Obituary: Father William T. Pearsall, first member of the St. James Society

With more priests than he needed, Archbishop Richard Cushing started to share the wealth. During the period between the mid-40s and the mid-60s, the archbishop was experiencing what turned out to be a temporary glut of priests ordained for the archdiocese.

Smaller dioceses in the United States were among the first recipients of the archbishop's largesse. Then followed graduate schools. Priests were sent to graduate schools near and far for graduate studies in canon law; fundamental, moral, sacramental, and dogmatic theology, social work, philosophy; education; and biblical studies, to name a few. These graduates were used locally or shared nationally and internationally. And then the military chaplain corps -- Air Force; Army, and Navy, the latter serving not only the Navy but also Marines and Coast Guard -- got more than a share.

He still had more to share. And so was born the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. It became one of his pet projects. And Father William T. Pearsall became the very first member of the new society.

A native of Lowell, he was born there on Aug. 14, 1928, a son of the late William and Esther (Fox) Pearsall. He had two siblings both surviving him: Paul of Chelmsford; and his sister Elizabeth Kinch of Littleton, Colo. The previous generation of Pearsalls of Lowell also produced vocations; he had an uncle, Ernest, a priest of the archdiocese ordained in 1937 who died in 2000; and an aunt, Sister Mary (Ernest) Pearsall, CSJ, who died in 2003, having been a Sister of St. Joseph of Boston for more than 70 years.

Raised in Lowell, he attended the city's public elementary schools, and then Keith Academy, where his teachers were Xaverian Brothers to whom he attributed no small influence on his priestly vocation.

He completed his seminary formation at archdiocesan seminaries and Archbishop Cushing ordained him to the priesthood on Sept. 29, 1953, at Holy Cross Cathedral. He was the last member of either of the 1953 classes; there had been one in February, and Father Pearsall's class was to have been ordained in 1954, but they needed space in the seminary, so the class of '54 became the September Class of 1953.

He was assigned as an assistant at St. John Chrysostom Parish, West Roxbury. In his "first" first, he was the first assistant there; the parish having just been established the year prior. In 1956, he was named an assistant at St. Joseph Parish, Wakefield. While there, he heard about the initial plans of a "call up" for missionaries to Peru.

He wrote immediately to the archbishop and volunteered. Summoned to the residence, he ran into some other contemporaries who he soon learned were also signing up. The archbishop gathered them all and said they could all go. In a humorous and typical Cushing move, he first told them to say nothing about the new plans until the spring, not even their families . . . The advice "you'll be spared long goodbyes." He then invited them to join him in a radio evening broadcast of the rosary. It began thus "Good Evening. I am happy to have . . . (and named the several priests with him there), they will be joined by (and he named more priests) as the first members of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle leaving for South America in March." Apparently, a secret too good to keep -- from the world.

Just what "all" really meant was revealed several months later when the first group of 14 Bostonians, and one Chicagoan were given mission crosses and sent to language school in Bolivia. That was Feb. 22, 1959. And for 41 years until his retirement in 2000, Father Pearsall was a member of the St. James Society. Archbishop Cushing insistently reminded Father Pearsall that, in fact, he was the first member appointed to the Society.

From his own missionary work in Peru, to administrative responsibilities there and in Boston, to director of the Society, he was through and through a missionary. While director, he was the superior of the priests and responsible for the fund-raising efforts of the Society. During his tenure as director, he was in South America regularly and visited 39 parishes in the three countries where the Society served: Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.

During his years in South America, he faced many challenges. In an extensive interview for the archives of the Society, he painted a picture of his life there. What is immediately obvious is that he loved being "on the ground" in the missions. Even with the relatively primitive living conditions -- high altitudes, unfriendly critters, radically different diet, expansive distances between parishes and small communities, and only occasional running water -- he was at home.

There were other factors: local political situations, infiltration of communism, government corruption (not at all unique to South American countries). Similarly, within the Church, there were rising varied opinions about her mission. The new theology of liberation with often very different interpretations and meanings was spreading across the continent. That it was born in Europe seemed often to be overlooked. And for both the local clergy and missionaries who were more concerned about the realities of life on mountain tops, hillsides, and urban slums, it seemed a distraction. Thus, there were internal and external pressures; local, national, and international that added pressure to the missionaries' vocation.

Even with all that, Father Pearsall was much more at home in the missions of South America than the very different kinds of missions of the developed world.

When he retired in 2000, he assisted at St. Stephen Parish, Framingham, and in other parishes, and continued to serve on the preaching band of the Society, making mission appeals across the archdiocese and even across the country.

In 2008, he entered Regina Cleri, and for two years (2012 to 2014), he served as chaplain and kind of an ombudsman for the priests there, more than a few of whom were former members of the St. James Society.

In recent years and months, age began to take its seemingly inevitable toll. He died at Regina Cleri on April 21, 2024.

Father Pearsall's funeral Mass is scheduled for May 8, 2024, at St. Margaret of Scotland Church, Lowell, where he celebrated his First Mass more than 70 years ago. Merrimack Regional Bishop Robert F. Hennessey, himself a veteran of the St. James Society, is to be the principal celebrant; while Father David Costello, present director of the Society, is to be the homilist. Among those concelebrating the funeral Mass will be brother priests residing at Regina Cleri, other former members of the St. James Society, and priestly friends of Father Pearsall.

Following the funeral Mass, Father Pearsall will be buried in the Pearsall Family Lot at St. Patrick Cemetery, Lowell.