By Michelle Johnson
Special to The Texas Catholic
A decision made by one man nearly 40 years ago altered the lives of his family in such a way that the Catholic Church gained three generations of servants to the faith because of his choice.
Father James R. Sharp, 86, retired priest at St. Michael the Archangel of Garland, started his service in the clergy with the Episcopal faith while married to his college sweetheart, the late Beverly Kay. The couple had three children together. In 1980, Pope John Paul II approved a pastoral provision allowing non-Catholic priests to be ordained in the Catholic Church.
“I had always been attracted to ministry, so during my teaching career, I decided to go in the direction of ministry,” Father Sharp said. “It took about a year, then I was ordained in 1984 at Saint Bernard of Clairvaux Catholic Church in Dallas.”
Ultimately, his son, John K. Sharp, 63, and his grandson, John Paul Sharp, 44, would find themselves also in service to the Catholic Church, as parish general manager at St. Michael the Archangel and director of guidance at Bishop Lynch High School, respectively. Father Sharp’s great-granddaughter Abigail, 14, is an entering freshman at the school.
Father Sharp said that although the Episcopal and Catholic faiths are similar in ways, it became clear to him that it was time to leave when changes in the Episcopal church began to create differences between them. Then Father Sharp was welcomed to come to the Dallas diocese to complete his studies. Living in Grand Rapids, MI, and serving at Saint Paul Episcopal Church at the time, the family moved cross-country to follow his calling.
“The Dallas diocese had already indicated a willingness to accept Episcopal priests,” said Father Sharp, who was ordained a Catholic priest in April 1984. “There were five other applicants. We had to pass exams in certain areas before they would request ordination from Rome. We came here, cut ties; there were no guarantees given us.”
For a short time, Father Sharp served as the organist and choir director at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Richardson. He was assigned to St. Michael as parochial vicar, where he served for 10 years, then transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church of Garland for six years before returning to St. Michael until he retired nine years later in 2007.
Father Sharp’s son, John, grew up in the Episcopal church and was an active servant. Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, while his father was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Copenhagen, John even served as his father’s ordination when he was 15.
“I remember him going to seminary at night in Detroit,” John said. “Being a kid, it seemed like every night. It was almost two hours there and back. I was in my early teens. He got me involved in the Episcopal church. When he would do a service, I would always serve; I got to carry incense and wear a special cape.”
John and his wife, Barbara, moved to Dallas in 1984 to be near his parents. Although still Episcopal, they soon began the process of converting to his father’s new faith. Barbara went through RCIA at St. Michael the Archangel.
“She decided first and we came to Mass just about every week,” he said. The couple agreed they would raise their son and daughter, Amanda, in the Church.
Serendipitously, their son John Paul was born the May before the pope of his same namesake was ordained in October. He would grow up celebrating his sacraments under the tutelage of his grandfather, also his priest.
The middle Sharp man was a police officer for 18 years and jokes that it prepared him well for his current role as general manager, but being the son of one of the few married priests in the diocese comes with its own degree of fun.
“I have enjoyed this a lot,” he said. “It’s a little bit of celebrity. For this job, I interviewed with a committee, and was immediately introduced as Father Sharp’s son. I have certainly left my mark on this parish. It’s a far cry from law enforcement but the running joke is that the best training I ever had for this job was my hostage negotiating training. This has been rewarding. I have enjoyed that people remembered me from 30 years ago.”
The elder Sharps opened their home to their grandson as well, during his college years while he contemplated what direction he wanted his life to take. In 2000, working on his bachelor’s degree, he found himself needing a different scene, so he turned to his grandparents. Although earning his degree in psychology in 2002, he worked in the cell phone industry for about 10 years. He said he didn’t feel fulfilled so he went back to school for his master’s degree of arts in professional counseling.
“I had to complete a practicum,” he said. “I was a counselor at a domestic violence agency, then accepted a job as director of battering intervention services at Hope Store, now called New Beginning Center. I was there five years, had a team, ran groups all week, but I left because I had kind of a change of heart about the approach. What I thought was more impactful was not supported. Once you work with and get accredited by the state, you don’t get to be creative with your approach, so I got fully licensed for private practice. I still do a couple nights a week and Saturdays of faith-based Christian counseling.”
But Bishop Lynch High School came calling. His graduate internship at the school in 2002 left an impression on him and on the school. He said he always kept an eye on the school and coming back some day. When the opportunity arose, he took a counseling position, then started as director of guidance this past June. He and his wife, Shauna, always wanted their daughter to have Catholic education. Now father and daughter will be at the same school, serving the faith.
The circuitous paths father and son took to ultimately serve the Catholic Church echoed that of grandfather, so many decades ago.
“From growing up with these two, it’s not always a direct ‘A to B’ path,” John Paul said. “To be able to make those pivots in life to follow a calling… that’s been something I’ve learned from these two.”
Father Sharp’s indirect path to the Church wove through not only ministry, but teaching and music. A bachelor of music in organ performance led to a master’s degree in organ. His wife, also a master’s academic, chose library science as her education and profession, working in the Dallas Independent School District for decades.
While father and son have and will leave their own legacies in the Catholic Church, both are quick to celebrate one of grandfather’s shining gifts to the Church. The pipe organ at St. Michael the Archangel was funded nearly single-handedly by Father Sharp’s fundraising efforts. He found creative ways to inspire people to give, and was so successful in his efforts at private fundraising that the parish’s contribution only required the final 5 percent. The second and third generation Sharp men call the organ “his legacy, his labor of love.”
“I doubt that there have been three generations working in the diocese at the same time, especially in leadership roles,” John R. Sharp said fondly, comfortably seated between his father and his son.