Merrick Bednar was one of nine siblings who all grew up in and around Olean, NY. A beloved son and brother with a passion for cars and sports (particularly the Buffalo Bills, the Buffalo Sabres, and the New York Yankees), Merrick was an intelligent, talented, wise, fun-loving, and faith-filled person whose vocation to the priesthood was nurtured during his high school years at Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean. President of his senior class, a member of the National Honor Society, a presence at nearly all Walsh high school sporting events of his day, and all-around nice guy, Merrick held his Walsh experience in high regard.
After graduating near the top of his class, Merrick opted to pursue his calling to the priesthood by attending Wadham's Hall Seminary College in Ogdensburg, NY. During his sophomore year there, he became seriously ill after coming down with what he thought was a case of the flu. He ultimately was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative heart disease, and underwent two pacemaker surgeries during his remaining years at Wadhams Hall. Through strength of mind, body, and spirit, he was able to resume an active lifestyle and earned his bachelor's degree with honors from Wadhams Hall in May 1985, as originally planned.
From there, Merrick enrolled in Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, NY. Near the end of his first year (spring 1986), his health deteriorated quickly and it was determined that his only option for improved health would be a new and healthier heart. After consultation with doctors, the then 22-year-old was placed on a national donor list for a new heart. After waiting less than 45 days, Merrick underwent heart transplant surgery at the University of Pittsburgh's Presbyterian University Hospital on July 26, 1986 - just 11 days after his 23rd birthday. By all accounts, his recovery was nothing short of miraculous. In less than three weeks, he was able to return to the Olean area, and in September resume his graduate studies in theology at Christ the King.
Merrick's "second chance" at life - made possible through the incredible generosity of an anonymous donor he called "Lucas" - gave him renewed health and vigor, and for obvious reasons turned him into a strong advocate for organ and tissue donation. This amazing gift of life led to seven healthy years during which he graduated from Christ the King, was ordained a deacon, and on May 12, 1990, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Buffalo.
After his ordination, he was assigned to St. Bernadette's Parish - a parish he grew to love very much, and a parish that loved him back. His contributions to the parish were many. He related extremely well to all his parishioners, but developed a special relationship with its teens.
In the summer of 1993, Merrick faced another serious challenge to his health when he was diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoma, a form of cancer caused by the daily medications he took to avoid rejection of his transplanted heart. After months of hospitalization, aggressive therapy, and prayer, Merrick's cancer went in to remission - amazing even his most optimistic doctors.
At the urging of his doctors, Merrick realized that he had to slow down the pace of his often hectic life for the good of his own health. So after five well-spent years at St. Bernadette's, he took a new assignment in the fall of 1995 as the chaplain at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Tonawanda, NY. He loved this assignment, too, particularly because it allowed him to continue his ministry with the youth of Western New York.
In early 1996, yet another life-and-death health crisis came Merrick's way: He was diagnosed with a pre-leukemic condition (again a result of his previous health conditions and treatments), for which the only cure was a successful bone marrow transplant. After tests of all his siblings identified a suitable match, Merrick underwent this transplant on May 14 and 15, 1996, with bone marrow from his younger brother, Martial. At that time, Merrick made medical history: His doctors in Pittsburgh believed he was the first heart transplant recipient to ever undergo bone marrow transplantation.
Merrick's "life of miracles" continued with the success of his bone marrow transplant. After the lengthy process and recovery, he was able to return to Cardinal O'Hara in a limited capacity during the fall of 1996. However, this transplant had taken its toll on his transplanted heart - which by this time was over 10 years old. He was hospitalized permanently for his ailing heart in February 1997, and again was placed on a national waiting list for a donor heart. During this most difficult time, Merrick continued to minister to other sick people in the hospital, offering them peace, comfort, and hope. As the weeks of waiting for a suitable match turned into months, Merrick's life - but not his spirit - came to an end at the age of 33. His untimely death on May 12, 1997 came, most remarkably, on the seventh anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. His beautiful and uplifting funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Bernadette's - his priestly "home" - by Bishop Henry Mansell, with more than 100 priests and 1,000 mourners in attendance.
Despite a life filled with many challenges, Merrick always believed his life was an incredible and precious gift - one that showed the true goodness of God. He chose to live his life with integrity, intensity, and an abundant gratitude for all he had been given. In an interview with a television reporter, Merrick was once asked how he'd been able to cope with all of the struggles he had endured. His answer was simple yet profound: "The power of positive thinking combined with the power of prayer...can work miracles," he said. He was living proof.
Fr. Merrick Bednar was an outstanding, inspiring, dedicated, and beloved priest - and a great source of pride for his entire family. He made a difference in the countless number of lives he touched and became an inspiration to all who knew him. With his zest for life, a wonderful sense of humor, a true concern for others, and an unshakable faith, he seized each day and lived it to the fullest.
His time as a priest was indeed a gift for him and for us all.
Written by Martial Bednar