BERGENFIELD, N.J. — The Very Rev. Fr. Joseph J. Allen has spent all 50 of his years as an ordained priest at the same church – St. Anthony Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bergenfield .
When he arrived, fresh out of seminary, he was advised to grow a beard because he looked too young to be a priest. All these years later, at 73, he still has the beard.
As well as 11 books on Orthodox theology to his name, and teaching credits, too, as he was a professor at two Orthodox seminaries.
For decades, Allen has led the Antiochan House of Studies, where laypeople come to learn as clergy do and clergy continue their education.
He's come a long way from his boyhood in Allentown, Pa., where he grew up in a family whose ancestors hailed from the Valley of Christians in Syria.
Though his scholarship is unquestioned, it’s his way with people that had parishioners this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of his ordination and the 60th of the historic parish.
“I love these people and I feel the love coming from them,” Allen said. “I grew up with them.”
Sometimes, he said, people affectionately address him as “FJ.” That’s all right with him. But when they call him “Father,” he’s especially moved since he realizes that, at this point, they’re actually relating to him as the father of the parish.
“Often, priests move around every couple of years,” he said. “I’ve heard some say, after three years, that they’ve done everything they can do in a community.
“But community never ends,” he added. “There are always new tasks and new challenges.”
Started in 1956 by eight families, St. Anthony’s is the first Pan-Orthodox church in the Western Hemisphere. That means the church welcomes people of the faith from all different ethnicities, including Greeks, Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians.
The church, now 200 families strong, attracts new families and grows from within, said Claudia Bogris, a parishioner of 25 years.
“When we were 40 years old, we were a one- or two-generation church,” she said. “Now, we’re getting to be, in some cases, a three- or four-generation church.”
Allen puts it this way -- he is now baptizing the children of people he baptized.
One of the beautiful things about having one pastor so long, Bogris said, is that he has ministered to the congregation through life’s good and bad times.
Allen agrees that’s a privilege but admits he still doesn’t like funerals.
“While the blessings are greater, the losses are also greater, too,” he said. “I know them all. They’re part of my family and I’m part of theirs.”