This is the sixth, and last, in a series of profiles of friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2011. The May 4 issue of HNP Today featured Gerald Mudd, OFM.
RINGWOOD, N.J. — At 14, A. Francis Soucy, OFM, joined the seminary while most of his peers were playing sports, hanging out and living life like typical teenagers — somewhere between adulthood and adolescence. He hasn’t regretted that decision one day of his life.
Joining religious life at such a young age was less of a faith-based commitment, said Francis, now 72, than one of a teenager acting out. “The Holy Spirit wasn’t exactly hovering over me,” he said with a smile. “I wanted to get away from my parents.”
But over the years, Francis’ commitment to religious life deepened, and being a friar means a lot more to him today, he said, than it did when he took the train to the Callicoon, N.Y., seminary in rural Sullivan County.
That train ride was more than 50 years ago and today, the guardian and director of Holy Name Friary, the Province’s skilled nursing care facility in the scenic hills of northwestern New Jersey, prepares to celebrate his golden jubilee next month.
His ministry has focused on two areas — academia in the early part of his vocation and eldercare for the past 24 years. Francis said he has enjoyed every minute of being part of Holy Name Province.
As one of 10 children growing up in New Hampshire, the son of French Canadians, Francis found his true family with Holy Name Province.
Tragically, his mother died at age 34 of heart disease when Francis was only 9, leaving his father — a member of the tanners’ union — with no choice but to place the children in separate environments. Several went to boarding school, while others joined families of relatives. Francis, the seventh child and youngest boy, went to boarding school with a brother. “Maybe that’s why I wanted to leave home,” he said. “I got all hand-me-downs and rarely got anything new.”
When an aunt sent a copy of St. Anthony Messenger magazine to the family and Francis saw an ad for religious vocations, he answered it.
“I knew of St. Francis, but I didn’t know about the distinct Franciscan provinces,” he said. Living near Rye Beach, N.H., where the Province had a friary, he knew some friars, but he wasn’t seeking a Franciscan life per se.
When a friar from Cincinnati-based St. John the Baptist Province — which produces the Franciscan magazine — responded, he suggested that since Francis was on the East Coast, he contact Holy Name Province based in New York.
Leaving Home for Seminary
Francis didn’t have his family’s support since he was only in the ninth grade, but he was determined to leave home. “My family was totally against it, so that was another reason for me to pursue it. My parish priest was also against it. They all said I was too young to go away.”
Since then, Francis said, his commitment has deepened. “The reason I’m a friar now has very little to do with the reason I entered St. Joseph Seminary in Callicoon. I’m a lifer,” he said with a laugh.
Years of studies earned Francis an undergraduate degrees in philosophy and sacred theology, as well as a master’s in English from St. Bonaventure University. In the fall of 1968, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study for a doctorate in medieval literature. Although far from home, this was one of the few colleges that offered such a specialized program. His interest in this genre was influenced by Vianney Devlin, OFM, a professor at St. Joseph Seminary.
These studies set a course for Francis’ ministry in college teaching. “Everything was pushing me in the direction of teaching, and my interest began to grow.”
Studying Medieval Literature
At the University of Minnesota, Francis began to specialize in Icelandic literature and medieval romances, especially Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and became an adjunct professor and teaching assistant for John Clark, one of the leading experts on that medieval romance. He taught at the university for several years and then went to work at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., teaching literature and serving as the chaplain at the all-women’s college founded by the United Church of Christ.
Siena and SBU didn’t need a medievalist in their English departments, he recalled, so he took a position where one was available. From 1972 to 1985, Francis worked at Cedar Crest, chairing the department. He founded the Medieval Colloquium of the Lehigh Valley, a consortium of five area colleges. At the same time, Francis also pursued seminar work at the University of Pennsylvania and taught classes at Muhlenburg College.
Academic ministry was fulfilling for Francis, until his interests began to change in 1985 following the death of his father. Later, he was on a summer program with students in England, when he got a call to return home because his stepmother was depressed and not doing well after the death of her husband. He returned home only to learn that she had lung cancer.
Since her wishes were to die at home, Francis took a sabbatical year in Brookline, Mass., living at the novitiate, caring for his stepmother and researching medieval literature at a nearby Harvard University library.
After the death of his stepmother, Francis began a transition. “I remained at Brookline for a while. When the Province asked what I wanted to do, I said, ‘I can’t go back to teaching.’ I realized something different about dying and I was beginning to write about dying.”
Through the deaths of his parents, Francis said, “I was realizing how important it is to help people die. You want to choose death. It’s inevitable and you have to choose dying. Once you do that, it’s freeing. If you can choose it, it doesn’t take away your liberty. If you choose the inevitable, you remain free.”
At the same time that he was coming to this realization about dying, the Province was breaking ground for Holy Name Friary in Ringwood. David McBriar, OFM, who was then responsible for making assignments, told Francis of a chaplaincy job at the Sisters of St. Anne in Marlborough, Mass. This turned out to be a very fulfilling role for Francis, who said he found his liturgical work to be very meaningful. He also taught English part time at Regis College in Weston.
On a cold and rainy day in 1987, then-Provincial Minister Anthony Carrozzo, OFM, took him to see the Holy Name Friary construction site with the hopes that Francis would consider becoming the guardian. “I looked at the mud hole and said, ‘Are you crazy? I know nothing about running a nursing home.’” But since the Province had always been good to him, he took the job.
After nearly 25 years, Francis finds ministering to senior and sick friars as rewarding as ever. “What keeps me here? The ministry is extremely fulfilling. You have to be comfortable with your own mortality. I get a great deal from the senior friars as they relate their stories and grow in wisdom and grace.”
He noted: “These men have lived long lives of service and are now coming to the end of their lives. They’re struggling because they want to do their ministry and they can’t. It’s uplifting to me to live with men like this. All of our friars have worked very hard.”
During his administration, Holy Name Friary has been cited as a model nursing home by the state of New Jersey and was highlighted as a top national facility in publications that rate nursing homes.
On any given day, Francis can be found joking with the friars and checking in on them with his Welsh terrier, Cadfael, following closely at his feet. An opera enthusiast, Francis attends the Metropolitan Opera performances in New York City at least eight a year. He is a fan of Richard Wagner’s music and a member of the Wagner Society.
He also enjoys reading poetry and classic literature and digs into a good contemporary novel every now and then. “Nothing over 300 pages,” said Francis, who is also interested in social justice issues.
When asked what readers would be surprised to learn about him, he joked: “That I like homemade apple pie.”
He added that some might also be surprised to learn that the “A” in A. Francis stands for Arnold, but his family calls him by his baptismal name — Francis. “I was named after my paternal grandfather, Francois,” he said.
Of his siblings, six are still alive and live throughout the country. He said he feels closest to a sister in Homer, Alaska.
As for Holy Name Province, he only has the best of praise. “I think our Province is fantastic. It respects the individual talents and abilities of its membership and I think that is extremely valuable.” It has always supported the ministry in Ringwood.
Francis will be honored along with the other friars in his class at the Provincial profession jubilee celebration on June 30.
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today.