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St. James Society honors past, continues work

  • Cardinal O’Malley presents the St. James Society’s Cheverus Award to a member of a local parish in Peru. Pilot photo/courtesy Maureen Crowley Heil
  • The Cheverus Award recipients pose for a photo following the ceremony. Pilot photo/courtesy Maureen Crowley Heil
  • Bishop Robert Hennessey and Bishop Pedro Bustamante of Sicuani, Peru celebrate Mass on Jan. 25. Pilot photo/courtesy Maureen Crowley Heil

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LIMA, Peru -- On Jan. 22, at the opening Mass for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle which is based in the North End of Boston, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley found himself in a familiar situation.

He said, "Back in Boston, I always say my entire life could be spent traveling around doing 50th anniversaries of things that Cardinal Cushing started, in this case, the 60th anniversary!"

Cardinal O'Malley went on to speak about the importance about the work of the St. James Society, which was founded by Cardinal Cushing so priests from English speaking countries could serve the mission Church of South America.

He said that the society's members are following what Pope Francis tells us: the reason we are on this planet is to take care of each other. During its 60 years of existence, the society has given this opportunity of service to over 300 priests from the United States, Ireland, Scotland, England, the Philippines, and Ghana.

Speaking to the Pilot, Father David Costello, Director of the St. James Society said he was happy to be hosting the gathering of almost 70 alumni, their guests and the speakers for the week, Sister Sheila Curran and Msgr. Allen Aganon, both of whom had worked in Peru with the Society in the past.

For Father Costello, the highlight of the week centered around an idea that had come from society alumnus Bishop Robert Hennessey -- the presentation of the Cheverus Awards to local people in parishes served by the St. James Society.

Modelled after the Archdiocese of Boston's awards of the same name, the Cheverus Awards were sought to recognize those who have served the Church in a quiet, even unrecognized manner.

Father Costello said, "The highlight of the 60th (anniversary) for me was the presentation of the Cheverus Award to the unsung heroes who are involved in our parishes, and others who have been associated with us for more than 50 years. Without the help and support we receive down here, we would not be where we are today."

"The Cheverus Award is a very appropriate way to recognize these dedicated people who help run our feeding programs, elder care facilities, and work in our parishes. It serves as a very tangible way of highlighting the connection between Archdiocese of Boston and the St. James Society," he added.

The Peruvian recipients of the Cheverus medals travelled from throughout the country with their families and friends to receive the honor from the cardinal at a Vesper Prayer Service. After the prayer service, they were feted at a dinner in their honor.

A musical group from a St. James parish entertained those in attendance. There was also a professional dance troupe that performed eight different dances from various cultures and customs of Peru.

As part of the week's celebrations, Cardinal O'Malley, who is president of the St. James Society, presented mission crosses to two newest members to be welcomed into service in the society -- Father Dan Gonzalez of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas and Father Francis Kwofie of Diocese of Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana.

After the presentation, both men spoke to The Pilot about why they requested leave from their home dioceses to serve the Church of Peru through the St. James Society.

Father Gonzalez is returning for his second term of service with the society. Father calls himself a "second career vocation" to the priesthood -- immediately after college he served in the Congo with the Peace Corps. When he returned home, he got a job with Catholic Charities of Wyoming. Hearing of the death of Oscar Romero, Father Gonzalez was inspired to journey to El Salvador where he worked for seven years in refugee camps as a "house father" for children. After returning to the States, he felt God calling him to the priesthood. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1992 by Bishop Edmond Carmody, an alumnus of the St. James Society.

First commissioned for the St. James Society in 2002, Father Gonzalez was sent to language school in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Because he already had a good command of Spanish, he took classes in the language of the indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru -- Quechua. Father Gonzalez remembers this as a time of great camaraderie -- the first of many he would experience as a member of the society. After he had learned the language, Father Gonzalez was sent to Ecuador on mission with the native people there.

After returning to Texas from Ecuador, he wanted to spend another term in South America because, in his words, "I love service. I am blessed by good health. I feel rich by the Spirit that allows me to be with these people. These have been the happiest years of my priesthood."

Father Gonzalez has been assigned to serve in the Prelature of Sicuani, in the mountains of Peru.

Father Kwofie from Ghana is the first priest from the African continent to serve with the society in the missions of South America.

Father Kwofie grew up in a suburban parish run by priests from the Society of African Missions (The SMA Fathers). He remembers admiring the dedication and bravery of the priests and religious who embraced the call to missionary life -- leaving behind their families and friends, their language and customs, and embracing new ways of life.

He felt called to the priesthood but not, as he says, "in a far-off land." He was ordained to serve the local Church of Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana in December 2001. Although he has also been a pastor, much of Father Kwofie's priestly life has been spent in academia. While serving parishes, he has been a teacher, tutor, and a chaplain at various government high schools where he was also responsible for the catechetical formation of the Catholic students.

During those years, although it was not his assignment, Father Francis would look for remote places that had little access to a priest and therefore the sacraments.

"I found a joy in celebrating Mass in Communities that would not otherwise have a priest," he said.

Because his two maternal aunts live in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Father Francis had the opportunity to visit western Massachusetts during a summer holiday recently. He met Father John Salatino from the Springfield Diocese. Father Salatino was in the process of joining the St. James Society. Although he had never considered being a missionary before, upon returning to Ghana, Father Francis said, "I could not get it out of my mind."

Because all St. James members are diocesan priests and need their bishop's permission to leave their local assignment for a five-year term, Father Kwofie approached his bishop who himself was originally a missionary -- a Spiritan Father. They agreed to pray over the idea and meet again after three months' time. When Father Kwofie returned, his bishop counseled him on some of the difficulties he would face being so far away from home and learning a new language. Not dissuaded, Father Francis was asked to put his request in writing -- which he did, that day, sitting in the outer office of the bishop's office.

Within five months, his paperwork was processed and Father was on his way to Boston, arriving on July 25 -- the feast of St. James.

Currently, Father Kwofie is still in language school learning Spanish. As a former language teacher, he tells his friends, "What I taught I must now put into practice."

After he is finished he will be assigned to a St. James Society parish in Lima.

Bishop Pedro Bustamante is the Prelate of Sicuani. Just 53 years old, Bishop Bustamante has but 15 priests to serve almost half-a-million people in his mission territory, which is slightly larger than the State of Connecticut. Three of those priests are members of the St. James Society. The society has been helping to supply Sicuani with priests for 15 years.

The bishop feels that this is a great sign of the communion of the universal Church.

"Along with our Peruvian priests, we have priests from the United States, the Philippines, Korea, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. The people see that they are not alone. This is very important in the prelature," he said.

Bishop Bustamante says the missionaries are very warmly received by the people and welcomed into their families. This is crucial because the priests are dispersed over such a large area -- some may travel up to 10 hours to get to one of the parishes for which he is responsible.

"We are very grateful that the St. James Society sends us their priests. They accompany our people, help them with economic needs, and most importantly teach catechesis. We are very thankful to Boston for giving us this society," said the bishop.

Seeing it as a benefit for both a priest's home diocese and the missions, Cardinal O'Malley said, "In my days in Washington, I met a lot of the Boston priests who were working in Hispanic ministries and who had been here in the St. James Society. It is one of the great by-products of the society that their priests, once back in the States, are able to minister to our growing Hispanic population."

The cardinal is grateful, too, for the service of all the members of the Society and hopes that their work grows. "As we're getting more vocations in Boston maybe we'll get more people here for the Society," he added.

For more information on the work of this Boston-based missionary society, visit www.socstjames.org.

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