This is the sixth in a series of profiles of the Province’s senior friars, featuring those making a difference in their communities through varied hobbies, activities, and interests. The most recent featured was Jeremiah McGinley, OFM.
This may be one of the shortest-lived retirements on record – which is just fine with A. Francis Soucy, OFM, who wasn’t a big fan of retirement in the first place, and whose ministries have always been guided not by what he would prefer to do, but rather where he and his talents are needed.
Last September – around the time of his 79th birthday and well into his residency at St. Anthony Friary, the Franciscan retirement house in Butler – Francis happily obliged when asked to fill an assignment at the Province’s parish in Hartford, Conn.
“I have always felt that retirement is for the birds anyway. I’m the type of person who needs to keep my mind active and stimulated,” said Francis, although he admits he started warming to the notion of catching up on his reading – particularly poetry and medieval literature.
But that stack of books hasn’t seen the light of day since he relocated to St. Patrick-St. Anthony, the parish to which he was recruited by pastor Thomas Gallagher, OFM, who felt that Francis would be a perfect fit not only for traditional pastoral work but also for the full faith formation program that is offered to parishioners.
After all, Francis had spent nearly a decade and a half of his religious life devoted to academia, serving as a professor and department chairman of medieval literature at two Pennsylvania colleges.
“Francis brings to pastoral ministry his love of learning and his joy of teaching, as well as his awareness of social justice issues and his experience in ministry to prisoners and the poor and sick,” Thomas said.
“He is a gifted preacher and brings a joyful presence to the parish ministry. In the same way, Francis is engaged in the prayer and life of our Franciscan fraternity. He also has a delightful sense of humor. When meeting a parishioner who joined us for dinner and introduced herself as Jane, he immediately responded – Tarzan!” added Thomas, a Provincial Councilor.
During an interview at St. Anthony Friary the day before he was scheduled to leave for Connecticut, Francis expressed an eagerness to begin his new role because, he said, “it opens an entirely new world of possibilities.”
It was evident that he already had in his mind several ideas for lectures, discussions, and seminars to enhance the teaching program even before arriving at St. Patrick-St. Anthony.
Since his arrival, Francis has been busy planning a series of courses offered through the parish’s faith formation program. He is currently leading a course on the Psalms called “Praying the Psalms During Lent.”
From the outset, Francis has been engaged in the sacramental ministry of the parish, celebrating the Eucharist and hearing Confessions regularly. His presence in Confession is a “great gift” to many people, and parishioners really enjoy the passion he brings to his preaching and celebration of the Mass, according to the pastor.
In an email updating his ministries at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish, Francis reports that he is providing spiritual direction to a handful of parishioners and teaching English to small groups. In the true spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, considered the patron and protector of animals, Francis said he has become “good friends” with a French poodle that he permits a staff member to accompany her at Mass.
In what has become an important part of his ministry in Hartford, a group of homeless individuals, like clockwork, wait for Francis to arrive every morning at a local shop, where he buys them coffee. He also joins other friars and staff tending to their needs when they come to the friary for hats, gloves, sleeping bags, and sandwiches.
Although a member of the choir at St. Anthony Parish when he lived in the Butler friary, Francis says he just enjoys the angelic voices of the three choirs at St. Patrick-St. Anthony because the groups are too sophisticated for his “old” vocal chords.
Francis said he is also fortunate to visit New York City from time to time to soak in an operatic performance and other musical presentations. He was also planning a trip to Manhattan this month to attend the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
From Academia to Nursing Care
The move from the retirement house and into parish ministry may have been just what the doctor ordered for Francis, who had undergone a long recuperation at Holy Name Friary in Ringwood, N.J., the Province’s skilled nursing care facility that, ironically, he helped open and went on to serve for 26 years as the facility’s guardian and director.
“Francis has always been active, and he needed to be doing something more than what was available for him to do in Butler. When this parish ministry opportunity came along, I thought it would be good for him spiritually and emotionally – and good for the people of St. Patrick-St. Anthony because of all that he has to offer. He loves to teach and introduce new things wherever he goes, and as much as I wasn’t thrilled about his leaving us, I knew this move would make him very happy,” said Robert Frazzetta, OFM, guardian of St. Anthony Friary, who encouraged Francis to take the assignment.
Although Francis seemed destined for a ministry in academia for his entire religious life, a personal experience caused him to follow another path.
After his father passed away, the health of his stepmother, a loving but stoic woman, took a turn for the worse. So he decided to take a one-year sabbatical from teaching to care for her.
“After she died, the teaching that I enjoyed so much seemed trivial,” he recalled with a trace of sadness in his voice. “I wasn’t ready to return to the classroom. But I also suddenly felt a different passion – helping people to die. I realized how important it was that I was there for her – helping my stepmother die with dignity and honoring her wishes to die in the comfort of her home, and also helping my siblings prepare for and cope with her death.”
What happened next was more than just good timing. It had to be divine intervention. At about the same time he was contemplating this crossroads in his ministry, the Province was embarking on the construction of a nursing care facility in Ringwood. The Provincial Minister asked Francis if he would have interest in running the facility once it was operational.
From Director to Patient
A site visit on a dreary, rainy day, during which he found himself walking through mud and construction debris, didn’t exactly inspire Francis to jump at the offer. But he accepted this new ministry because caring for infirm and elderly friars, realizing after the experience of caring for his stepmother, was important to their lives.
Despite knowing nothing about construction and very little about nursing care administration, Francis became directly involved in the construction process and then set a course that resulted in him successfully achieving licensed certification in nursing home administration by the time the doors opened to Holy Name Friary.
“Helping people die is important, letting them know they are not alone – especially if they have no family. I made sure the staff pampered them and showed them they are loved and that there can be happiness in death,” Francis said.
In 2014, Francis moved to the Franciscan retirement house in St. Petersburg, Fla. While it wasn’t a deciding factor, being saddled with chronic balance problems (and turning 75) was part of his decision to leave his position at the nursing facility after 26 years.
But the move didn’t stop Francis from taking on new ministries that included providing pastoral services at area parishes and serving as chaplain to the local police department.
One day when he was leaving police headquarters, he slipped and hit his head on a rock. It may have been a fortuitous fall because a brain scan at the hospital emergency room revealed that he had hydrocephalus – a medical condition in which there is an accumulation of fluid within the brain, which explained why he had been experiencing balance problems all that time.
When Francis had a second fall, he returned to New Jersey for physical therapy and recuperation at the Ringwood friary – this time on the receiving end of the care that he had supervised for more than two and a half decades.
Coming to the nursing care facility was another fortuitous occurrence for Francis. During his therapy, the medical director connected him with a neurologist who, in turn, recommended a consultation with a neurosurgeon.
After assessing his condition, the neurosurgeon decided it was necessary to place a shunt system in his brain. The surgery immediately stabilized his condition – “no more balance problems!” Francis exclaimed. After completing additional therapy and recuperating in Ringwood, he landed at the retirement house in nearby Butler.
Evolving to “Chairman” of Activities Department
Although his stay at the Butler friary was not particularly lengthy, Francis put his academic and organizational skills to good use in that short amount of time. As the self-appointed director of activities, he organized lectures, established movie nights that included commercial films and documentaries on various religious figures, and launched a prayer group for his fellow resident friars.
Francis also made his presence felt in the community by singing in the choir at nearby St. Anthony’s Church, and by visiting ailing and elderly friars, as well as staff members, at Holy Name Friary.
With his balance issues under control, he had resumed an exercise he has long-enjoyed – taking long walks around the Butler community, a pastime that he continues in Hartford.
“No religious institution takes care of its sick the way the Franciscans do,” noted Francis, which he said comes from Province patron St. Francis of Assisi, who cared for the sick and encouraged his followers to do the same.
In large part, Francis has upheld this spirit of caring for the sick throughout his own life.
– Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- “Franciscan Presence in Hartford Commemorated with Mass, Block Party” — Nov. 12, 2015, HNP Today
- “Francis Soucy Marks 50 Years as a Franciscan” – May 18, 2011, HNP Today
- “Province Thanks Ringwood Staff” – May 6, 2009, HNP Today