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Siena’s Loss is St. Anthony’s Gain

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Going from an upstate New York college campus to a friary of retirees in Florida may seem like a big change, but James Toal, OFM, seems up to the challenge. 

On Aug. 1, Jim left Siena College, where he had been vice president for more than a decade, to become guardian of Saint Anthony’s Friary in St. Petersburg. 

“I certainly won’t miss the snow and ice,” he said, referring to cold upstate New York winters, when HNP Today caught up with him by phone. 

“It is different,” Jim admitted. “You have the enthusiasm of the youth at Siena, and suddenly, I have the experience and wisdom of the older friars.” Either way, he said, life is good. 

The first phone interview by HNP Today needed to be rescheduled, because Jim needed to meet with the state termite inspector. Termites, he said, are a fact of life in the warm climate of Florida, and nothing that he ever had to deal with at Siena.

Almost Four Decades in Education

After 39 years in higher education, including positions as executive vice president of St. Bonaventure University in western New York, and president of Quincy University in Illinois, Jim said it was time to try another ministry. “I felt it was enough of higher education administration, and I wanted to turn my mind and efforts to another area,” he said. “This new ministry was suggested to me and I thought it was a great idea.”

As guardian of St. Anthony’s Friary, Jim will oversee the finances and daily operations. But first and foremost, he said, he will manage the care of its 27 residents. “I will make sure life is pleasant.”

Though several of the residents are recovering from heart attacks, Jim said most are in good health, still driving and helping out in the diocese on weekends. Only one resident needed to give up his driver’s license because of vision problems, according to Jim. 

The oldest friar — Emeric Szlezak, OFM — is 91, and proud to say that he takes no medications and still ministers to the Hungarian community in Florida, according to Jim. 

“We have a full liturgical life here,” said Jim who is someone who has had an especially full life and ministry. 

At Siena, he oversaw the building and renovation of almost every building on its campus, the acquisition of the president’s house and state police barracks, installation of the turf field, implementation of the strategic plan, and many athletic achievements, he said. 

As an avid sports enthusiast, he said he misses his connection to intercollegiate athletics, which reported to his office at Siena. A basketball fan, Jim said he plans to stay involved, either by consulting for the NCAA or continuing to work with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Plans to Start Campus Ministry
Along with Mario Di Lella, OFM, who recently retired to St. Anthony from his role as chaplain at Georgia Tech, Jim plans to start campus ministry programs with the University of South Florida. Its St. Petersburg campus is only 20 blocks from the friary. 

“We want to start some programs there, because they have no campus ministry for the 6,000 students.”

Also on his to-do list is evaluating the friary building for maintenance. Is a renovation of the 1930s former hotel in order? “I’m afraid to disturb the termites,” he laughs. 

But “yes,” he said, the building needs attention. Another Province friary — Saint Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J. — recently underwent extensive renovations.

With 75 guest rooms, the Florida friary often hosts Province meetings, gatherings and retreats.

Jim is also leading the friary in launching a Web site. It already has secured a domain name, and Jim’s team is beginning to develop the site.

As fall in the north arrives, the friary prepares to welcome the snowbirds, about 10-12 northern friars who spend the winter in Florida. The friary also hosts Council and guardians’ meetings, and SPUFY get-togethers. “We’ve got a fair share of visitors, and we look forward to them.”

What do they do for fun? “Well, we go out on the weekends to help at surrounding parishes,” said Jim. “The Diocese of St. Petersburg is especially shorthanded, so our weekends are like work weekends. It is good — friars thoroughly enjoy it.”

Siena’s Fond Farewell
At a bon voyage party for him this summer, college president Kevin Mullen, OFM, said, “To know Jim Toal is to know him from your heart.” He then credited Jim as one of the reasons he is still a friar.

With more than 150 people attending his July 16 party, Jim said many spoke nicely about him. “All sorts of good things were said about me,” he smiled.  “I wish I could believe them all.”

Those wishing to send a message to Jim, can do so using the blog on Siena’s Web site.

 Wendy Healy, a freelance writer living in Connecticut, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.