This is the fourth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their 25th and 50th anniversaries of profession in 2020. The third featured John Gill, OFM. Because of the pandemic, the Province’s traditional celebration of the jubilarians which had been planned for June was postponed.
BOSTON – During much of his childhood, Thomas Donovan, OFM, traveled frequently with his family from their native Quebec, spending many summers with relatives in Brookline, Massachusetts. The visits continued after he became a friar with the western Canada-based Franciscan Province of Christ the King. Fast-forwarding to 2007, Thomas was vacationing in Boston, staying as a guest at St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street. After one conversation led to another, he received permission from his province to work at the Shrine for three years. When the term was up, instead of returning to Victoria, British Columbia, where he had been stationed, Thomas was offered the Shrine’s sacristan position. This time, his stay in Boston became permanent.
After 40 years of profession with the western Canada province, the Nova-Scotia-born friar decided to transfer to Holy Name Province. In addition to a couple of previous visits to the Shrine, he was familiar with the friars before that because of an HNP friary in walking distance from where his aunts lived in the Boston suburb of Brookline. After learning of the province transfer and move to the U.S., which became official on April 2, 2010, more than a few of his fellow friars and friends predicted that it would be short-lived. Ten years later, he has proven them wrong.
“It was big news in Canada. They were like – ‘What!? You’re switching provinces at your age?’ It stunned some people because it is not common to transfer at my age, let alone joining a new province in another country. One of my friends cautioned about leaving the comfort zone of the order I had known for 40 years, and others thought I would have a hard time adjusting to the culture and how the friars do things in the United States,” recalled Thomas, who this year is celebrating his 50th anniversary since professing his first vows as a Franciscan friar, 10 of those years with HNP.
But being brought up in a family that often traveled to the United States, coupled with his familiarity with the friars, made the transition seamless for Thomas – who will be among a group of friars honored later this year at the Province’s jubilarian Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City in celebration of their 50th and 25th anniversaries of profession.
“I always found Holy Name Province very comfortable, warm, and accepting. The friars really understand diversity because they themselves come from different geographic locations, backgrounds, and cultures – and that is unique and special about Holy Name Province. Its flexibility, openness, and hospitable nature is well known around the world. This reputation has followed the Province throughout its history,” said Thomas, whose work as the sacristan at the Shrine includes a number of responsibilities.
Besides making all purchases – such as vestments and candles, and sacramental wine – and maintaining and caring for the sacristy, churches and friar residence, Thomas works closely with maintenance personnel and lay directors of various ministries, among them decorators, musicians, Eucharistic ministers, and others. His work during the coronavirus pandemic has intensified, overseeing maintenance staff in the execution of more frequent sanitizing of the friary and church even though no outsiders are permitted in the buildings during the state’s shelter-in-place orders.
“We moved the daily live-streaming Mass from the friary chapel to the main church, so we — the friars –can safely sit farther apart. All common areas have to be cleaned more often even though it’s just the friars in the building,” he explained.
Born in Nova Scotia, Thomas was raised in Quebec, the predominantly French-speaking province in eastern Canada. Early religious influence came in grade school from the De La Salle Christian Brothers, but his introduction to the Franciscans came at a friar-run urban service church in downtown Montreal, to which his mother would take the family for a change of pace from Mass at their local parish. He grew close to the friars, a number of whom spoke English and attended many of their events while he was working for a Quebec-based Chinese import company, a position he landed after graduating high school in 1962. When the company relocated four years later, he took a job at the Berkeley Montreal, a family-owned 100-room boutique hotel.
At that point, thoughts of religious vocation were inching their way to the surface. “I was still visiting the friars and I liked what they were doing. I had a very good pastor at my local parish who always said that priests from other orders admired the Franciscan friars and how they conducted themselves in ministry. I also did a lot of reading about the Franciscans and their origins. It struck me that Francis wanted to enter religious life, but not as a priest – which is why he founded the order, to give others the opportunity of religious vocation and brotherhood without having to be ordained into the priesthood,” said Thomas.
When he decided to pursue a vocation with the Franciscans, Thomas was advised to join Christ the King Province in western Canada because of his, and the province’s, proclivity to the English language. “The eastern province only spoke French, so they thought it would be a better fit for me in the western province,” he said, “going to something that I was more familiar with since I was used to speaking mostly English.” He entered the novitiate in Saskatchewan in 1969, professed his first vows in 1970 in Edmonton, Alberta, and made his final profession five years later in Lumsden, a town in southeastern Saskatchewan.
During his 40 years as a member of Christ the King Province, his work was centered around retreat and parish ministries. He was part of the friar team at the Mount St. Francis Retreat Center, coordinating all aspects of hospitality at the more than 70-year-old spiritual oasis in Cochrane, Alberta, near the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Since there was downtime in retreat ministry, Thomas had the freedom to fulfill other responsibilities, including going to other province houses and friaries to help develop interior design plans and to procure orders ranging from food to appliances. His parish assignments included administrative responsibilities and working with the liturgy, music, and other committees. He was also stationed in Jerusalem from 1979 to 1981, working at the Franciscan biblical school in the Holy Land as caretaker of the museum, chapel, and tourism.
A Lesson in Acceptance
Christ the King Province was “regional in its thinking,” according to Thomas, who noted that this may have been the biggest difference between his old province and Holy Name Province.
“That’s how things are done in Canada. Friars who came from a particular region would be assigned to ministry life in that region. I was the exception because I was more comfortable with speaking English. Holy Name Province is global in its thinking and how friars minister, not only because they come from so many parts of the world, but because they live in mission,” Thomas said.
“The Shrine is an example of how friars are accepting of everyone – street people, sick people, business people. For many years at the retreat house in Saskatchewan, I greeted people every Friday evening and they were gone by Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t used to seeing the poor and homeless that you encounter on a daily basis at the Shrine,” Thomas said. “I remember one of the first days when I approached someone sleeping in the church and told them they couldn’t do that. Let’s just say the reaction of the homeless individual and an explanation from another friar gave me a quick lesson of how Holy Name Province treats everyone around the world with compassion and care. That was probably the biggest adjustment in my transition from the Canadian province to Holy Name.”
The most intriguing part of being the sacristan at the Shrine, according to Thomas, is that it’s not a typical parish. In fact, his work in the private sector, particularly in the hospitality industry, served as a good training ground.
“It reminds me of a hotel because it’s like maintaining 25 hotel rooms (the number of friars who reside at Arch Street) – and because it is an urban church ministry and not a conventional parish; it has the tourist aspect. I find myself in conversation with different people every day, asking them where they’re from, and vice-versa,” he said.
Like experiences, many friars have made a lasting impression on Thomas throughout his 50 years of profession, but perhaps none more than David Convertino, OFM, who was the guardian of the Shrine when he was vacationing in Boston. “It was David who asked me if I wanted to come on board for the first three-year assignment that my province approved. He encouraged me to use it as a trial period to see if I liked Holy Name Province. Then he inspired me to renew my travel visa for another three years and take the sacristan position,” Thomas said.
When he renewed his visa, that’s when he also made up his mind to transfer to HNP – which, he says, was made possible by the relentless efforts of John Maganzini, OFM. “If not for him handling the mountains of paperwork and red-tape, I would’ve given up and just returned to Canada. I don’t think I would’ve gotten my green card without John’s tenacity and help,” Thomas said.
His visitations have been reversed since transferring to the U.S., as Thomas finds himself going to Canada to see friars and friends whom he has known from his Franciscan life with Christ the King Province. Of course, they visit him in Boston as well, including Dominic Tessier, OFM, who was already solemnly professed when Thomas joined the Order and served as his unofficial mentor.
If Thomas is seen racing through the streets of downtown Boston, it’s not because he’s in a hurry. He has always been fitness-conscious and as he grows in age, he finds speed-walking less stressful on the body than running. “I’ve never been the type of person who sits around. I love the outdoors,” he said.
When he’s indoors and has time to himself, Thomas enjoys listening to music. Friars who pass his room at the friary likely will hear the songs of renowned artists – like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and Michael Bublé – reverberating through the wall. They and dozens of other popular musical artists are part of his collection of more than 500 CDs – which was the heaviest thing to transport when he switched provinces and moved to the Shrine. “I have been collecting music for 50 years. I enjoy theater musicals as well, and one of my favorite things to do is browse music stores because you never know what you’re going to find,” said Thomas, whose travels with his family and later, as a friar, have included trips to Assisi, Scotland, Ireland and other European countries.
After 50 years as a friar, Thomas is extremely content with the conversion he made a decade ago. “How could I not be – I’m the friar with two countries! It’s nice visiting cousins, friends, and friars in Canada, and it’s great when they come here to visit me. When we can’t get to see each other, I send them newsletters and photos from Boston so they know what’s going on in my life. This transfer that everyone said was rare, and some said wouldn’t work out, has worked out exactly the way I thought it would,” said Thomas.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Commemorating Jubilarians and Remembering Deceased Brothers” – Jan. 9, 2020, HNP Today
- “Celebrating St Anthony Shrine’s Friars and Outreach to Those in Need” – Nov. 13, 2019, HNP Today
- “Canadian Provinces Unify During Historic Chapter” – Oct. 30, 2018, HNP Today