St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church welcomed a new vicar about seven months ago, after Father Don Nicholson passed away. Nicholson inherited an unsettled flock in 2010 after the abrupt departure of then pastor Alice Marcrum, who split away from the traditions practiced at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Parish, taking several long-time and much-loved parishioners with her to attempt to establish an Anglican parish. The split left the old church in tatters, both physically and spiritually. For years and years, St. Raphael’s was a bustling center of activities – many benevolent groups like the Beach Lions made great use of the parish hall. But after the split, with just a small core group to carry on, it was difficult to gather the troops and keep it going. But, they did. Their faith never wavered; their love of their church stayed strong. What they needed was someone who could minister to them, lead them to a new level of strength and resolve. Enter Dr. John Adler.
I have always loved being in church, ever since I was a kid. I loved the sermons, the discussions, the music (of course). Throughout my entire life I have eagerly sponged up as much history and understanding about all the major religious philosophies as I could. I was baptized in the Wesley Methodist Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, but I was raised in the Unitarian/Universalist way of developing my own relationship with God. I am equally comfortable in just about any house of worship, regardless of the physical trappings, especially if the priest, minister, rabbi or imam is obviously ministering from the heart.
I have been delighted again and again to make friends with our local clergy, although I have never become a member at any of their churches. Having spoken with most of them, I know that each and every one with whom I spoke (and here I must include the sisters at The Church of the Ascension), all experienced a ‘calling’ at some point in their lives, and eventually couldn’t ignore it.
Dr. Adler got the calling many times throughout his life. The first time, John got ‘a feeling about it’ while attending an all-boys military/Episcopal school. When he graduated, he joined the Army. After being accepted in flight school, the young Adler assumed he would be stationed in Germany or something one day. But the day he got his wings, he also got his marching orders to Viet Nam. He spent two tours of active duty with what he and his buddies called the PeeWee Airlines, flying drop, retrieve and rescue missions all over the war-torn country. He especially loved bringing the chaplains to the various locations set up for Christmas and Hannukah religious observances, and bringing all the special holiday food for the guys – a born minister. When he left for his first tour of duty in Viet Nam, his new wife Wanda was pregnant with their first child. When he came home for good, he was a Captain.
Disappointed in the types of jobs he could get after leaving the Army, Adler enrolled in the University of Chicago and earned his BA in Business Administration. Still not getting the job opportunities he wanted, he then put himself through Chicago-Kent College of Law, where he earned his Juris Doctorate. For over a dozen years, the father of two was a trial lawyer in Cook County, Illinois, taking on severe injury cases. He was very good at it, very successful. One day, a fellow lawyer in the practice asked him how his visit in the hospital had gone with one of their clients. After John described what had transpired, his friend said, “That’s not lawyering, John. That’s ministering.”
Soon after that, not needing yet another ‘bonk on the head’ from ‘upstairs’, Adler enrolled himself in Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, where he earned his Master of Divinity degree and subsequently, his Doctor of Ministry degree.
Shortly after earning his Master of Divinity degree, John and Wanda were visiting friends in the Sarasota area, and attended services at Saint Boniface Episcopal Church on Siesta Key. On their way home back to Illinois, they got a call from their friend, who said Saint Boniface had just lost their pastor due to poor health, and the friend encouraged him to apply for the position. He got it, and spent the next two years there. “It was a tough work environment,” says the vicar dryly.
Adler’s next venture, in 1991, was to found Saint Monica’s Episcopal Church in Naples, where he served as pastor until 1999. Next, he was the founding pastor of Iona-Hope Episcopal Church in Fort Myers, and retired from there in 2014. He has been taking care of the parishioners at Saint Raphael’s on Fort Myers Beach since fall of last year.
During his years in Southwest Florida, Adler has been very active with Lee Interfaith for Empowerment (LIFE), and currently serves on the Board of Directors. This organization is made up of nearly twenty different congregations who come to together to focus on justice issues, especially with regard to the youth of Lee County. When this group comes together, they select one area in which to hone their knowledge and activities with specific goals in mind.
Among the areas in which they have worked in conjunction with Lee County Schools and law enforcement agencies, are the expansion of mental health facilities for young people, and to encourage increased utilization of Civil Citations for young offenders.
After last Sunday’s well-attended service at St Raphael’s, everyone went over to the newly decorated and cheerful Parish Hall for coffee and fellowship, followed by a very interesting roundtable discussion among several of the parishioners and their vicar. It is clear the Saint Raphael’s flock has been energized and inspired by Adler and his wife – they both exude a can-do attitude with a nice sprinkle of humor and kindness.
Dr. Adler seems very ecumenical, rather than fiercely dogmatic, in his approach to his form of ministry. A tall, handsome man, Adler exudes strength of conviction without fire and brimstone. During the service on a recent Sunday, the vicar moved the lectern off the altar and into the center aisle of the sunlit church and delivered an inspiring sermon about what kind of love Jesus implored his disciples to feel and impart to the rest of mankind. It was obvious that he sought to feel and impart this unconditional love in his own life. One senses that his many life experiences inform his faith, his points of view. When you take a look at his journey to the pulpit, you see that is, indeed, the case.
Sunday services at St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church are held at 10 AM at 5601 Williams Drive, Fort Myers Beach.
3: Army pilot John Adler in the 1960’s. Photo provided.