This is the sixth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The 2017 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored at a Province Mass on June 22. The previous article featured Robert Menard, OFM.
BOSTON — In most circles, beginning a new vocation well past 30 years old would be considered a late bloomer. But for Jacques LaPointe, OFM, entering the priesthood at age 37 began a long-running encore to an upbringing and lifetime of ministering to marginalized, exploited, and voiceless people.
Jacques considers his religious vocation a blessing whose roots were established centuries ago. His family lineage has been producing priests, sisters and other religious since the 1600s.
To a large extent, his vocation also has been a thanksgiving offering. Jacques survived not one, but two brushes with death.
Assigned to St. Anthony Shrine on Boston’s Arch Street since 2015, Jacques is celebrating 25 years as a professed Franciscan friar this year. Looking back at his religious life, Jacques says what stands out most “is the joy and privilege of being able to say that if I should die tomorrow, I would absolutely have no regrets because I have lived my life fully.”
A Family That Embraced the Poor
Jacques was raised in a large, supportive and caring family whose members lived their faith with passion and zeal. Prayer was a central part of daily life in his household. At his maternal grandparents’ home, the family would kneel around the radio every night to pray the rosary in tandem with the broadcast of the local bishop.
His parents had 25 siblings between them, with many of his extended family members living on the shores of the upper St. John River Valley in and around Saint-Léonard – a Canadian town in New Brunswick – and across from its twin American town of Van Buren, Maine. While some of them, including Jacques, enjoy both U.S. and Canadian citizenship, all of them are particularly proud of their Acadian heritage.
The family wasn’t rich in possessions or economic means, but giving to others was a benchmark of living their faith. His paternal grandfather owned a grocery store, and Jacques remembers how, as a young boy, he would accompany his father every week on the delivery truck for a special mission – bringing groceries to poor individuals and families with children who couldn’t afford to put food on their table. His grandparents also invited the poor into their home.
“There was always a place for the hungry at our table. My grandmother’s kindheartedness and reputation became so well-known among the itinerant poor, that those who experienced her hospitality would mark the telephone poles near our house to let others know they could seek refuge there. My family wasn’t afraid of strangers,” said Jacques.
Evidently, this benevolence left a lasting impression on Jacques, who won the New Brunswick Teachers Association’s Provincial Oratory contest in 1966 with a public presentation titled “Pauvrete Parmi Nous” (“Poverty Among Us”). It also had a significant impact on shaping his life and ministries – from his pursuits after graduating college, to later when he was ordained.
A Brush with Death
After graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in political science and a masters in Acadian studies from the University de Moncton in Moncton, New Brunswick, Jacques seemingly had his future mapped out.
In 1974, following his participation at an International Summer Colloquial on “Rural Health Clinics” in Haiti, Jacques returned to the University de Moncton, where he quickly became a student leader on campus. In addition to participating in several other interests, he represented the student body in the University Senate and on the Notre Dame d’Acadie campus parish council, and served as director of the Canadian University Service Overseas.
Jacques’ first full-time job was with World University Service of Canada, in Ottawa. Soon he was promoted as international liaison officer, which also brought him to work within WUS international headquarters, based in Geneva. His involvement with non-governmental organizations focused on cultural, economic and human rights projects, allowing Jacques to travel to North America, Europe, French West Africa and the Sahel. He later went on to work with several other national and international agencies, such as the International Bureau of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges, the Canadian Studies Bureau, and the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs for the Province of New Brunswick.
In his late 20s at the time, Jacques had surgery to remove his tonsils. After the operation, he developed complications and was rushed back to the hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to repair an artery in his throat that the surgeon had accidentally snipped during the tonsillectomy. After this surgery, Jacques’ heart stopped beating. As a nurse was completing paperwork for the hospital’s morgue, Jacques suddenly opened his eyes and moved his feet. He was very much alive.
“I was watching everything, but there was no pain, no panic. I felt God calling my name and telling me that if I came back, there was a special mission for me. I knew something had happened, but I couldn’t define yet what God wanted me to do.” he said, recalling the inexplicable occurrence.
“I thought for a while that this was to be my mission in life: give glory and praise by focusing on God; be present by paying attention to the needs of others; rejoice by doing many acts of kindness, and, on a daily basis, seek and collect God moments,” he said.
But he would soon learn that God still had not fully revealed his plan for him.
‘Here I am, Lord’
A few years later, Jacques found himself in Cameroon at the height of the AIDS epidemic. After being injected with a needle, his arm turned black and he grew terribly ill, slipping in and out of consciousness for several days. Doctors thought he had possibly been exposed to the AIDS virus through an infected needle or blood transfusion.
Jacques subsequently returned home to northern Maine and purchased a small cottage on a lake, where his health worsened. Hanging above the headboard in his bedroom was a Crucifix that was given to him by the Ursuline sisters who had instructed him when he attended grammar school. He prayed to Jesus with his eyes locked on the crucifix.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what you want from me, but whatever it is, I am yours and I will do whatever you ask.’ That moment when I said ‘yes’ to God, it felt like 10 tons had been lifted from my body. I dropped to my knees and said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’”
And so at age 37, Jacques joined the Province’s pre-novitiate program in the summer of 1990 at Holy Cross Friary in Bronx, N.Y., before being received into the Order the following year at St. Francis Friary in Brookline, Mass., where he professed his first vows in 1992. He then went on to the Washington Theological Union in the nation’s capital for studies to prepare him for ministry. He made his solemn profession in 1996 and was ordained into the priesthood in 1997 at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church in Hartford, Conn.
Fighting Child Pornography
Ironically, Jacques’ first assignment after ordination placed him in Tokyo. One of his first experiences in his new environment – a dinner reception at an embassy – brought him full circle to his work with the World University Service.
“The woven placemats at the dinner table looked strikingly familiar. I realized they were the handiwork of one of the projects in Africa for which I had helped secure funding through a grant from the Canadian government,” Jacques said.
After his arrival at the Franciscan friary in the Roppongi district, he learned that the area was a center for the sexual exploitation of children. Indeed, 80 percent of all child pornography being produced in the world was originating from Japan.
Jacques tried to enlist the support of diplomats from various countries around the world. It started slowly, with the embassy of Argentina the first to support these efforts. Then followed France, the U.S., Sweden and Canada – until finally the majority of foreign diplomats in Tokyo signed a petition for the protection of children, thus making the production of child pornography illegal in Japan.
When major media outlets wrote about this effort, and when several United Nations agencies and Interpol Police officially intervened, Jacques immediately received a meeting request from the office of Japan’s prime minister.
“I packed my suitcases because I was certain that I was going to be deported,” he recalled.
At first, the prime minister was very annoyed, but after hearing Jacques’ narrative, he pledged to take action.
Jacques began working with a Japanese citizen lobby group that was already trying to save children from this terrible fate. Their collaborative effort resulted in getting laws changed in Japan to protect children from sexual exploitation.
“We didn’t completely eradicate child pornography in Japan but at least we made a huge dent, expanding laws and saving more children,” he said.
In the summer of 1999, Jacques’ ministry in Japan was cut short. He was forced to leave because his life was threatened by Japanese organized crime, controlled by the infamous Yakusa.
“My mission and ministries have always been very powerful, but sometimes they have been disturbing. I thank God for blessing me with an upbringing that has always given me enough courage and strength to face challenges and push forward,” Jacques said.
Working with Multicultural Communities
Returning to the U.S., Jacques arrived at Holy Name Parish on 96th Street in Manhattan as parochial vicar. One year later, in September of 2000, he was assigned to St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., to minister to immigrants from Africa and Haiti.
With Jacques’ guidance, St. Camillus, one of the most multicultural parishes in the country, incorporated an African-Haitian component to its ministry. He helped establish a new francophone Catholic community, starting with a modest 15 parishioners. By the time he moved on, it had grown to more than 400.
The parish school welcomed young African students, establishing a scholarship program for those who needed financial assistance. They took an existing former convent and converted it into a center for French-speaking Africans and Haitians. Jacques also secured grants that resulted in the parish being able to establish a mobile health clinic dedicated to French-speaking African and Haitian immigrants. Early on, the clinic’s services were also extended to the parish’s Bengali community one day a week.
After more than three years of service at St. Camillus, he moved on to St. Stephen of Hungary Parish on East 82nd Street in Manhattan, where he served in a French-speaking ministry with the Archdiocese of New York for nearly two and a half years.
While in the Big Apple, he became involved in a program funded by government grants that facilitates health care, provides information and access to social services, and even delivers winter coats to French-speaking African immigrants. To this day, the “Carrefour Pastoral Francophone” remains an important tool of ministry for French-speaking immigrants and refugees in New York City, he said.
In 2001, Jacques started Project Oasis, collecting new books for children in developing countries in Asia and Africa.
Staying True to Acadian Roots
Jacques has always kept a place in his heart for his Acadian culture and heritage, which has been a strong element throughout his various ministries. For decades, he has been collecting antique maps, books and other historical documents of Acadia, and he has authored five books about Acadian history.
In 2010, Jacques asked to return to his roots to become administrator of a consolidated ministry in the St. John River Valley (on Maine’s northern border with New Brunswick), ministering to five parishes while also organizing spiritual aspects of the 2014 World Acadian Congress. Until June 2015, when he was assigned to the Shrine, he served in ministries in his hometown as a pastor, administrator and retreat director.
“Although it’s not the usual type of vocation – and sometimes it’s not always understood – I will always be grateful for the confidence and support of the provincials and pastors for allowing me to practice so many varied and God-filled ministries. That’s what makes Holy Name Province and the Franciscans so special and unique,” said Jacques.
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive living in Westchester County, N.Y.
- Related Links
“Friar Hopes ancient maps spark Interest of Acadian History” – Nov. 2, 2016, Fiddlehead Focus
- “Franciscan Presence in Hartford Commemorated with Mass, Block Party” – Nov. 12, 2015, HNP Today
- “Friars Celebrate St. Stephen Parish History with Mass of Thanksgiving” – Dec. 16, 2014, HNP Today
- “Carrefour Supports, Commemorates French Immigrants” – Feb.18, 2009, HNP Today
- “Friar Speaks at World Urban Forum” – July 5, 2006, HNP Today