For several years prior, there was very little activity in the long-standing parish, formed back in 1887. The last two pastors were elderly men who didn't concentrate enough on the day-to-day operations of the parishioners. St. Lawrence needed a complete revitalization, and the energetic Emery seemed to be the perfect ingredient.
As it turned out, he was.
"I knew there were challenges ahead, but I had hopes and dreams," said Emery, who leaves St. Lawrence this week to become the new Vicar General for the entire Archdiocese, becoming the second in the chain of command behind Archbishop John Myers. "I felt this sense of kinship right away with the people of St. Lawrence. They gave me the opportunity to accomplish a lot of things."
During his tenure, Emery instituted many different groups and ministries, like getting more teenagers involved in charitable activities. The number of parish families increased from around 600 to over 1,000. There was a vibrant sense of life and accomplishment, especially after funds were raised to build a $2 million parish center two years ago.
The parish center will always remain as Emery's legacy to the parish.
"That's a nice way to look at things," said the 42-year-old Emery, who has already assumed his new position with the Archdiocese, but will have his farewell Mass at St. Lawrence next Sunday at 12 noon. "Getting a new parish center was a dream when I first came here. It was so desperately needed, but I never thought it could happen. It really became a dream come true, thanks to the work of the great people who responded to the challenge."
Emery was perfectly content to remain as the pastor at St. Lawrence. He has been considered a rising star in the eyes of the Archdiocese of Newark, because he previously had served as the secretary to former Archbishop Theodore McCarrick on two separate occasions. Emery had also been serving the role as a Vice Chancellor of Canon Law with the Archdiocese over the last 18 months, working with the several sexual abuse allegations that the Archdiocese has had to deal with during that time.
But he had no idea that he would be asked to become the No. 2 man in the Archdiocese, when Bishop Arthur Serratelli was promoted to the rank of Bishop for the Paterson diocese.
"I got a phone call a month ago that Archbishop Myers wanted to see me, but I had no idea what it was about," Emery said. "When he asked me about becoming the vicar general, it came as a big surprise. I knew that they were going to have to replace Bishop Serratelli, but I didn't think it would be me. I was surprised to be asked. I knew I had the qualifications, but I thought my age would play against me. Vicar generals tend to be in their 50s. None have been as young as I am, so that's why it was so much of a surprise."
Emery didn't take long to respond to the Archbishop's request.
"My immediate reaction was of course to say yes," Emery said. "I was so honored to be even asked. I know the significance of the appointment and what it entails."
However, a few hours after jumping at the chance to take the position, Emery's mind began to wander.
"Later on that day, I was reflecting and I had mixed emotions, knowing that I would be leaving the people of St. Lawrence," Emery said. "I know that some people would have a sense of being melancholy, like they were losing a family member. I got a call from [Weehawken] Mayor [Richard] Turner, who told me that the whole town felt like it was in mourning because I was leaving. I really had become a part of the community."
Not only was Emery the pastor of the township's lone Roman Catholic parish, but he was also the chaplain for the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue and the Weehawken Police Department.
"It's a tremendous loss to the St. Lawrence community and to Weehawken," Turner said. "Father Bob has become an active member of the community. He was influential in the rebuilding of St. Lawrence Parish. He was instrumental in the building of their parish center. It was a goal of his when he arrived, and he saw it to completion. He was the chaplain for public safety. His appointment is a wonderful acknowledgement to his accomplishments and we wish him well. I got to know him both on a professional and personal basis."
The parishioners feel a sense of loss with Emery's departure.
"Any time you lose someone as respected and as admired Father Bob is, it's a loss," said Matt Cheplic, a member of the parish council and the cantor for Sunday Masses. "I guess it's a bittersweet feeling. On one hand, we're sad to see him go, but on the other hand, it's such a prestigious appointment. It's like we're losing a member of our family. He's been very agreeable to work for, and I couldn't have asked for someone better." Emery leaves St. Lawrence to take on a role as "basically the chief operations officer of the Archdiocese," as he calls it. He will oversee the day-to-day operations, the ministries, programs and agencies of the Archdiocese, which encompasses 1.4 million Roman Catholics in Essex, Hudson, Bergen and Union Counties. Emery is taking over at a time where the entire Archdiocese is in a severe financial crunch, with several grammar schools being closed and parishes either being consolidated or shut down.
"It's definitely challenging, because it is such an emotional issue, closing parishes, schools," Emery said. "We have an executive committee in place examining those parishes. But we have to be able to more forward."
St. Lawrence Parish is already moving ahead. A new pastor has been assigned to St. Lawrence. Rev. Gary Ward, who has been serving as the assistant pastor at St. Andrew's Parish in Bayonne, will take over as the new pastor at St. Lawrence Aug. 10.
"We have to hope the things that Father Bob put into motion continue with the new pastor, that he can continue the momentum," Cheplic said. "The test of any parish is what they're willing to do. I'd like to see the people of the parish continuing to step up and have the same enthusiasm they had with Father Bob."
But Emery will be missed.
"I got so involved with the community," Emery said. "I really felt like I had become a part, going to baseball games and football games, outside of the parish. I was so happy to be a part of Weehawken and I'm going to miss that. And the love, warmth and support of the great people of St. Lawrence's, that's what I'll remember the most. The people of St. Lawrence's accomplished so much. We did it together."
But it was Emery's leadership that steered the parish in the right direction.