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Mission Accomplished for Retiree Thomas Jones

Thomas Jones at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, playing the piano.

This is part of a continuing series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, providing a look back on their ministerial journeys, and on what they are doing now. The previous article profiled Philip O‘Shea, OFM. 

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — After 30 years of missionary work in places including Cristalândia, Araguacema and Goiás, it was like a homecoming for Thomas Jones, OFM, when he returned to Brazil in June for festivities that culminated a yearlong commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Franciscan missionaries from the United States in the South American country.

He had been invited by the Franciscan Brazilian province to attend ceremonies kicking off the 12-month celebration in June 2017, but a travel visa snafu caused Thomas to miss those inaugural events. When the invitation came in June of this year requesting his presence at the closing festivities, he was fully prepared – sort of.

Getting to Brazil wasn’t the issue this time around, but the usually unflappable friar was tossed a curve when asked to speak at the culminating Mass as the representative of Holy Name Province and American friars.

When he stood at the pulpit looking out over a sea of humanity – more than 1,000 Brazilians had packed the Church of St. Anne in Anápolis, a municipality of the state of Goiás – it was as though his vocal cords went AWOL

“I literally couldn’t speak, and that rarely – if ever – happens to me,” said Thomas, who lives at St. Anthony Friary, the Franciscan retirement house in St. Petersburg.

But apparently it wasn’t stage fright; he was overcome with emotion.

“It was emotional for me because at that moment I realized I was going to speak in the name of more than 100 American friars who left their country and families to serve in these missions,” Thomas said during a phone interview. “I wondered what I could possibly say that would do justice to their sacrifices – especially the dozen or so friars who started the missions when they first arrived in Brazil in 1943, being strangers in a foreign land and not knowing the language.”

He continued, “The words wouldn’t come out. It took a while to get my act together and regain my composure – probably close to a minute and a half. But the Lord helped me through it.

“I told the congregation that they shouldn’t be thanking the friars for being in their country, but rather I should be telling them how grateful the friars are to them for opening their hearts and homes, for sharing their faith and love, and for being so accepting of the Franciscans from America for all of these decades,” Thomas said.

“I had always felt that way when I was serving in Brazil – and in that moment, it hit me in a spiritual and emotional way. I told them that their acceptance made the friars feel at home and part of an even larger and broader family,” he added.

Thomas made the trip with Anthony LoGalbo, OFM, who is assigned to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Mass., where he teaches adult religious formation classes among other ministries. Anthony served in the Brazil missions at Paróquia Nossa Senhora da Piedade in Porangatu and Paróquia Sagrado Coração de Jesus in Pires do Rio, both in the state of Goiás, from March 1983 to April 1986.

Although it had been eight years since the conclusion of his missionary work, it felt like Thomas had  never left. During his month-long visit to Brazil, he attended several liturgical and social events related to the 75th anniversary, visited a parish in the town of Quirinopolis where he had served as pastor, caught up with former parishioners and friends, and attended a special Mass celebrating the 50th anniversary of profession of Brazilian members of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany.

He even managed time to hit the radio circuit, doing live studio interviews during which he talked about the Franciscan charism and recounted his experiences as a missionary friar in Brazil.

“To be part of the celebration was a great grace and honor,” Thomas said.

Active ‘Retirement’
When he returned from the whirlwind trip, Thomas picked up where he left off. Although officially retired from full-time ministry since 2014, he maintains a full life – one that still includes pastoral work. His 86th birthday is this month and he has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

Though many people in retirement catch up on reading and sleep, Thomas (although he enjoys history books and novels based on historical research) has an ambitious to-do list that includes learning tai chi, taking a basic German language course, and pursuing an art class in the use of watercolors.

“I have always wanted to learn how to speak German, and I have always enjoyed painting. Using watercolors is a very challenging and inviting medium,” said Thomas, who also appreciates the cultural opportunities in St. Petersburg, which finds him visiting museums and attending musical performances.

His recent trip to Brazil stirred something else he has been putting off – Thomas says he may finally get around to chronicling the memories of his mission work.

“I never kept a journal of all the history and wonderful experiences in Brazil, mainly because I never had the time,” said Thomas, whose memoir and hobby pursuits are often superseded by his work in the Sunshine State as a weekend helper, spiritual director and confessor.

Although far removed from his missionary work in Brazil, a significant Brazilian population in Florida has found him – or maybe Thomas found them. Three weekends a month, he makes a 40-minute drive to a parish in Tampa to celebrate Mass with Brazilian Americans and immigrants. He is amazed that some Brazilian parishioners trek to St. Petersburg during the week to meet him for spiritual direction and confession.

“I am blessed with still being able to drive and get around independently. This is a way for me to stay connected to my Brazilian missionary roots,” said Thomas, who has met Tampa families that came from Goiás and other municipalities where he worked in the Franciscans missions.

As if his retirement schedule doesn’t already have enough activity, Thomas also celebrates as many as three Spanish language Masses every month at parishes near St. Anthony Friary.

It comes as no surprise to those who have long known Thomas that he receives more dinner invitations from Brazilian parishioners in Tampa than he can handle.

“Tom has always been cheerful, upbeat and good-natured. He was a good pastor in Brazil and he was friendly and sociable with the people,” said Joseph Rozansky, OFM, director of HNP post-novitiate formation and chair of the International Board of Directors of Franciscans International, who first met Thomas in Washington, D.C., at Holy Name College.

“I was simply professed and he was among a group of Brazilian missionaries involved in continuing education at Washington Theological Union,” Joseph explained. “Tom’s stories and those of his fellow missionaries had a big influence on my decision to head to Brazil for my first assignment.”

The former  missionary relaxes at the Florida friary that has been his home for several years.

On a Mission
Shortly after ordination, Thomas’ missionary work began in 1960 in Jataí in southern Goiás. He remained there until 1979 when he was reassigned to the Shrine on Arch Street, where he worked with the Brazilian immigrant population of Boston until 1984. He returned to Brazil for three years until he was reassigned in 1988 to Holy Cross Parish in the Bronx, N.Y., as parochial vicar.

He returned to St. Anthony Shrine in 1990 and then served as pastor of a small parish in New York’s Sullivan County from 1996 to 2004 before going back to Brazil for six more years of mission work that ended in December 2010. He served as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Yulan, N.Y., from 2010 until his retirement in 2014.

The notion of evangelizing and being immersed in another culture and language sounded so intriguing that Thomas chose mission work over teaching and parish ministries as his first assignment.

The Franciscans were already deeply rooted in the Brazilian missions, having arrived in 1943 in response to a need expressed by the Order.  Friars from HNP’s mother province in Fulda, Germany, based in the neighboring state of Mato Grosso, had begun to work in Goiás also, but because of World War II, were unable to bring more friars to staff their mission. The Order recommended that the State of Goiás – at that time a somewhat remote and impoverished area just beginning to be developed, be detached and entrusted to HNP as a new mission area. The local bishops were eager to have Franciscans meet the ministerial needs of their people, as there were few schools and no religious order presence.

“I saw people living in utter poverty who were rich in love and faith. The poor have a deep wisdom that doesn’t come from books, but from God. We can all be evangelized by the poor through their example of faith, love and friendship,” said Thomas, who still remembers the sun setting behind the Christ the Redeemer statue on Mount Corovado upon arriving in Brazil after a 26-day journey on a small Danish freighter.

His awakening to religious vocation didn’t come through conventional channels. He attended public schools in his suburban hometown of Tuckahoe – less than 20 miles from New York City – and was set to attend Fordham University as a physics major – that is, until a meeting with his guidance counselor at Tuckahoe High School who advised him to consider the Franciscans if he was thinking about the priesthood.

“I never mentioned anything to her about the thoughts of religious vocation that I had as a youngster, so I am not quite sure how she knew that. But I left the meeting thinking that God, through my guidance counselor, was calling me to reconsider,” Thomas said.

“It was ultimately an easy decision – and I thank God and my guidance counselor for pointing me in the right direction because physics would have been a major disaster,” said Thomas, who went to St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., made his first profession in 1953, and professed his final vows three years later.

Franciscans, in general, are people persons, noted Thomas, a trait which he says has always been the Franciscan tradition. “Because of that, we have had the love of people wherever we minister. That is a wonderful gift we are given as friars.”

Aside from the activities and ministries that fill his days in “retirement,” Thomas says the best aspect of living at the friary in St. Petersburg is the “wonderful opportunity for daily fraternity and community prayer” with his brother friars.

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

Editor’s note: Profiles of other retired Holy Name Province members can be found in the Friar News section of the Province’s website.

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