Compassionate shepherd laid to rest

By Jean Gonzalez

A humble, prayerful, non-assuming servant of the Lord who reminded people it’s all about love was remembered, celebrated and mourned Oct. 2.

The Catholic community of St. Augustine and beyond bid a prayerful goodbye to Bishop John J. Snyder, eighth bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine, who died Sept. 27 at the age of 93. His funeral Mass, held Oct. 2 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, drew Florida bishops, including main celebrant Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, Bishop Felipe Estévez, 10th bishop of St. Augustine, Bishop William Wack of Pensacola-Tallahassee, and Bishop John Noonan of Orlando. Bishops who had formerly served in the North Florida diocese also celebrated, including Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Ala., and Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen, auxiliary bishop of Orange, Calif. Bishop Victor Galeone, who served St. Augustine after Bishop Snyder, wanted to be at the event, but was dissuaded to travel because of his health.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami (photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The task of the eulogy, at the request of Bishop Snyder, came upon Redemptorist Father Glenn Parker, who quickly pointed out, “Bishop Jack was my uncle and I was his nephew.” The priest joked that he tried to get out of the awesome task of speaking about a man beloved by him and by all. But he couldn’t say no to his friend, mentor, and, in the “African American tradition, my prayer partner.”

“With that smile he says to me, ‘Nephew, preach the Gospel, be short and to the point,” Father Parker recalled. “And so that is what I will do.”

Perhaps what was most fitting about the eulogy about a shepherd with such a compassionate heart and honest smile was that it garnered smiles and laughter from the faithful gathered in the packed cathedral. One story Father Parker shared was when he met the bishop as a newly ordained priest when he first came to serve in the Diocese of St. Augustine. Like Bishop Snyder, Father Parker is a handful of inches above five feet, something that did not get unnoticed by the shepherd.

“When we met face-to-face, he said, ‘Now I have a priest I can see eye-to-eye with,’” Father Parker recalled. “I did not know just how much those words would unfold as the years went by … Whenever we encountered Bishop Jack, we encountered love. He loved and our lives are enriched all the more.”

Then Father Parker followed the wishes of the bishop and he focused on the Gospel preached at the Mass from Matthew. The passage reflected upon teaching the Christian community to prepare for the second coming of Jesus by taking personal responsibility not just for their service but their neighbors and be their primary source for love. He built five retirement homes for low-income elderly, a nursing home and a retirement home for priests, where he spent his final days.

That Gospel also fueled the bishop’s passion to serve those who might be forgotten, through prayer and action. He offered positions of leadership for women, he opened the door for clergy and religious, he had special places in his heart for those facing physical and mental challenges, farmworkers, immigrants and refugees, the homeless and members of the gay and lesbian communities.

Redemptorist Father Glenn Parker (photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The bishop also visited those in prison for many years, including death row inmates. Following the bishop’s death, Father Parker received a letter from a death row inmate, who wrote upon hearing of “Bishop Jack’s” passing, the men on the row prayed together for their elderly shepherd.

“He established Camp I Am Special for persons with disabilities. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he reached out to those with HIV and AIDS, before others might have. He always looked and saw Christ in all of them, for he heard what Matthew said, ‘Do for my least brothers and sisters.’ He gave water to drink; he welcomed the stranger; he welcomed all of us; he clothed us and visited us,” Father Parker said. “This humble servant is an icon for us of the love we find in First Corinthians; love that is patient, kind and not jealous.”

Smiling wide, Father Parker closed his eulogy by turning his attention to the casket at the front of the cathedral. “Eternal rest to you, Uncle Jack. See you in heaven when we will see each other eye-to-eye again.”

The picture painted of Bishop Snyder was one Nancy Ellis knew well. She served as his administrative assistant for 10 years and helped as his caregiver for 30 years. She described the Mass as “everything he would have loved,” from the music, to the singing to the message.

“He was a very joyful, selfless person, and he had a good life,” she said. “He did a lot of good for the diocese. People recognized the joyfulness in his smile, and he was joyful all the time.”

Birmingham’s Bishop Baker said the Gospel for the Mass was perfect for Bishop Snyder. Traveling from Alabama, Bishop Baker had served as rector of the cathedral for 13 years between 1984 and 1997. When asked what he learned from Bishop Snyder that he used in his own episcopacy, Bishop Baker talked about Bishop Snyder’s ability to see the “big picture.”

“He had a perspective of a wider picture. So many of us just concentrate on the problems of the present, without looking at the wider picture. But he never lost sight of that,” Bishop Baker said. “He always had composure, a peace. And he challenged me to be a better pastor.”

Bishop Robert Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham at Bishop John Snyder’s committal at San Lorenzo Cemetery in St. Augustine. (photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

Sister Betty Jeanne Kramer drove with members of the L’Arche in Jacksonville, a community serving those with mental and physical needs that Bishop Snyder helped establish in the area years ago. Sister Kramer knew Bishop Snyder in the later years of his life when she arrived in Florida in 2010. “What they said at Mass was true. Whenever I ran into him, he knew who I was,” said the sister who serves as an assistant to the day training program at L’Arche. “This service, what a tribute to him. Those who spoke got to the heart of who he was.”

When asked to describe him, Sister Kramer immediately spoke of his generous spirit. Although retired, Bishop Snyder visited during retreats held at Marywood. He was not a stranger to stopping by the community and sharing a meal.

“These people with me knew him,” she said, pointing to the members with a range of physical and mental challenges. “We need more people like him. He should be not one and all. He is one among many, but we should carry his love and spirit and example.”

Maurice Beaulieu contributed to this report.