Story by jennifer Mauro, Associate Editor
Long before Kenneth W. Ekdahl became Father Ekdahl, pastor of Jesus the Lord Parish, Keyport, he was just a small boy asking God for a big prayer.
“When I made my First Communion, we were asked to pray for something that would come true in our lifetime,” he said, thinking back to the 1950s and how he and his fellow young communicants weren’t supposed to reveal the prayer until it was answered. “I prayed for my father to become Catholic before he died.”
Father Ekdahl was born in October 1947, to an Irish mother who was a devout Catholic. His father was of German descent, and though not Catholic, he recognized the good work of the Church and pledged to raise his children in the faith.
“He was very respectful of the Church, raising his children Catholic, and being that his wife was Catholic,” said Father Ekdahl, who has two brothers and a sister. “He never went to church, but he would never eat meat on Good Friday, either. In his own way, my father was a religious man.”
All About Prayer
More than 25 years later, Father Ekdahl remembered that childhood prayer as his father was dying. Concerned, he confessed his prayer to a local priest he knew, asking him to visit his father. After his father passed, the priest told him, “You have nothing to worry about. I can honestly tell you that your father died catholic.”
“I never told anyone about that prayer until (then),” Father Ekdahl said. “And when he told me that, I thought, ‘God works in mysterious ways.’”
“When we go to Mass, we say ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ Those are simple words, but trying to crack them is not so simple,” he continued. “But to be told some 40, 50 years after he met my mother, to realize my father was catholic, told me he was listening.”
And apparently, Father Ekdahl was listening all those years growing up in a Catholic household, too, because he is celebrating 25 years as a priest this year.
Though born in East Orange, Father Ekdahl spent his early years in Florida in St.Paul School, Jacksonville Beach, before returning to New Jersey and attending Holy Cross School, Rumson. He graduated from Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, in 1965.
After high school, he moved on to Mount St. Mary College, Emmitsburg, Md., and spent one year studying at Loyola University, Rome. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969 in English literature with a minor in philosophy. From 1969 to 1986, he embarked on a career in the insurance business, working for several different companies until answering a call from God to enter the priesthood - a call he most likely had been hearing since childhood.
When he was in eighth grade, for example, Father Ekdahl used to “celebrate Mass,” donning a cape as his vestments, facing a mirror and raising “the host” as his younger brother and sister kneeled beside him as altar servers.
“That was in the 1960s,” he said, “and having girls on the altar didn’t come around until the mid-1990s. So, if you think about it, I was ahead of the curve,” he said with a smile.
Also by the eighth grade, he had written to numerous seminaries about going to seminary in high school. But his parents wanted him to attend Christian Brothers Academy.
Before The Priesthood
It wasn’t until working in the insurance industry in Manhattan that he again heard the call. He found himself drawn to noontime Mass at a nearby church - a routine that once again had him considering a vocation.
One weekend, he and his mother happened to attend Mass in Nativity Church, Fair Haven, for Vocation Sunday. Father Ekdahl waited to speak with the priest after Mass.
“Certainly, I was thinking about it (becoming a priest), but that homily spurred me to action,” he said, adding that the priest agreed to meet with him a few days later and advised him to start teaching religious education and become a reader.
“My mother was waiting for me in the car,” Father Ekdahl recalled. “And she said, ‘You were complimenting his homily?’”
So after 17 years in the insurance business, he gave his notice of resignation, entering the Pope John XXIII National Seminary, Weston, Mass., in late August 1986. He received a master of divinity degree in 1990 and was ordained a priest by Bishop John C. Reiss in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton, on May 18, 1991. He was 43.
His first assignment as a priest was in Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, Mercerville, where he served as parochial vicar from 1991 to 1996. During this time, Father Ekdahl was also spiritual moderator of the Mercer County Federation of Holy Name Societies.
On June 14, 1996, Father Ekdahl was named parochial vicar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Maple Shade, and chaplain of Holy Cross High School, Delran. Two years later, he was assigned to St. Ann Parish, Keansburg. He was appointed as administrator of Jesus the Lord Parish on July 12, 2002, and has served as pastor since Jan. 3, 2004.
“Everyone has a vocation, not just those who serve on the altar,” he said. “I think sometimes we tend to blur occupation with the word vocation, which can be, but doesn’t have to, be the same.”
He said he believes coming to the priesthood later in life has helped his vocation by allowing him to better relate to his parishioners. “I worked in the outside world for 17 years. I owned cars, paid bills, dated,” he said.
“Being an older vocation worked for me,” he said. “God works things in his own way and in his own time.”