The Rev. George J. Werner was such a respected, insightful priest that other clergymen — and even bishops — went to him for spiritual direction and confession, according to members of his religious order.
He played a key role in building the Montfort Missionaries’ minor seminary in Bay Shore, which today is a retreat center, and was a former provincial superior, or leader, of the priests and brothers in the United States. At one point in the early 1980s, he was jailed for a couple of days in revolutionary Nicaragua, where the group has a mission.
Werner, 86, who served as a priest for 59 years, died Saturday at the center. A funeral Mass is scheduled for Wednesday at 11 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Bay Shore.
Werner was “a strong influence in my life,” said the Rev. Francis Pizzarelli, head of Hope House Ministries, the Port Jefferson center that works with recovering drug and alcohol abusers. “He was an extraordinary mentor” and a “dynamic preacher, one of those few in our midst who could really engage you when he said Mass.”
Werner, he added, “was a great confessor. Bishops came to him for confession. That’s the kind of man he was. But very humble.”
The Rev. Thomas Poth, the current head of the Montfort Missionaries Bay Shore center, said Werner was “a great guy who really just spoke the truth. He was much to the point, in a wonderful way. That’s why people came to him for spiritual direction . . . He was right on the money.”
Over the decades, he became well-known to Long Island’s Catholic parishioners and priests as a longtime part of a mission team that preached at churches throughout the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
“My sense is that Father Werner was one of the quiet but fundamental priests for our diocese,” Bishop William Murphy said. “He always brought calm and peace wherever he exercised his ministry. No one of us can ever know fully how much he gave spiritual and pastoral direction to the priests and people that kept us as a church headed in the right direction.”
Werner grew up in Ozone Park, Queens, in the parish of St. Mary Gate of Heaven, which was run by Montfort priests. He joined the order as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1957.
The Montforts are a worldwide order that first arrived in the United States in 1903, starting their work in Port Jefferson. Today they have about 1,000 religious brothers and priests in 27 countries.
Early in his career, Werner was asked to spearhead fundraising and construction of a new Montfort seminary in Bay Shore. It served as a minor seminary for teenagers and young men considering the priesthood, and later was turned into the Montfort Spiritual Center for retreats and conferences.
From 1963 to 1968, he served in Hartford City, Indiana, as a novice master, overseeing the formation of aspiring Montfort priests. He returned to Ozone Park in 1969, serving as associate pastor at his home parish and also for several years as vocation director for the Montforts.
By 1979, he was elected provincial superior of the Montforts in the United States, serving until 1985. During that time he was detained in Nicaragua during a trip to the group’s mission there, said Poth, a longtime missionary in the Central American nation that then was roiled by the Sandinista revolution. It was not clear why Werner was detained, but nothing came of it, Poth said.
In 1986, he returned to Ozone Park, where he served as pastor of St. Mary Gate of Heaven Roman Catholic Church until 1994. His final assignment, for the rest of his life, was the Montfort center in Bay Shore.
Until a couple of years ago, when he well into his 80s, Werner still could be seen riding a tractor to mow the property’s extensive lawn, Pizzarelli said. It was typical of the way the priest operated, he said.
At his home parish of St. Mary Gate of Heaven, where Pizzarelli helped out years ago, “after we would have a fundraising event, he would be in the thick of it with us, in his jeans on his knees scrubbing the floor,” Pizzarelli said. “Nothing was beneath him.”
Werner is survived by his brother, Larry Werner of New Smyrna Beach, Florida.