W. Stansley, newly retired from Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, West Trenton. “You learn your way around more easily that way.”
Having served the people of the Diocese of Trenton for more than 43 years in six parishes and in a number of diocesan roles, Msgr. Stansley may have been a bit challenged geographically, but his inner compass has always pointed straight toward service to God and his people.
Born in 1946 in Somerville, young Ralph began his priestly journey as a Jesuit noviate, but soon realized he was better suited to life as a diocesan priest. He studied in St. Francis College, Loretto, Pa., and Our Lady of the Angels Seminary, Albany, N.Y., then entered Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington. Msgr. Stansley was ordained by Bishop George W. Ahr May 19, 1973, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
One of the new priest’s greatest challenges arose during his very first assignment as parochial vicar in Sacred Heart Parish, Riverton.
“I got a call from the police to come to the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge [which carries Route 73 over the Delaware River] to talk down a jumper,” Msgr. Stansley remembered. “On my way to the bridge, I prayed and prayed to God to say the right thing. I don’t even know what I said, but the police got him down. I knew I needed to learn how to help, and that’s why I went to Iona College for my [master’s in] counselling degree.”
Over the course of his ministry, Msgr. Stansley served in parishes in all four counties of the Diocese. Following seven years in Sacred Heart Parish, he was parochial vicar in St. Paul Parish, Princeton, and St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro, and later served as temporary administrator in St. Pius X, Forked River.
As a pastor, he was assigned to St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro; Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, Mercerville (now part of Our Lady of Sorrows-St. Anthony Parish, Hamilton); St. Alphonsus Parish, Hopewell, and his most recent assignment, Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, West Trenton.
In 1995, Msgr. Stansley was appointed director of the diocesan Office of Permanent Deacons. Over the course of his 16 years of service, he estimates having contributed to the development of between 200 and 250 men in the program.
“You can’t help but be inspired by those guys,” he said. “They have families and jobs, and still do. We held discernment nights where I, a deacon and a deacon’s wife all spoke to prospects, for it was important that they all knew what was going on, what would be expected.”
Msgr. Stansley looked for three key traits in each prospective deacon.
“I made sure they have the desire to be open to God’s will for themselves and everyone, that they were kind and that they were caring,” he revealed. “If they had those three traits, they would be the best deacon they could be.”
Msgr. Stansley also served on the tribunal as Prosynodal Judge and Defender of the Bond; on the Expansion and Development Commission and Liturgical Commission, and as a member of the ad hoc committee on ministry in non-correctional and healthcare institutions. The priest also served as a chaplain to local chapters of the Columbiettes, and was a spiritual director in AIDS ministry.
Msgr. Stansley was named chaplain to His Holiness with the title of Reverend Monsignor Oct. 15, 2008, by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Sharing The Faith With Others
During a pre-retirement interview in his spare office in the rectory of Our Lady of Good Counsel, he sat beneath a gold leaf picture depicting Mary and Elizabeth cradling their infant sons Jesus and John the Baptist and asserted his decades of simple parish ministry had been the most fulfilling.
“It is my favorite thing about the priesthood,” Msgr. Stansley said. “The weddings, the Baptisms, the funerals, all of these help you become part of the family.”
During his retirement, Msgr. Stansley will reside in Villa Vianney retirement home for priests, Lawrenceville, and assist his friend, Msgr. Michael J. Walsh, pastor of St. James Parish, Pennington, St. George Parish, Titusville, and St. Alphonsus Parish, Hopewell.
The priest is not one to hold to the past, easily divesting himself of years of possessions accumulated over the course of his 43 years of ministry.
“I’ve gotten rid of a lot of photographs or given them to family,” Msgr. Stansley explained. “I gave some of my books to the St. James library, and others to the Morris Hall gift shop. I came over from St. Alphonsus 15 years ago and still haven’t unpacked some of those boxes. I’d rather deal with people face to face.”
Life as a priest is much more than accumulating possessions, he realized, but, rather, putting them aside to walk with the people of God during all their joys and sorrows.
“You wake up, and no two days are the same,” Msgr. Stansley said joyfully. “There’s always daily Mass, but the rest of the day can be anything under the sun. Your day is not your own, and it’s not meant to be: you are ordained for the people.”