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BOSTON — Despite the absence of honoree Msgr. William Francis, the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle celebrated its 16th Annual Cardinal Cushing Awards Banquet on Sept. 17.
Msgr. Francis, who had planned to be present to receive the Cardinal Cushing award, is recuperating from surgery. Nearly 300 gathered to honor the monsignor and support the society.
Msgr. Francis was lauded for his former service as a missionary, his continuous support of the society as a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, and to honor the 45th anniversary of his ordination. He joined the St. James Society in 1961. As member of the third group of diocesan missionary priests to travel to Peru, he was one of the youngest priests to serve in the society, being only three years ordained at the time. Presently, Msgr. Francis is pastor of Holy Family Parish in Dorchester.
In a recent interview, Msgr. Francis spoke of his admiration and love for the Society of St. James and the poor whom they serve. As a St. James priest in Peru, he ministered to the Quechua-speaking Inca descendants of Limatambo, located in Andes Mountains, and later served among the squatter settlements (barrios) of Comas, situated on the outskirts of Lima.
Msgr. Francis described his experience at Comas. “Comas was a tough, very tough area. I lived in a small shack for over a year, no bathroom, no running water, nothing. I felt I was doing right. I was right on top of the people, living amongst them. The people lived in straw-mat huts. But it was great. I loved it out there. I loved the people and I learned Spanish very quickly!”
The Dorchester pastor connected his former mission experience with the present challenges of an inner urban parish. “Were there sad days in the missions? Sure there were sad days and there were some very lonely days as I recall. But I, for one, will always be grateful to the society for that opportunity. It certainly enriched my priesthood. Not that I have anything against the middle-class, but I don’t think I could ever fit into kind of a middle-class situation again. I understand the cry of the poor. I understand the frustrations of the poor. I understand the bitterness of the poor an awful lot more than I did before I went down there. I learned that being religious meant a little bit more than being on your knees, saying your prayers, and not eating meat on Friday. I learned being religious meant helping someone, extending yourself.”
During the interview Msgr. Francis related a humorous story. “Father Bill Pearsall was accompanying me to my first assignment in Limatambo. It was going to be about a 22-hour bus ride. The first night out we stopped at a place for coffee. Of course, the place was dark, being lit only by candlelight. The hot water came out in a cup and I said to Father Pearsall, ‘Oh, it already has the coffee in it.’ Father Bill chuckled, ‘That’s not coffee, that’s dirt!’
Asked to characterize the benefits to a priest and his home diocese in affiliating with the Society of St. James, Msgr. Francis replied, “Foremost, a St. James missioner returns home with an understanding that a diocese can learn an awful lot from other people. He brings back a vision of the Church that is much bigger than his diocese. He returns with the knowledge of another language and a sincere openness to learn, to appreciate, and to love another culture. I assure you, a returning priest will come out of the experience appreciating his priesthood and his home diocese much more. Priests and dioceses have talents that they can share with other people, and I think they should give themselves that chance to share those talents.”
Msgr. Francis may have been physically absent from the recent awards banquet, but the acknowledgement of his selfless ministry celebrated in spirit all of the priests and lay people who share and discover Christ in the people of Latin America through the Missionary Society of St. James.