Portraits: Rev. Neale R. Riffert

Jeffersonville, Pennsylvania, a small town in West Norriton Township, some twenty-four miles northwest of Philadelphia, was my home for the first twenty years of my life. So much has changed in that region from the day that I was born in Norristown, on May 13, 1940, to the present, that the last time I visited the area in the early ‘90’s, I had difficulty locating some of my favorite teenage haunts.

The early education provided me came from the Jeffersonville Presbyterian Church (Northern Presyterian Church), and the West Norriton Elementary School. The old uncut stone church that I attended was destroyed by fire in the 80’s, the new building is, in my opinion, disappointing. The West Norriton Elementary School no longer exists, the building was demolished in 1994. Stewart Jr. High where I spent 7th and 8th grades is now a middle school, and the Norristown High School (A. D. Eisenhower Senior High School) that I graduated from in 1958 is now also a middle school, and Norristown High School now makes it home in West Norriton township. C’est la vie.

When I graduated from high school, not being able to afford college, I went to work at Merck, Sharp, and Dohme, a pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia (now just Merck). I began courses at night in accounting, business law, and business ethics at Temple University, Philadelphia. The present generation might find this odd, but back in the good ol’ days there were no college loan programs, at least not as they are presently. If you didn’t have the tuition, you didn’t go to college, you went to work. I went to work. Even in my youth I never got an allowance. I learned to work at an early age, mowing lawns, sweeping and emptying trash in a local shoemaker’s shop, delivering newspapers, baling hay on a farm in the summer. Through my high school years I worked after school and on Saturdays in a gift shop, the pay was 75 cents an hour, ten cents more than the minimum wage at the time.

Once entering the working world, my plan in life was to earn a living. At some point in my teens, I had thoughts about the ministry, but reality stared straight at me and they were set aside. What I learned from my mother and from the church never left me. The Lord spared me much misery through my youth as He prodded my conscience through His word and delivered me from many temptations.

It was while working at Sharp and Dohme that God bestowed upon me a great blessing that is with me to this day, for it was there in 1959 that I met Mary Elizabeth Catherine Vicario, who was to become my faithful partner in marriage within a year. As her name suggests, we had some hurdles that had to be hurdled. She had twelve years of catholic education, and lived directly across from the St. Thomas Aquinas Church in South Philadelphia. Her home was like a second home to some of the nuns that lived across the street. She often was escort to nuns who wanted to shop in center city (back then nuns could not go out unescorted). Both of us were headstrong as to our faith. She was also the niece of our boss at Merck, Sharp, and Dohme.

A phrase comes to mind that Jay Adams used in a pastoral theology class while I was at RES. This was where “the rubber meets the road.” I wasn’t in seminary yet. I was just a brash kid who cried out to the Lord. Much of our courtship was taken up in the study of the Scriptures. I felt I had the advantage because a nun once taught her, “the church can be wrong, but the Scriptures can never be wrong.” As we both were taking courses at Temple, we walked the fifteen or so blocks, discussing the Scriptures, talking about the future, whether our romance was going anywhere, and sundry other topics. We would get to Mitten Hall early and for about an hour before our classes started we continued study in the Word. I would use the King James Version, she would use the Duoay-Confraternity Version (I bought this for her, as that had an appropriate Impramatur). These were times of great blessings for us both and also times of great struggle.

As Mary Elizabeth tells the story, the last great hurdle was leaped when we met with the priest of her parish, which I agreed to do, to discuss the Scripture. In the providence of God, this priest, while a gentle and courteous man, was no student of the Word, and I, having more courage than wisdom, was providentially directed to ask questions from the right book of the Bible, the book of Hebrews. While we both had our Bibles open to Hebrews, the priest kept rifling through the Old Testament trying to find it. This was a great turning point in our courtship. We were both in awe of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God unto salvation.

Though now walking the same path as to the faith, there were a few hurdles ahead. Together we began looking to the future. We worshiped in a Baptist Church where the pastor preached the gospel (by this time the Presbyterian Church of my youth had moved fully into modernism). I had to face military service as conscription was the order of the day. I wanted to get the military obligation out of the way. I enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in April 1960 and served the active duty time from June 4, through December 3 of the same year. While still on active duty, Mary Elizabeth and I were married after I had completed basic training at Fort Knox. We were married on August 17th, 1960, in a Methodist Church in Maryland. We eloped. Our bridal party consisted of my two older brothers and their wives.

During the summer of 1962 my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and doctors estimated that she had about a year to live. We were stunned, but drew comfort from the fact that she belonged to Christ. As she became progressively worse by the summer of 1963, Mary Elizabeth quit work and would stay with her during the day and assist in the home. I had recently started a new job as credit manager in a finance company in Camden, NJ. We were in process of moving to an apartment in Collingswood, NJ.

My mother was an avid listener to the Twentieth Century Reformation Hour, Carl McIntire’s broadcast from Collingswood where he was the pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church. When she learned that we were moving to Collingswood, she drew from us a promise to visit his church. She died that September. A few weeks later we moved to Collingswood.

The first Sunday there we visited the Bible Presbyterian Church. On that first visit we were greeted with a warm handshake by a white-haired, older gentleman with an infectious smile, and his equally cheerful wife. We were hooked. In one of our early conversations with him, I mentioned that I was being more and more convicted to pursue the ministry, but was well aware of my lack of education and the difficulties that were involved. He never ceased in his encouragement.

We became quite active in the ministry of the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood and profited much from our time there. We were sponsors of both the junior and senior youth groups, and I taught the Adult Bible Class, When I finally answered the inward call from the Lord, my heart was at peace and we began preparation for what lay ahead. John Rhoads, who had a Philadelphia law firm, and who always gave me good advice, knowing our circumstances, suggested I look into Reformed Episcopal Seminary as they had a schedule that made it possible for students to work while continuing their studies. The class hours were from 8:00 am until 1:00 pm. I took the plunge. I quit my job with the finance company in November of 1963, and enrolled in RES for the semester that would begin in mid-January of 1964.

We had our first of five children in the middler year of seminary. On the day of her birth in April of 1966, after visiting with Mary Elizabeth and our newborn daughter, I went home, took the mail out of the box, and there was a large manila envelope from the U.S. Army. I opened it and there was written, “Greetings from Uncle Sam.” My heart dropped to the soles of my feet. The war in Vietnam was escalating; some of my friends had been called up from reserve units. Within the past year I had been placed in a Reserve unit in NJ, and I thought I was being called up. I read further and to my relief I found that my discharge papers were enclosed. What a day! A great gift from God in the birth of a beautiful daughter, and good news from my Uncle Sam. My military obligation was fulfilled.

Graduation was in May of 1967. Shortly after, I accepted a call to pastor the First Bible Presbyterian Church, Lincoln, Nebraska. We moved to Nebraska in June and I was ordained by the Upper Midwest Presbytery of the Bible Presbyterian Church and installed as pastor of the First Bible Presbyterian Church in December of 1967.

There were still undergraduate studies to complete, which I did at Grace University, Omaha in 1970. While in Nebraska, Norm Jones, who was pastor of the Hope Reformed Church stopped by, introduced himself to me and invited me to join in a ministerial meeting in Sutton. He also introduced me to the Reformed Church in the U.S.

The Bible Presbyterian Church required its ministers to hold to a pre-millennial position. I was struggling with this. It was through Norman Jones that I got a favorable view of the RCUS ministry. I met Norm and Lena in 1968, and Mary Elizabeth and I and our growing family had many wonderful times with the Jones family. Our twins Naomi and Faith were born in Nebraska in 1968.

In 1970 Norm asked if I would be interested in going to the Eureka Classis meeting in Eureka in May. The family came along to the Classis meeting. There were several vacancies—Upham, Lincoln Valley, and Pierre. I was invited by all three to preach trial sermons on the Sunday following the Classis. Not familiar with the Dakotas at all, I didn’t realize the distances involved. I preached in Upham and Lincoln Valley, but was unable to make it to Pierre in time. We stayed with Pete Grossman that evening and made arrangements to preach in Pierre at a later date.

I had calls in hand from all three congregations. I felt blessed by the Lord. I accepted the calls from Upham and Lincoln Valley. I was examined in June 1970, along with Paul Treick and Herman Van Stedum, in the infamous “Examination in the Long Day.”

Thus began my ministry with the RCUS.

During the past 46 years in the ministry, I have spent 43 with the RCUS. I have served 9 churches (8 charges, Upham and Lincoln Valley though I served them at the same time, were separate charges). Upham, Lincoln Valley, Aderdeen-Leola, Mobile, AL, Manitowoc, Anderson, Lancaster, and though now retired I am still working with a struggling mission in Sherman, TX.

Through the years, I have had eight great loves in my life. The Lord who has saved me, Mary Elizabeth who has shared her life with me, our four daughters Keren, Naomi, Faith, and Idelette, and their families (sons-in-law and grandchildren), our son Neale Jr., and the Synod of the RCUS.

The two are still one, but our family now totals 24. Four daughters, four sons-in-law, one son, 13 grandchildren, and myself and Mary Elizabeth, my faithful partner for 53 years.

The marvelous love of our loving Lord is . . . well . . . marvelous.

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