Msgr. James E. Mortimer, 91, of Darby Borough, an educator who became the pastor of the Church of St. William in Lawncrest, died Saturday, Feb. 2, of dementia at Holy Redeemer Hospital.
Msgr. Mortimer spent the initial phase of his priesthood as a history and music teacher, first at St. Thomas More High School and then at Cardinal Dougherty High School, where he organized its famous marching band and became its leader.
In 1966, he took the band to Europe. It performed for Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, before Princess Grace of Monaco, and before Prince Bernhard and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The band also won first place in the World Music Contest at Kerkrade, Netherlands.
In 1968, Msgr. Mortimer became the principal of St. Pius X High School in Pottstown. During his almost four-year tenure, he doubled the size of the facilities on the campus. The high school also qualified for its first Middle States accreditation.
Starting in 1971, he was principal at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County. Under his guidance, the school became coed and in 1973 it, too, earned Middle States accreditation.
In 1976, Msgr. Mortimer was involved in the planning and programs of the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. He was named an honorary prelate to Pope Paul VI and a monsignor.
His most challenging assignment came in June 1980, when Msgr. Mortimer took over as pastor of St. William Church in Lawncrest. The blue-collar parish had mushroomed after World War II, but by 1980 it was experiencing change as young African American, Latino, Haitian, and Pakistani families moved into the neighborhood.
Msgr. Mortimer welcomed the new arrivals, calling them “my people,” said Tom Kinka, a longtime friend and parishioner. The cleric was determined to meet the needs of his new flock for worship and schooling. “He was an amazing man that was driven to serve his people,” Kinka said.
When a group of the parish’s kindergartners were left unsupervised by adults in a parking lot of a nearby school, Kinka said, the monsignor was furious. He asked Kinka and other parishioners to build him a school.
“Between June 15 and Aug. 15, we built him a two-room schoolhouse from scratch,” Kinka said. The school opened in September with colorful carpets showing Disney characters.
“He was a motivator,” Kinka said. “He looked at the carpet and said, ‘My kids are going to like this.’ That’s the way he felt about the students and the parish.”
The monsignor didn’t stop there. He acquired a nearby hospital annex, gutted it, and had it refurbished to hold 18 classrooms for first graders. When the children showed up in the fall, they saw statues of “little kids” like themselves in the lobby, Kinka said.
As a young mother confronted cancer, she told Msgr. Mortimer she needed a place to talk to God at odd hours. “That’s how the Chapel of Perpetual Devotion got built on the back of the church,” Kinka said. It is open all the time.
“James Mortimer tried his best to fulfill that role as shepherd,” Kinka said.
Msgr. Mortimer left St. William with the title of pastor emeritus in 2002. When he retired, he rarely sat still. Instead, he said Mass at other area Catholic parishes so the resident pastors could get away. He was a confessor at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France for 15 years.
Born in Wissinoming to James and Ellen Mortimer, he attended St. Joseph’s Preparatory School until June 1944. In what would have been his senior year, he entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood. He was ordained a priest in May 1952 by Archbishop Francis O’Hara.