Profile: Vianney Justin Marks 50 Years as a Friar

Mary Best Friar News

This is the fourth in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2016. They will be honored by the Province at a special Mass on June 23. The last issue of HNP Today featured Ignatius Harding, OFM

BUFFALO, N.Y. — By the time boys finish elementary school, many have an idea of what they’d like to be when they grow up. That was true for golden jubilarian Vianney Justin, OFM — he wanted to be a friar.

Vianney was born to the late Joseph and Claire Justin in Paterson, N.J., and grew up in a Franciscan parish, St. Joseph’s, in East Rutherford, N.J., where he was the “gopher” for all of the friars who cooked. Many times, they gave him leftovers to bring home to his family or asked him or one of his four siblings to go shopping for them. Vianney’s younger brothers served as altar boys for Michael Duffy, OFM, who became a classmate of Vianney, and for the late Mychal Judge, OFM.

One day, when he was in sixth grade, Vianney confided to a friar that he was interested in becoming a Franciscan. In response, the late Fabian Flynn, OFM, told him to read “The Life of St. Francis” by G.K. Chesterton, which made Vianney think seriously about his life. After eighth grade, he left home to attend St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., for four years of high school and one of college.

“Because the friars knew me quite well and knew my family, I was sort of the poster boy going to the seminary,” Vianney said. “Fr. Fabian gave me his old black suit and the lapels were so big, you could almost fly a plane with them. Everybody outfitted me for my excursion to minor seminary.”

Vianney said that because he had failed Latin and Greek and since theology was taught in Latin, he was told he probably couldn’t become a priest. Six months later, Vianney went to Croghan, N.Y., to begin training to be a Franciscan brother, spending two years as a postulant and serving as the cook and baker.

On July 15, 1966, Vianney made his first profession of vows at the Province’s novitiate in Lafayette, N.J. He attended St. Francis School of Nursing in Olean, N.Y., in 1967 to become a licensed practical nurse and professed his final vows in Alto Beni, Bolivia, on July 24, 1970.

‘Honeymoon’ in Bolivia
Vianney’s first assignment took him to La Paz, Bolivia, in 1970 to direct a parish health clinic. From 1972 to 1978, he served as director of the catechist and deacon programs as well as bookkeeper for a savings and loan cooperative in Caranavi, Bolivia.

He often refers to his time in Bolivia as the “honeymoon of my life.”

“It was like a Boy Scout adventure,” Vianney said. “When I was younger, I used to play in the rectory in East Rutherford and I would read magazines about the missionaries in Bolivia. I finally got to meet those same men when I arrived in Bolivia, so I sort of had a little background as to what Bolivia and its people were about. It was something new and something very, very different from the United States.”

Before 1952, Vianney said, it was forbidden to have schools for the indigenous people, so the people with whom the friars worked could not read and write. The friars taught studies on how to read the Bible, and the indigenous people learned how to read. “It was the first time they themselves could read the Bible, which was considered subversive back then,” Vianney said.

Vianney also taught people how to build outhouses, how to give injections to help fight tuberculosis, yellow fever and snake bites, how to boil water to fight worms and parasites, and how to prepare for childbirth and to have good nutrition skills.

“The people of our parish wanted to learn as much as they could because education had been denied to them for so long,” Vianney said. “Seeing this gave me the most joy as I realized that because they had never gone to school, they had a voracious appetite to learn. It was a delight being able to share with them some of the things that I knew.”

Return to the U.S.
In May 1978, Vianney returned stateside to attend his brother’s wedding, and he never went back to Bolivia. After some needed rest and recuperation from his intense years in that country, the friar went to Philadelphia to work at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen, which was being constructed at the time.

Vianney said he cried knowing he wouldn’t be returning to Bolivia. “Years ago, when I was assigned to Bolivia, you had the mentality that you were there until you died,” he said.

Vianney next moved to East Boston, Mass., to work at Angel’s Attic thrift shop, serve as bookkeeper and eventually take a job at Crossroads Family Shelter. In 1987, he moved to Washington, D.C., to study at Washington Theological Union. During his time there, he lived at the Assisi Community and he had several roles.  Vianney worked with a refugee family from El Salvador, went “dumpster diving” with Catholic Workers for their shelters and soup kitchens, and worked as a nurse at Mother Theresa’s Gift of Peace Hospice for homeless men and women with AIDS. After taking a six-month break to care for his mother when she fell sick, Vianney continued his work in Washington where he began giving retreats for the homeless.

“I felt I was in a very sacred place as they spoke of their relationship with God,” he said.

In May 2002, after some medical challenges, Vianney moved to St. Patrick Friary in  Buffalo, where he currently lives. In this Western New York city, Vianney became involved with prison ministry initially through then-friar Michael Oberst, who ran a shelter for ex-offenders.

Vianney now takes responsibility for driving women and children from Buffalo to Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 45 minutes away from the friary. As part of the Family Reunion Program, he picks up prisoners’ family members — at bus or train stations, at the airport or at their homes — and takes them shopping for food and drops them off at the visitor’s center, picking them up two days later.

The program exists to try to keep fathers in touch with their wives and children, as well as to reduce violence within the prisons, said Vianney.

Looking Back
Thinking about the 50 years he has spent as a Franciscan, Vianney said, can be a “sensitive topic” for him, because of his health struggles. He credits the late Maurice Swartout, OFM, with helping him get his life back together by inviting Vianney to live with him.

“In a big sense, I feel that I owe my life to him,” Vianney said. “If I hadn’t been a Franciscan and hadn’t gotten the care from the friars, I could’ve been somebody on a park bench somewhere not being cared for. The fact that I function today has a lot to do with the care and the goodness of the friars who lived with me in the past.” He said he is especially grateful to several friars — Robert Frazzetta, OFM, and Richard McFeely, OFM, as well as Michael Duffy.

These days, Vianney enjoys continuing one of Maurice’s traditions — communicating with seniors in the area.

“I send out a bulletin once a month with different cartoons of Br. Juniper,” he said. “I have a few stencils from way back when Justin McCarthy would draw the cartoons for the New York Daily News and for the seniors. When Brother Moe was here, on the last Friday of every month, he would have a dinner for the seniors. I feel that by sending them this letter, it lets them know that we are still thinking of them and, hopefully, the cartoons give them a laugh or two.”

For now, Vianney plans to keep up his current ministries and activities. If there’s one thing he has learned over the years, he said, it’s to not expect anything to be guaranteed.

“I don’t know what’s ahead,” Vianney said. “Somebody once told me, ‘God is a God of surprises. Hang in there.’”

Mary Best is a Western New York-based writer and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University. 

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