1/1/2014Michael C. Gabriele
It was, at first glance, just another large family gathering on a Sunday afternoon in the suburbs of central New Jersey. On a breezy October day, guys gathered around the television to watch football; children played in the backyard, kicking balls through the fallen leaves; and women visited throughout the house, talking and sharing photos.
However, this family gathering was far from ordinary. It was the backdrop for an incredible reunion, a celebration of two long-lost brothers, reconnected after being separated for more than seven decades.
The day began with Mass at nearby St. Augustine of Canterbury Church in Kendall Park, with Father Charles Fuld of the Diocese of San Diego serving as celebrant. Addressing the parishioners, he said, “It’s an absolute delight to celebrate this liturgy with you today at the invitation of my newfound brother, Robert Mate, and his family.”
Later, the celebration shifted to Bob Mate’s home in North Brunswick, and the brothers recounted the striking family resemblances they had recently discovered. Though the brothers clearly shared physical characteristics, their fraternal bonds ran even deeper. Living apart for more than 75 years, each man had embraced the Catholic faith, joined the Knights of Columbus and even served in leadership roles with his respective state council.
Charles Fuld and Robert Mate were born three years apart in New York City: Charles on Nov. 4, 1933, and Robert on July 12, 1936. Their mother, Theresa Mate, worked as a live-in domestic and sought assistance to care for the two boys.
As a baby, Charles stayed with the Fuld family in the Bronx. Robert spent time at the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity, before he was placed with a foster family on Long Island. For a time, Theresa did her best to make ends meet and visited each child as often as possible. Finally, no longer able to shoulder the burden, she agreed to have the Fuld family adopt Charles.
Charles and Robert have the same birth father, but neither knew him, and until recently, each was completely unaware of the other’s existence.
“I never knew I had a brother not even the slightest idea,” Father Fuld said during the October family festivities in New Jersey. In fact, he has only a dim memory of seeing his mother for the last time at a courthouse in the Bronx when the adoption agreement was finalized. “The Fuld family wanted me, but at the time the only thing I could think of was: Why didn’t my mother want to keep me? I had the idea that I wasn’t ‘good enough.’ Today, I can appreciate the stress that my mother must have gone through.”
Robert Mate noted that it was not uncommon for people during that time to be so poor that they couldn’t afford to feed their children. He added, “You’ll never understand our story about why my brother and I were separated and why my mother did what she did unless you understand what it was like to be brought up during the Great Depression.”
Theresa Mate eventually married and reunited with Robert when he was 14 years old. But the two “lost” brothers set off on separate life journeys.
Charles graduated from New York University in 1955 and entered Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. He was commissioned as an ensign one year later. He married Elaine Gibbons on Oct. 5, 1957, and spent 20 years in the Navy, retiring with the rank of commander. The couple had three children (Theresa, Linda and Michael) and for a period of time lived in Hawaii and Long Beach, Calif., before eventually landing in San Diego. Elaine died in 1969, leaving Charles to raise the children as a single father.
Following his wife’s death, Charles became involved in community organizations. One night, on his way home from a Boy Scout meeting, he drifted off into a pensive mood. “I stopped and said to myself: ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ My very next thought was: ‘Well, I know I’m certainly not going to become a priest!’”
Those curious existential reflections stuck with Charles, who soon became immersed in Church activities and felt called to discern a priestly vocation. He entered St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park and was ordained July 12, 1986 on what happened to be his brother Robert’s 50th birthday.
Robert Mate, on the other hand, graduated from New York’s Power Memorial High School in 1953 and served in the Air Force for four years. He studied electrical engineering at the RCA Institute of Technology and later graduated from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia with a degree in business management. He has worked the last 27 years as the director of sales for the New Jersey-based Allied Beverage Group LLC. He married Patricia Werner and adopted her daughter, Christine, who has special needs. (Patricia’s first husband died suddenly after just two years of marriage). Patricia and Robert then had three more children: Bridget, Julie and Robert.
Theresa Mate passed away in 1978, having never revealed to Robert the story of his older brother. Nonetheless, the gaps in his early childhood continued to puzzle him. In the spring of 2012, his daughter contacted the Foundling Hospital and was able to obtain a 111-page file. Robert read the report and learned he had an older brother.
“Can this be true?” Robert thought, in disbelief. “Why did my mother tell me ‘no’ when I asked her whether I ever had any brothers or sisters?”
Additional online research followed, and Robert located Father Fuld in San Diego.
In June 2013, he placed a call to The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego, where Father Fuld serves as the managing editor.
“I said I had a good story for him,” Robert recalled with a mischievous smile.
From the start, it was a peculiar phone conversation as Robert recounted details of Father Fuld’s early life in the Bronx, which he had obtained from the Foundling Hospital file.
Finally, Father Fuld asked in astonishment: “How do you know all these things? Who are you?”
Robert answered: “I believe I’m your brother!”
Two months later, Robert flew out to San Diego, where the two men reunited with a joyful embrace. Following that initial meeting, arrangements were made for Father Fuld and his family to come to New Jersey in October.
Their faces bearing an unmistakable family resemblance, Father Fuld and Robert have shared plenty of smiles since their reunion, spontaneously interacting with one another and dispensing one-liners without missing a beat. Both men even drive the same type of car a 2010 beige Ford Fusion which had virtually the same mileage at the time they reconnected.
A past state deputy and past state chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, respectively, the two brothers also said that they treasure their membership in the Knights, since it embodies the values of the Catholic faith and the good work of the Church.
Mate first joined the Knights in 1962 when he lived in Falmouth, Mass. A member of St. Augustine Council 6345 in Kendall Park, N.J., he served as chair of the New Jersey State Council’s religious and civil rights committee for 12 years, as state deputy (1992-1994) and as vice supreme master (2005-2009).
Father Fuld, a member of Ascension Council 7902 in San Diego, joined the Knights in July 1992 after he became a pastor in the Diocese of San Diego. He served as a council chaplain for many years, until finally serving as California state chaplain (2008-2009).
“When I was a pastor, I realized the Knights were my strong right arm,” Father Fuld said. “They supported the parish and made things happen. They also serve as the welcoming hand of the Church.”
Mate, meanwhile, was drawn to the Knights’ focus on building a culture of life and helping the less fortunate.
“I went to my first state convention in 1977 as New Jersey was rallying its membership to join the battle to fight the Roe v. Wade decision,” Mate recalled. “It was at this convention I also recognized that the poor were in need of more assistance than they were receiving.”
In recent years, Father Fuld has compiled tales of his life in an unpublished memoir, which he hopes to pass on to his children and grandchildren. However, considering the momentous discovery of his long-lost brother, he admits that he now must rewrite many chapters of his autobiography.
“If there’s a grand, spiritual theme to our story, it’s this: Every time you think you have it all figured out, lo and behold, God pulls the string on you,” he said. “We must have faith and be prepared for the unexpected things that God reveals to us.”
MICHAEL C. GABRIELE is a freelance writer based in Clifton, N.J.