By the Today’s Catholic Editorial Board
The passing of an icon such as Msgr. J. William Lester leaves us grieving and celebrating the life of a model priest whose commitment to serving the Church was done with enthusiasm, joy and eagerness.
During this Year for Priests, how appropriate that we celebrate the life of Msgr. Lester. His passing just after the installation of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades has linked Msgr. Lester with five of the nine bishops, which also includes Bishop John F. Noll, who ordained Msgr. Lester to the priesthood 65 years ago; Bishop Leo A Pursley; Bishop William McManus; and our bishop emeritus, Bishop John M. D’Arcy.
Msgr. Lester was often colloquially called an “Energizer Bunny.” In more recent years, as his health occasionally posed obstacles, Monsignor’s zest for life and his high energy found him bouncing back quickly on the road to recovery and still willing to serve wherever and however needed.
Education was the heart of Msgr. Lester’s ministry. His father, who was not a Catholic, was an educator who once operated a commercial school in Bluffton, the home of monsignor’s mother, Ida. James Lester was later employed by the state in the public schools sector, and the family lived in Gary where Monsignor Lester was born and grew at Holy Angels Parish and attended school there under the watchful and devout Catholic eye of his mother. Msgr. Lester has a sister who is a religious, Holy Cross Sister Jeanette Lester.
After two years at Bishop Noll High School, the seminary called. And the Diocese of Fort Wayne, which encompassed all of northern Indiana in Msgr. Lester’s youth and early priesthood, would be graced with his presence and administrative skills.
Beginning with Huntington Catholic High School in 1947, principalships seemed to fit Msgr. Lester well. In 1951, he became principal at Central Catholic. Students there have fond and engaging stories about their fine principal. He remembered the students, who they married, their maiden and married names, years after graduation.
In 1957, he went from principal to superintendent. One of the things he studied was the baptismal records and sacramental records at parishes in Fort Wayne. He presented the study’s findings to Bishop Noll, who was residing on Bishop’s Island in Sylvan Lake, during the summer. The bishop told Msgr. Lester, “Well, it looks like we’re going to have to build some schools.” Bishop Luers High School, Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne and Marian High School in Mishawaka can trace their origins to Msgr. Lester’s study. At Bishop Luers, Msgr. Lester even coordinated the services of the Franciscan order to staff the school.
Msgr. Lester also found himself as a “father” figure to 23 Cuban boys who came to Fort Wayne as part of Operation Peter Pan in the early 1960s. They lived at the St. Vincent Villa in Fort Wayne, where Msgr. Lester resided while superintendent.
In a 2009 interview, Msgr. Lester chuckled, “I became close friends with the boys through counseling, summer trips and stopping fights when needed.” Many have gone on to business and educational success. One of the boys is Auxiliary Bishop Filipe DeJesus Estevez. Another was ordained to the priesthood.
In recent years, Msgr. Lester has been noted as the “go to” man, assisting Bishop D’Arcy at parishes in need of a caring, loving administrator. If there was a board, including the Today’s Catholic advisory board or the editorial board, Msgr. Lester was there to offer guidance and knowledge. He was the walking encyclopedia of diocesan history.
He lived in “alleged retirement” at Saint Anne Home in Fort Wayne while still helping out wherever and whenever possible. He will be missed by bishops, priests and faithful all across the diocese. But we also celebrate his life and thank our Heavenly Father that the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend was graced by his presence, love and service. Eternal rest grant unto Msgr. Lester.
Do you have a memory to share?
Today’s Catholic would like to run a tribute section to Msgr. Lester from our priests, former students, former parishioners and readers who would like to share fond memories in the March 7 issue of this paper. We ask that comments be kept to 100 words or less, include a first and last name of the writer, town and a telephone number — in case we have questions. Please e-mail the tributes to email@example.com by the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 26, to meet our deadline.
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