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Jubilarian Profile: Paul Bourque Marks 50 Years as a Friar

This is the first in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The 2018 golden and silver jubilarians will be honored in June at a Provincial Mass.

BOSTON – It was love at first sight! That’s how Paul Bourque, OFM, remembers his first day as a Franciscan lay brother candidate in the 1960s.

“I knew it was the perfect fit. It just felt so right,” said Paul, who is celebrating 50 years as a professed Franciscan friar this year with the same enthusiasm that he answered the call to religious vocation five decades ago.

Serving at St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street since October, after 33 years as a high school teacher, Paul is among the HNP friars marking 25 and 50 years since their first profession of vows. This summer, the Province will honor this class of jubilarians at a special Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.

In a telephone interview, Paul recalled like it was yesterday opening his acceptance letter from the Franciscans.

“I was always the first one home after school and the first to open the mail. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents so I called them at work, which was something I never did,” he said.

For Paul, it felt right long before he walked through the doors of the pre-novitiate in the Upstate New York town of Croghan.

The Holy Spirit was likely at work when Paul would retreat to his room at his family home in southeastern Massachusetts after dinner to spend quiet time painting with watercolors and reading books about the life of Franciscan patron St. Francis of Assisi.

He says a religious vocation was somewhere in his subconscious at an early age, probably because he had an aunt and a female cousin who were members of religious orders. It was also during contemplative moments watching and learning the art of weaving – while his mother would knit afghans and infant clothing for unwed mothers – that he heard the call.

With his grandmother having worked in a loom factory and his mother a fiber artist, weaving has always been part of the fabric of his own life. He used it to help keep his mother’s mind active during her progression with Alzheimer’s, and he is incorporating this art into his ministry at the Shrine on Arch Street.

Paul’s weaving and artwork (Photo courtesy of St. Anthony Shrine)

“Weaving is very slow, deliberate and meditative. Its repetitive action is like praying the Rosary,” said Paul, who is leading a class called “The Spirituality of Crafting” for Young Adults: 20’s/30’s Boston, a group at St. Anthony Shrine, the Province’s more than 70-year-old ministry center in Downtown Crossing.

“It’s more than a ‘how-to’ class,” Paul explained. “Crafting can be prayerful and provide a platform for faith sharing, or it can simply quiet down your spirit and focus you on the moment. It leads you into peaceful, contemplative space.

“Learning it, you have to put your mind to it. But once you get it, your hands act reflexively because of the repetitive action, which frees your mind for contemplative prayer and meditation,” he added.

Early Life: Confessions of a Chef
His path to religious vocation was not unlike most youngsters navigating their way through adolescence and trying to figure out what they wanted to do after high school graduation.

Paul was raised in a typical Catholic family – both he and his brother were dedicated altar boys at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, Mass., where the family regularly attended Sunday Mass and fulfilled their religious obligations.

Every October, the month of the Rosary, his older siblings were not allowed to leave the house for dance socials on Friday nights until the family prayed the Rosary.

“My father would always say the Rosary in French when it was his turn to pray a decade, which took even longer,” said Paul, whose paternal great-grandfather was born in Lourdes and whose aunts and uncles all were French-speaking.

His parents, like most of the locals in New Bedford, were connected to the Bristol County city’s early 19th-century history as a manufacturing town. His father was a draftsman and his mother worked at a local factory.

Since Paul was the first one home from school after band practice, he took on the role of family chef, preparing dinner most weeknights for his parents, brother, and sister.

“It was a great feeling to see the smiles on the faces of my parents when they saw dinner on the table after a long day at work,” said Paul, who would put the ground beef or chicken on ice and surprise his family with fresh scallops – or another type of seafood – courtesy of a neighbor’s large catch that day. “It was the advantage of living in a fishing village!”

Apparently, it was also a euphoric feeling when he got his weekly “paycheck.”

“I got an allowance every Saturday for cooking those family dinners. I did it for the money!” Paul laughingly confesses, revealing his ulterior motive.

His culinary prowess came from his father, who learned his way around the kitchen by helping out at his father’s butcher shop.

“We were always fortunate to have good food on the table because of my grandfather’s shop. My father would cook on special occasions, like birthdays and holidays,” he said.

After graduating from Holy Name School in New Bedford in 1961, Paul attended Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth, where he was educated by the Sisters of Notre Dame – who, he says, were “just about the smartest women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

A photo of Paul in 1967 when he was received into the Franciscan Order, a year before professing his first vows.

Franciscans Come to Town
Like most young men his age contemplating a religious life, he browsed through The Guide Post, a book that summarized religious orders, and narrowed his interests to a few. Then the Franciscans came to town…

In 1950, a group of friars took up residence in New Bedford after the Province built Our Lady’s Chapel, a shrine in the downtown area.

“Their preaching was inspiring and they were very approachable, so everyone flocked to this shrine for Mass and Confession. Their kindness and those brown robes motivated me to read books about St. Francis,” Paul said.

“St. Francis led by action and example, embracing everyone with compassion and teaching about the life of Jesus – and then one day it struck me that St. Francis was never ordained to the priesthood. That’s probably when I realized that I wanted to be a brother,” Paul explained.

If there was any doubt, the deal was sealed when he learned that a professed brother – Bonaventure Hinchliffe, OFM, who died in 1986 – was among the friars at the New Bedford shrine.

“Of course, I gravitated to him because he was a brother. He took me around and introduced me to the friars, telling them that I might be interested in becoming a Franciscan. But I particularly remember the way he conducted himself, his friendly and easy-going temperament. He was kind and thoughtful, and very humble, always putting others first,” Paul said.

After graduating in 1965 from Bishop Stang, Paul entered the two-year, pre-novitiate program for Franciscan lay brother candidates at St. Stephen’s Monastery in Croghan. That’s when he met Anthony LoGalbo, OFM, who would play a major role in his development as a friar.

“New candidates were assigned a ‘guardian angel’ – or a mentor – from the class ahead of them,” Paul explained. “Tony was my guardian angel. We remained good friends ever since. Our families even developed a lifelong friendship and often vacationed together.”

The friends were reunited when Paul returned to communal life at Arch Street, where Tony, who last year celebrated 50 years as a professed friar, has been assigned since 2015.

Paul was received into the Franciscan Order on July 14, 1967, at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he received his habit. He made his first profession there in July of 1968 and went on to make his final profession three years later, on Aug. 22, 1971, in his hometown of New Bedford – appropriately at Our Lady’s Chapel, where the Franciscan seed was planted and sowed.

Education Ministry
As all lay brother candidates in the novice program, Paul was given the option of attending college. He enrolled at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., living at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., until he graduated from Merrimack in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and foreign language.

After receiving a master’s degree in theology at the Washington Theological Union — then called Washington Theological Coalition — in the nation’s capital in 1974, Paul didn’t have much time to think about his future.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do with a master’s in theology,” he admits.

Apparently, someone else did, as he was immediately sent to Bishop Timon High School, a college prep school for boys in Buffalo, N.Y. – a teaching assignment that launched what would become a 33-year career in high school education.

Although he didn’t single out anyone by name, Paul said he was grateful to the entire friar community where he lived during his first teaching assignment.

“Being the new kid on the block, they made me feel very welcome. It was a wonderful and supportive community,” he said.

“The focus on community among the friars has always been a special aspect of Holy Name Province. It starts from the moment you enter the novitiate and continues throughout your ministerial life,” he added.

While at Timon, Paul served as coordinator of the Franciscan Movement, a group of students who performed works of service in the community. One of those students, he proudly reports, was Dennis De Perro, who was appointed last year as president of St. Bonaventure University.

After four years of teaching religion at Timon, Paul was assigned in 1978 to Queen of Peace, a co-educational high school in North Arlington, N.J.

An important part of his classroom ministry was building trust and a comfort level with the students.

“I wanted them to know they could defuse when they came into my classroom and talk to me about anything. Young people often just need an adult to listen – and what a blessing it was to have students throughout these years choose me as that adult, the person they confided in for counsel, help or just an ear to listen,” Paul said.

His credo and compassion were never put to the test more than when he arrived in 1981 at Paterson Catholic Regional High School in Paterson, N.J., where he taught religion and French for 14 years to inner city kids, many beset with personal tragedy and socio-economic and other challenges.

Students would come to him with normal teenage issues – failing a subject, relationship problems, and difficulties at home.

“But there were heartbreaking stories that they shared – things they desperately needed to talk about, like unwanted pregnancies, parents dying of AIDS, and the burden of struggling with their sexuality. Sometimes they would wander into my classroom during a break just to chat, knowing that I would always listen and know that I cared deeply about their lives. They placed their total trust in me and I will always cherish that privilege,” Paul said.

Former students who now have their own families still keep in touch with him and often reminisce about how he helped them just by listening, expressing concern and showing them respect.

The 14-year run at Paterson Catholic ended in 1994 when he began teaching at the all-girls Academy of Holy Angels in Demarest, N.J.  Paul also taught English for  11 years at the Hispanic Institute in Hackensack, N.J., to people who were “here from all over the world to live and work and integrate themselves into American culture by learning our language.” He also spent nine summers taking American students to France to study French at the University of Caen and the University of Paris.

Paul stands between portraits of his parents. (Photo courtesy of St. Anthony Shrine)

Caregiver for Parents and Community Life at Arch Street
In 2001, with his father’s health failing, he left the Academy to live closer to his parents. He landed a teaching position at Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton, Mass., while living at his family’s summer house in Fairhaven, centrally located to the school and his parents’ New Bedford home.

His father passed away and by 2007, his mother’s Alzheimer’s was advancing. He resigned from his teaching position to become her full-time caregiver.

By then, Paul had already moved back to his boyhood home, occupying the same attic space where as a child he would often retreat after dinner to paint, read and reflect.

Caring for his mother, he says, was “like living the entire Gospel in a little house on a dead-end street. All that time I was taking care of her, she helped open my heart.”

It took a while after his mother’s passing for Paul to realize that he had missed communal life.

“The Franciscan community is unlike any other – living with other friars who are kind, unique and do all kinds of jobs. Where else can you pray with others twice a day and have family dinner every night? Being away from it while caring for my parents gave me an even greater appreciation,” he said.

Since his arrival at the Shrine last fall, in addition to helping with the hospitality desk and leading spirituality crafting classes, Paul is continuing his knitting talents that he revived while caring for his mother. He sells his hand-woven creations – around three dozen wool hats and scarves a month – from a table that’s set up in the Shrine’s lobby, with all proceeds from the sales going to the friary.

His knitting work has become so popular among Shrine parishioners and visitors, that he is now getting requests for baby sweaters, baptismal outfits and even sweaters for domestic pets.

Paul loves to immerse himself in good novels, books on spirituality and how-to craft books, learn new languages, and take courses where homework and studying are minimal.

He has a hobby and hidden talent that really takes the cake – literally. He is expert in cake decorating – a self-taught talent that he learned from how-to videos and a few amateur dessert-making classes at a local craft chain.

Always up for a challenge, Paul jumped into cake-decorating contests at Bristol County Community College in Fall River, Mass., going up against pastry chefs, culinary students, and bakery owners. In his first competition, his five-tier cake impressively came in third place. In seven competitions that followed, he took six first-place trophies.

Paul doesn’t look to any singular event as a crowning achievement, but rather the compilation of events and ministries that have defined his life – much like the individual patches of a quilt that, when sewn together, become a beautifully hand-woven mosaic.

“My collective achievement has been going to college and graduate school, having a career and ministry in education, being able to take care of my folks, and being part of this wonderful worldwide Franciscan fraternity,” he said.

— Stephen Mangione is a longtime public relations executive and writer based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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