WILMINGTON — It was a very busy time for Father Matthew Mary of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross when he visited his hometown the first week of June.
On June 2, at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham, Ala., the man who grew up as Jake Bartow took the latest step in his faith development when he was ordained to the priesthood as a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word. He returned to Wilmington the following week to visit his family and friends, and to celebrate Mass for his supporters at two parishes in the diocese.
There were Masses at the home of his parents, James and Beverly, a visit with Bishop Malooly, a weekday Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, and another on Sunday, June 10, at his parents’ parish, Corpus Christi. It was pretty impressive for someone who didn’t become Catholic until his early 20s.
Father Matthew, 36, began the process of joining the Catholic Church in 2002. Growing up in north Wilmington, he said his family — which includes sisters Shannon and Beki, and brother Matt — were nondenominational, although they were Christians. They would pray before meals, and they learned the significance of various holidays, “but we never went to church on Sundays.”
His father regularly read the Bible and books about Christianity in the morning before going to work, and that made an impression on his son.
“I just remember being really impressed by that example that he set. I don’t think he even realized what he was doing,” Father Matthew said. “That started to kind of plant the seeds for me. I can’t say that I started to read the Bible on a regular basis after that, but I would pick it up now and then and try to research things.”
After graduating from Concord High School, the future priest studied chemistry at Delaware Technical and Community College while working full-time. During those early years after high school, he would read Scripture and realize that differing branches of Christianity offered varying interpretations of the same passages.
“I thought to myself, this doesn’t make sense that our Lord would leave us a Bible and give us no way of interpreting it. Or being able to understand the interpretation of Scripture. That was kind of in the back of my mind.”
During this same time, Beverly Bartow worked with Sue McLaughlin, a devout Catholic who happened to be the coordinator of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at IHM in Brandywine Hundred. They worked for a company that transcribed medical records, and the two of them began a prayer group for the people whose records they came across.
Beverly Bartow had been raised Catholic but had been away from the church for decades. McLaughlin told her about RCIA. Beverly did not go, but her four children attended a few sessions during Lent in 2002 to see what it was all about.
“We were just taken by the atmosphere there and the teachings. We were actually getting some solid teaching in the Christian faith. I just remember feeling myself that I was hungering for more of this,” Father Matthew said.
That fall, the four Bartow children enrolled in the program, and the following spring they entered the Catholic Church. Beverly followed soon after. James Bartow also eventually became Catholic as well.
Father Matthew eventually began attending daily Mass, and also the weekly Holy Hour at IHM. Thoughts of becoming a priest entered his mind.
“During Mass one day — and I had heard this many times — one of the prayer intentions was for more laborers to be sent out into the harvest,” he said. “At that one particular Mass, the thought occurred to me, what if this is what I’m being called for? I had never really thought about that before.”
When he decided that, yes, God was calling him to be a priest, he had to find out where that would be. He was living in north Wilmington and visited with the Capuchin Franciscans at their monastery a few blocks from his apartment. That was his first exposure to Franciscan spirituality, and it was very attractive.
He talked to the director of vocations for the Diocese of Wilmington, who advised him to look into other religious communities. His mother, a regular viewer of the Eternal Word Television Network, had one in mind.
“My mom told me, ‘I could see you as one of those smiling friars on EWTN. They’re always smiling all the time,’” he said.
Father Matthew visited the friars in Alabama twice in 2007, praying for a sign. During the second visit, he went for a walk with a postulant who told him that the friars liked him and thought he was a good fit with their community. He entered the postulancy in 2007.
All of the members of the community receive a new name when they become a novice and get their habit, and Father Matthew was no exception. He submitted three names to the superior — Stephen, Solanus and Thomas — but the superior felt inspired to give him “Matthew” instead, not knowing the future priest had a brother by that name.
“So when the name was announced, Brother Matthew Mary of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, you could hear my parents in the background,” he recalled with a chuckle. “It was very much of a surprise for them.”
James Bartow, whose informal morning Scripture study inspired his son, called it “a dream come true” to see his son go through his conversion and priestly studies.
“In a thousand years I never dreamed he would go as far as he has. The whole thing has been beautiful. I couldn’t be happier,” James Bartow said.
Father Matthew Mary’s first assignment is at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Ala., about an hour north of Birmingham. There, he will take care of the spiritual needs of the sisters who minister there and of the pilgrims who visit. He expects to celebrate Mass on EWTN once or twice a week, one of the smiling priests on television across the country.
Before his first Mass, which was in Birmingham the day after his ordination, he heard confessions, and now he is eager to hear more. His greatest wish is “to celebrate the sacraments and to bring Jesus to people.”