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June 7, 2011 > Father Manny celebrates 50 years of service

Father Manny celebrates 50 years of service

St. Joseph Parish's 77-year-old pastor still leads with an active pace, razor-sharp mind and delightful wit

By Jay Coleman
Photos By Kevin Wing and Kay Tierney

Holy Week, which includes multiple Masses and prayer services totaling more than 12 hours, from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday, is the most sacred - and exhausting - annual celebration for Catholics. So what's the first thing 77-year-old Father Manuel Simas from St. Joseph Parish/Old Mission San Jose in Fremont did on his vacation the following week? He climbed to the top of 2,500-foot Mission Peak, accompanied by Father Joseph Nguyen and Father Manny's canine companion, Sparky.

"At one point, I turned to Joseph and said, 'My funeral service may come sooner than expected," Father Manny laughs. Not missing a beat, Father Joseph, who's 45 years younger and well known for his quick sense of humor and lively sermons, quipped, "That's OK; the homily is ready." On the contrary, the silver-haired septuagenarian Simas maintains an active pace, a razor-sharp mind and a delightful wit in leading the St. Joseph faith community. On Saturday, June 11, the parish will honor Father Manny's 50 years of service and ministry with a Golden Jubilee Celebration Mass and buffet lunch.

"A 50th anniversary is always a significant milestone, and all the more so when it celebrates exclusive dedication to the service of God," says Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, the bishop of the Oakland Diocese. "I am grateful to Monsignor Simas for his half-century of priestly ministry to the people of God here in the Diocese of Oakland. My prayers are with him on this happy occasion that the Lord might continue to bless him with the joy and gladness that Holy Scripture ascribes to those faithful in His service."

Born in Oakland, the son of devout Portuguese parents, who emigrated from the Azores, Manny was raised with two sisters, Elsie and Marlene, primarily in Berkeley. They spent virtually every summer at a family ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, where Manny developed a love of animals. He was a good student who considered a career in law or the priesthood. In his junior year at the University of California-Berkeley, he felt a strong call to enter religious life; a priest at St. Patrick's seminary in Menlo Park encouraged Manny to stay one more year and earn his college degree (in political science) before entering the seminary. Father Manny was ordained on June 10, 1961, in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, a year before the church established the Diocese of Oakland.

"I generally don't like to prioritize special events in my life, but to me, the most significant thing was being named a pastor and being of service to people," Father Manny says. "It was also special to celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary in 1976. My challenge since entering religious life is to be a good shepherd."

Helen Campbell, who heads the Pastoral Care Ministry at St. Joseph, notes, "Manny is the gentlest of souls, quiet, unassuming, gracious, polite, impeccable in behavior. His patience, kindness, empathy, understanding and compassion are legendary among our parish family. His wry sense of humor, combined with an ability to turn a pun, make him a joy in conversation. The only manner in which one can spot a pun coming is the twinkle in his eyes!"

Manny's love of animals from his youth continues today. Some parishioners refer to him as St. Francis of St. Joseph Parish, after the patron saint of animals. "Many a field mouse owes its existence to Manny's reluctance to use traps around the Church property," Campbell adds. "This occasionally leads to interesting encounters between humans and our small, pointy-nosed friends." Animals and the comic strip Peanuts have been special to Father Manny for years. He has been long-time admirer of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz since the late 1960s. "His work has been so reflective of the reality of life," Manny says. "I think I've identified with Snoopy and virtually all of the Peanuts characters at one time or another. I visited Mr. Schulz' ice rink and museum in Santa Rosa several years ago and almost met him, but he was eating lunch and I didn't want to bother him."

Because of a life-long interest in California history, Father Manny feels privileged that St. Joseph Parish is next door to and associated with Mission San Jose, one of the original 21 California missions, which celebrates the 214th anniversary of its founding the day after Manny's 50th year as a priest. "Mission San Jose is the place where the Gospel was first proclaimed in the East Bay," Manny says. "A visiting priest once told me, 'This is a place where the past touches the present, and the present touches the past.' It's a living mission, not just a historical place."

St. Joseph Parish also enjoys a close relationship with the broader religious community, including the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, just up the hill from the church (and the site of Father Manny's jubilee celebration), and the Sisters of the Holy Family. Being a priest doesn't exempt one from the emotional spectrum we all experience. In the past three years, both of Father Manny's sisters have died, and he officiated at both funeral masses. "The religious have the same emotions and feel the losses just like everyone else," he says. "That's where the parish family is so important with their presence and prayers. I have been able to be there for our parish community, and they have been there for me as well. That's what church is."

Father Manny, who turns 78 in August and who is the oldest pastor in the diocese, has no plans to retire or slow down. Forever humble, he hopes the diocese will continue to find a need for his service for many years. "Only God knows the plan," Manny says with a wink, "and He isn't telling."

For more information, contact Debbie Rossetto or (510) 656-0957; Donald Kaefer or (510) 656-2364, x103; or Helen Campbell or (510) 795-7958.

Father Manny's Golden Jubilee Celebration
Saturday, June 11
Mass begins at 10 a.m.
(Followed by a lunch buffet in the Parish Hall)
Dominican Sisters front lawn and olive grove
43326 Mission Blvd., Fremont
(510) 656-0957 or (510) 656-2364, x103 or (510) 795-7958

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