Jubilarian Profile: Michael Joyce Marks 50 Years as a Friar

HNP Communications Friar News

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2011. The last issue of HNP Today featured Timothy Dauenhauer, OFM, of Buffalo, N.Y . 

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In his 50 years in ministry, Michael Joyce, OFM, has spent more time abroad than in the United States, but even when he was far from home, he always felt close to Holy Name Province.

“I love Holy Name Province. Holy Name is unique, and I’m very proud of it.”

This summer, Michael is celebrating the golden jubilee of his first profession made at age 21 in Lafayette, N.J., just 50 miles from where he grew up. He knew by the time he was in high school that he wanted to join religious life.

Now back in the United States, Michael serves at St. Francis Chapel and the Church of St. Mary’s on Broadway in Providence, saying Mass and hearing confessions and helping out with funerals and marriages. He also ministers every Sunday at the local maximum-security prison.

At 71, he’s showing no signs of retiring, although he’s certainly not as active as when he was in Japan and Africa for more than 32 years.

During his 17 years in Japan, from 1967 to 1984, he served four parishes as assistant pastor and pastor. It was a unique experience, he said, since less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population in Japan is Catholic.

At the church in Maebashi, he served a parish of approximately 600 members. While serving the church in the city of Ota, where Subaru cars are made, 300 members attended. In Kiryu, he said, the church embraced approximately 500 parishioners, and while in Kita Urawa, he ministered to 600. He has served with Francis Frawley, OFM, who died in 1990, and Donnan Murray, OFM, who is still in Tokyo.

His parishes were always in big cities, about two hours from Tokyo, and life was good in Japan. Strong bonds, he said, were made at these parishes.

“When you only have 500 Catholics in a city of 400,000, you have to stick together.”

Working with Men in Formation
Michael said he enjoyed his time there and loves the Japanese culture. He also found working the young men in formation, a ministry that has followed him throughout his vocation, to be very rewarding. All his years in Japan he was involved in formation ministry. He spent his last six years in Japan on the novitiate staff.

He has been in touch with the friars in Japan since the March 11 earthquake, and was happy to learn that they are all safe.

Back in 1983, when two younger Japanese friars in Michael’s community were going to Africa to join the Africa Project, a program that sought to implant the Franciscan Order in East Africa and make it self-reliant, he felt a call to accompany them.

“I saw two of my Japanese brothers, Joe Sato and Louis Taishi, go to Africa and I wanted to go with them. I went to the airport to wave goodbye and my heart went with them. I ended up later joining them.”

In Africa from 1985 to 1999, Michael worked in Malawi, Zambia, Uganda and Kenya, mostly working with men in formation, and helping start a retreat movement among local Franciscan congregations.

Though life was primitive compared to life in Japan, Michael said he enjoyed the simplicity. “Life is much simpler. They don’t have much but they’re happy. I see so many here who have a lot and aren’t happy,”

For the first seven years of his 15 years in Africa, Michael did formation work with postulants in Malawi, the poorest country he ever saw, with the simply professed in Zambia, and again with postulants in Uganda.

They were eating foods grown on the farm and playing cards by oil lamp after dark because they only had electricity for several hours a day. Living conditions, he said, depended on location. Some places were fortunate enough to have running water; otherwise, they captured water in rain barrels.

He recalls living off the land and, in one instance, going out to the garden and gathering vegetables for dinner. “I went to the garden and got tomatoes and leeks and made a supper. It was an experience,” he said with a smile.

Conditions were a bit better in Zambia when Michael was the director of the simply professed friars. He recalls going to St. Bonaventure College in Livingston, Zambia, with four newly professed Malawians, who would attend a new school coordinated by the OFM, Conventual and Capuchin friars.

Michael also encouraged the local African Franciscan sisters’ involvement in retreat work and coordinated activities for them. His work was always in English, since English was the common language among them for formation and the retreat ministry.

Returning Home and Assigned to Boston
He returned home in 1999 and went to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston in 2000, where he served as a spiritual director.

Boston was close enough to New Jersey, where he grew up, so it was easy to get together with his seven brothers and sisters. One sister, a Sister of Charity (New Jersey), has since passed away. “I get to see them at least once a year.” He also keeps in touch through social media, sharing photos and messages with family on Facebook.

Michael attended St. Michael Catholic grade school in Newark, N.J., and St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, N.J. He knew by senior year in high school that he wanted to join religious life.

After attending seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., and Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., he was ordained in 1967. He said he didn’t necessarily want to go into the priesthood; he just wanted to be a friar and follow St. Francis. But the Province’s vocation director put him into the priestly ordination track for which he is thankful.

One of the most difficult parts of re-acclimating to America, he said, was getting used to U.S. individualism. Fraternity and living in community were highly valued and lived in Japan and Africa, according to Michael. “No one had a TV in his room,” he said. “We sat around, played cards and told stories.”

He said he feels Holy Name Province is primarily focused on ministry but strives to make fraternity a priority from which ministry flows. “Holy Name Province has done so much good for so many people and has been so good to so many friars. It’s an outgoing, service-oriented province serving the church, the world and the order. I’m very proud to be here.”

Thinking Back with Gratitude
He would like to be remembered as “a simple friar who liked being a friar. I’m thankful for the gift of vocation in this fraternity.”

He is also thankful for the opportunity to purse a new hobby. Two years ago, at the age of 69, he took up the cello. “I always loved the cello sound and when I found that I had extra time, I got permission to take cello lessons. It takes a lot of patience, as I have almost no music education.” He looks forward to getting good enough to play at church one day.

What was the first song he learned to play? “Ode to Joy.”

Michael enjoyed “walking down memory lane” with HNP Today on the phone, showing his sense of humor with his hearty laugh at the end of each sentence.

“It brings back wonderful memories,” he said.

— Wendy Healy is a freelance writer living in Connecticut and a frequent contributor to HNP Today.