Father James Worth, Pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Maplewood, is getting back to work after surviving a massive heart attack.
Upon his return to saying Mass in February, he came down the center aisle, beaming but cautious, connecting with friends and family. He took the steps to the altar, approached the microphone, turned and looked out into the crowd.
“It’s so nice to be home,” he said.
And with that, Father James Worth, Pastor of St. Joseph’s Roman-Catholic parish in Maplewood, was back, saying Mass, cracking jokes and singing as though it was just another Sunday at the office.
That Feb. 4 Mass was so much more than that. It was the first time the priest, in his fourth year as the pastor at St. Joe’s, had been on the pulpit since he suffered a massive heart attack, endured nine hours of quintuple-bypass surgery the day after Thanksgiving, thanks to Dr. Ravi Karanan at Newark Beth Israel Hospital, and underwent rehabilitation and recovery for more than two months.
“My first Mass was the Family Mass, and I could just feel a love and happiness from the whole congregation like I never had before,” Worth said. “It’s an amazing feeling that you don’t get too often in this life. I had felt such a tremendous outpouring of support from the moment I went into the hospital, but there, in person, I was humbled. I felt as though I was lucky enough to prove to people that their prayers can be answered.”
A few weeks removed from that initial return, the 53-year-old Worth is easing his way back into rhythm with the demands of being the sole full-time priest at the parish. He is saying Mass a few times each week and gradually picking up the administrative and public-facing duties that come with the job. Worth also appreciates the efforts of St. Joe’s administrative assistant Jeanine Garaban, Father Charles Granstrand (a Retired Priest in Residence at St. Rose of Lima) and other priests who picked up his schedule, and a long list of parishioners who volunteered to take on myriad tasks to help keep the parish running. Worth had one of his sisters, Donna Arentz, and her husband, Jim, staying with him at the St. Joseph’s rectory and getting him back through rehab and recovery.
“This heart attack was a second lease on life for me,” Worth said. “I have been dealing with diabetes for 15 years. I was not feeling like myself for some time, but I thought it was because I was getting older, so I just kept pushing through it. I thought that it was easier to do it all myself. I see now what a mistake that is.”
Worth connects with everyone around him, at St. Joseph and throughout the Maplewood-South Orange community, offering a frequent “God bless you” and check on people’s well being. He thought that bought him some “street cred” with the powers that be above the clouds.
“I always imagined that nothing could happen to me because the Lord has so much for me to do,” Worth said with a shake of his head. “He certainly has plans for me, but it took this scare to deliver my epiphany. Now I can’t ignore it. I have to follow the right diet, take my medicine, and learn to let others help me. I can’t ignore the epiphany; I have to be held to a higher accountability.”
“What good is preaching it for others if I don’t do it myself?” he asked. “My father was a construction worker. He died of a massive heart attack — from a condition nicknamed ‘The Widowmaker,’ which it turns out I inherited — when he was 57. My mother’s father and one of her brothers died in their late 50s and early 60s. I knew this and didn’t pay attention.”
All too often when preparing for funerals, Worth hears the stories of people gone too soon. He knows that he is one of the lucky ones.
“Many people make these deals with God when they have scares like this,” Worth said. “Or they say, ‘I gave up my life for you, please don’t take mine.’ I didn’t give up my life for my calling, for this parish. I made this my life. I realize how much I missed saying Mass, how much more I have to do. Even better, I know why I want to do it.”
On a recent morning, the man simply known as “Father Jim” was greeted every few feet by people in their cars, walking down the street. Once inside his “home away from home,” the Park Wood Diner on Springfield Avenue, he got rock-star attention from waitresses, busboys, passing diners. On the way out, he chatted with the cashier, Irene, who chuckled through his “Good night, Irene” quip as he passed through the glass double-doors and into the bright, warming sunshine.
“That would have been funnier if we hadn’t just finished breakfast,” he said with a hearty laugh. Then he greeted a string of well-wishers passing by outside.
With a nod of gratitude to many – and One in particular — he knows that he’s been given the chance to work on some new material.