MANCHESTER — In his five years as a religion teacher at Trinity High School, Andrew Nelson inspired hundreds of students to become active in their Roman Catholic faith, frequently through food drives and volunteer activities.
So when Nelson, who will be ordained a priest on Saturday, holds his first Mass at Ste. Marie Church, he is asking anyone attending to bring a bag of groceries. All food collected will be turned over to St. Vincent de Paul, a social service agency connected with the Catholic church.
“The hour’s easy,” Nelson, 34, said about the Sunday mass obligation for Catholics. But, he said, activities such as food collections and other forms of volunteerism can bring Catholic communities together in a deeper sense, similar to the way a barn-building does in an Amish community.
“There’s something special, something sacred, about being part of something,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “Together, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.”
Nelson’s ordination Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Joseph Cathedral. His first Mass is slated for 2 p.m. Sunday at Ste. Marie Church, where he has been a deacon.
Nelson becomes a priest the same year that a new Pope, Pope Francis, was seated and started to emphasize simplicity. Earlier this month, Francis bemoaned “starched Catholics” who calmly discuss theology over tea rather than “courageous Catholics” who seek out the less fortunate.
That spirit appears to be alive in Nelson.
Sue Royce, the mother of a 2008 Trinity graduate, recalls spending a week in a summer with Nelson, 10 Trinity students and their parents. They worked at an organic farm that grew food for the needy. They distributed meals and food at New Horizons soup kitchen. They sorted donated goods for Families in Transition. They cleared trails for a therapeutic riding facility.
“It was a hot and tiring week, but one of the best and most rewarding weeks of my life,” said Royce, Manchester resident and parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena.
Nelson said Catholics are called to witness the Gospel, and giving to the needy is profound act of love and faith.
“There’s something sacred in that encounter,” he said.
He will be the third priest to be ordained since the Most Rev. Peter Libasci became New Hampshire bishop two years ago, and some indications point to an uptick in priestly vocations.
The Georgetown University-based Center for the Research of the Apostolate shows the number of annual ordinations in the United States rising about 10 percent since 2000, from 442 to 480 last year.
And the Diocese of Manchester, which encompasses the entire state of New Hampshire, counts 12 seminarans, including Nelson. Four years ago, it had eight men studying to be priests.
“We are currently accepting new seminarians at a faster rate than we are ordaining them,” said Kevin Donovan, spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester. But like many other dioceses, New Hampshire is seeing priests retire at a faster rate than seminarians are being ordained, he said.
Nelson grew up in Brookfield, the son of a now-retired Rochester middle school teacher and social worker. His father, Bill Nelson, is a Republican state representative who represents towns in the Ossipee-Brookfield area.
Nelson graduated from Kennett High School in North Conway and St. Anselm College. He earned a master’s degree from Notre Dame University, and worked off the tuition by teaching at Catholic schools in Biloxi, Miss., before taking a teaching job at Trinity High School.
He also did odd jobs, including an occasional freelance piece for the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“I always envisioned myself getting married and having a family,” Nelson said. “I loved teaching. That was the path I felt was the one for me.”
But he said a whisper in his heart kept directing him toward the priesthood. He entered the seminary to explore that whisper.
“When I came to accept it,” Nelson said, “there was a profound sense of peace. That peace has remained.”