Br. Richard James, OFM
I grew up in South Colton, a small town in northern New York (Diocese of Ogdensburg), where most Catholics don’t understand male religious life because there aren’t many male religious orders in the diocese. When I told people in St. Paul’s Parish that I was entering religious life, they regarded it as an unknown profession they knew very little about. Regardless, they said I was too much of a homeboy who wouldn’t last more than three to six months. I proved them wrong. I’ve been in religious life for almost 50 years.
As a young Franciscan brother, I was taught to sew our brown religious habits, and I did tailoring for several years until I ventured into the education field. Before entering religious life, I had attended the State University of New York at Potsdam and then, as a brother, I finished my college degree at St. Francis College in Brooklyn with a major in education and minors in math and science.
In 1974, while stationed at our friary on West 31st Street in Midtown Manhattan, I started my career as a teacher. I commuted by subway every school day to teach mathematics, science and religion at elementary schools in the Brooklyn Diocese, first at St. Mary Star of the Sea, then Immaculate Heart of Mary, then Our Lady of Hope in Middle Village, Queens. The best years of my religious life were the years I taught in those schools with the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn and Dominican and St. Joseph Sisters.
In 1992, my commute got shorter but my workday got longer when I moved to St. Anthony School in Manhattan. While teaching at St. Anthony’s, I worked in the afternoons with two other teachers in the archdiocesan school office, rewriting textbooks for the essential learning skills in science for grades kindergarten through ninth grade. My job also included giving workshops to all teachers involved with teaching science to kindergarteners through ninth graders to update them with the new materials required in New York state.
Since I had already done graduate work in administration and supervision at St. Bonaventure University, I was recommended to become a principal in the archdiocesan Catholic school system. I loved teaching, but I had no desire to become a principal. Just in case my superiors would not take no for an answer, I took the required summer conferences on individualized learning and high impact teaching. But the Lord answered my prayers, and the call to become a principal never came.
While teaching, I also spent some of my summers working in the Franciscan Pilgrimage Office in New York City, traveling to Canada and in the United States. Taking a year off from teaching, I worked full time in the pilgrimage office and led many European pilgrimages, traveling to countries I never dreamed of or thought I’d ever venture to: Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, England, Ireland and France.
For the last 13 years, I have been serving as assistant to the director in two of the three residences in Holy Name Province for our friars who are retired. I worked for 12 years in St. Anthony’s Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., until a year ago when I moved to St. Anthony’s Residence in Boston. My duties involve being a practical nurse, giving injections to friars who need them and make sure they take their medicine at the proper time. I learned a lot about nursing from my sister, who is a registered nurse, when we were taking care of our dying mother.
I enjoy working with Br. Richard McFeely, OFM, the guardian of our Boston house. We have a close relationship with our 10 residents and try to create a sense of community by taking part together in their activities — be it daily Mass, community meals or a movie in our common room.
I get satisfaction from the residents feeling comfortable with me as I accompany them to the doctor’s office or the clinic for a blood test or X-ray, or taking them out for dinner or just a visit to their rooms to help them in any way I can.
While my friends in South Colton did not know much about male religious life, I must confess I never suspected that I would have such a rich variety of careers — tailor, teacher, tour guide, practical nurse — all done in the service of the Lord, serving in the footsteps of St. Francis.
— This essay was published in the summer 2010 issue of The Anthonian magazine while Br. Richard was living at St. Anthony Residence in Boston.