The friars stationed at Butler, N.J. Paul Osborne is in the upper left, second row from the top.

Retiree Paul Osborne Looks Back on Ministry in South America, Africa and the U.S.

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This article is part of a series of profiles about the Province’s retired friars. It features what they are doing now, a look back at their ministerial lives as friars, and how, even in retirement, they are making a difference in their communities through their activities and interests. The previous article featured Ignatius Smith, OFM. 

BUTLER, N.J. – It was almost certain that Paul Osborne, OFM, would follow the farming legacy that dated back to his great-grandfather. Every day after school, and on weekends, he labored on the family farm in Churchville, a rural village, population 750, in upstate New York’s Monroe County roughly 35 miles from Lake Ontario.

But his life changed course when Paul’s family began making frequent visits to the monastery chapel of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance – better known as Trappist monks. Although he was enthralled by the lifestyle and writings of these followers of St. Benedict, and active at his diocesan-run parish church as an altar server, it was a meeting with a Holy Name Province vocation director that sealed his interest in a religious vocation as a Franciscan friar.

Paul Osborne in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy of the Provincial archives)

After graduating from Churchville High School in 1955, he packed his belongings and made the four-hour drive southeast of his hometown to the HNP seminary in Callicoon, New York.

Paul left behind the family agricultural business and went on to piece together a beautiful mosaic of ministries in education, formation, pastoral care, and administrative service that has spanned six-plus decades in more than a dozen cities and towns in four countries on three continents. This was quite a change for someone who spent the first 17 years of his life exclusively in a rural upbringing, tending to the dairy herd, calves, and horses, and operating a tractor that tilled the soil for corn, wheat, peas, and other crops on the family farm.

“It was a big change – it was the first time I lived in the city,” Paul said of his move to Callicoon, which by no stretch was considered a metropolis, but seemed that way to the wide-eyed teenager because the population tripled the number of inhabitants in his village.

“I came from a house that had electricity, but no telephone or plumbing, so in many ways, it was a big adjustment,” Paul said in a phone interview from St. Anthony Friary in Butler, where he has lived in retirement since May 2018.

After two years of classes at the Callicoon seminary, and one year at the novitiate in Lafayette, New Jersey, Paul made his first profession in 1958. He professed his solemn vows three years later and went on to earn a licentiate in biology and a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from Catholic University of Goiás.

Tickets to Brazil and East Africa
Upon ordination to the priesthood in 1964, Paul was stationed at the Province missions in South America where he would spend the next two decades primarily in education and formation ministries in Brazil. Although he started out teaching biology at the minor seminary in Anápolis, a municipality in the state of Goiás in the central part of the country, he spent many years serving in several capacities – professor, director, and master of students – in the formation program.

“I cherished working with men in formation because I love the Franciscan charism and teaching about Franciscan history. Formation ministry has been the most rewarding aspect of my life as a friar because I know that I helped young people in discernment and preparation for their vocation journey. There is great satisfaction in knowing that I was important to them at that specific time in their lives,” said Paul, who still maintains phone, email, and Facebook contact with many of the friars he taught during their formation.

A headshot of Paul Osborne, OFM, wearing his Franciscan habit

A recent photo of Paul (Photo courtesy of the Provincial Office)

“I always enjoyed teaching, but above all, the best part of it was working with other friars. Their fraternity and support gave meaning to the whole thing,” added Paul.

In 1984, Paul volunteered to go to East Africa, where he spent 10 years in the cities of Nairobi and Bahati in Kenya, and Mbarara in Uganda, doing what he treasured most – working with men in the formation program while serving as novice director and novitiate team director. For six years, he also served as the provincial minister of the region’s Franciscan province. But despite his administrative responsibilities, he always remained active in the formation program.

“Even as the provincial, I never stopped helping out in the formation program. My frequent travel from city-to-city, and country-to-country, provided opportunities to visit the postulancy groups, and to meet with novices and counsel them in their vocation journey,” said Paul.

Juggling administration and formation during his assignment in East Africa was perhaps the most manageable aspect of his ministry.

“The biggest challenge was managing the different cultures of the friars. They came from 12 countries, mostly European countries, but also from Japan and the U.S. – which made it challenging to work with men of so many distinct customs, different ways of thinking, and different ways of doing things as Franciscans,” said Paul, who studied the Bantu language of Swahili “just enough to get by,” but never mastered it.

“Despite the differences, the common thread that connected all of us in our diversity was the Franciscan fraternity. Everyone was always warm and welcoming,” said Paul.

While most of his work in Africa involved formation and running the province, Brazil was more of a combination of formation ministry and integration with local families. “Both cultures were very hospitable and supportive,” said Paul, who admits he was slightly more partial to Brazilian cuisine.

Return to the States
After 30 years of ministry abroad, Paul was summoned back to the States in 1994 when his elderly mother had fallen ill. He cared for her while teaching religion and biology at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was also part of the campus ministry team and director of the school’s chorus.

Friars at prayer, socially distanced during the COVID-19 pandemic, at St. Anthony Church in Butler. Paul is seated under the stained glass window. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

Six years later, he was appointed pastor of St. George-St. Francis Church in the village of Jeffersonville in Sullivan County, New York, for what turned out to be an important 16-month assignment – and one of the most memorable moments of his 62 years as a friar. Although it ended with HNP returning custody of the parish to the Archdiocese of New York, it was the only extended time that Paul served exclusively in parish ministry.

“I was glad to have the opportunity of parish ministry because I enjoyed the pastoral work so much. It was a pleasant experience. I will always remember the people and how welcoming they were, and the friendships of those with whom I still maintain contact,” said Paul.

When his work at the Buffalo parish was complete, Brazil – which he sometimes calls his “home-away-from-home” – beckoned a second time. On April 28, 2004, Paul was on a plane to Miracema, a municipality of the Brazilian state of Tocantins, where he assisted the bishop in pastoral ministry at a local parish. In December 2006, Paul officially transferred to HNP’s province in Brazil to pave the way for his appointment as the Province’s vicar the following month.

After 10 years in Brazil, he returned to the U.S., this time for good, and was assigned pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Yulan, New York – where once again he was tasked with helping in the Province’s departure from a parish, the second in Sullivan County. That same year, he moved to St. Bernardine of Siena Friary on the campus of Siena College in Loudonville, New York, to serve at HNP’s St. Francis Chapel mall ministry in nearby Colonie. Four years later, in spring 2018, he moved to the retirement house in Butler.

Fraternity and Opportunity
Neither the 40 years spent abroad nor the occasional language barrier in places like Africa deprived Paul of what he calls the foundational core of the Franciscan experience.

Paul Osborne (left) working in the garden of the friary in Butler. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

“Fraternal life is a great source of Franciscan pride. Fraternity has been important to me throughout my friar life and in all of my ministries,” said Paul. “But one of the most unique aspects about being a member of Holy Name Province has been the broad spectrum of ministry opportunities in different countries. Service and fraternity have been the high points of being a friar and member of the Province.”

Although a debilitating health  condition – which requires dialysis three times a week – has limited Paul to more passive activities in recent times, the strong fraternity at the Butler retirement house keeps his mind sharp and his spirits high. “Everyone is always ready to help one another,” said Paul, who enjoys reading theology books, watching travel shows, and playing the piano.

Although he doesn’t play in public, the melodic music of a piano can be heard from his room at the friary. “I’ll make an exception (to play in public) if someone knocks on the door when I’m playing,” says Paul, who was a member of his high school band and chorus.

During the phone conversation, Paul – whose sister lives on their great-grandfather’s farm and whose nephew lives in the farmhouse in Churchville – said he was proud to say he was born and raised into a simple and humble life on a farm. After 62 years of ministry, he speaks of his life as a Franciscan friar with the same pride.

“My greatest achievement has been making the most of the opportunities I have been given as a friar – serving the communities where I was assigned, whether it was Goiás, Nairobi, Jeffersonville, Buffalo or here in Butler. Serving the people and, equally important, serving the fraternity – that has been foremost in my life and my greatest achievement as a friar,” said Paul.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

Editor’s note: Friars who have been featured in this retiree series include Peter Ahlheim, OFM, Ed Flanagan, OFM, Tom Jones, OFM. Others can be found in the HNP Today section of the Provincial website.