“We live in the best time, in the best country, in the best city.”
Frank McDevitt, 58, says it that simply. He’s sprawled on a wooden chair in a back office at St Mary’s Catholic Church, a church he’s ‘fathered’ in the religious sense for 12 years.
Father Frank leaves St Mary’s on June 23, after giving his final of 3,120 services.
Simply put, this is a remarkable man.
He leaves a parish of 4000 families, in great spiritual condition, with two church renovations completed, about 1,080 funerals and weddings conducted, uncountable numbers of hospital and nursing home visits, contemplative prayer with individuals and families.
He has held the hands and hearts of families who have lost children in the most tragic of circumstances, and then he’s had the courage and presence of mind to challenge those attending the funeral to help the families by, basically, shutting up.
I think that was my first realization that I was in the company of an unusually sensitive, courageous person, when I attended the funeral for the son of our neighbours about eight years ago. Here was a priest, who after performing his religious duties, had the presence of mind to tell all of us that our greatest gift to the family would be to ‘not speculate, not gossip, not wonder, not question, not discuss, not theorize.’
It was challenging advice with eternal lesson.
Father Frank has initiated lots of great things for the families in the St Mary’s Parish. He’s brought in social friendship time after services. He’s overseen two ambitious renovations. He’s a consummate greeter, at the beginning and the end of each of five services every weekend. He’s interested in this beautiful place and has just published (and sold out at first printing) the history of the St Mary’s Parish from 1819. to present.
Raised in Albion Township, after ordination he served parishes in The Beaches, Orillia, Midland, Scarborough, Caledon (700 families), and then Barrie (4000 families).
“Every parish is different,” he says. “This parish is alive, organic, with different personalities and nationalities. When you arrive, you have to figure out who you’re working with. He’s quick to identify his weaknesses and bolster that with people who have strengths that are needed. Pastoral assistants Micky Oakes and Mary Perry-White for youth and seniors have rounded out the team.
“People here are ready to take on good things. We’re just bringing our fourth refugee familiy here. We host Out of the Cold, and provide an anchor for the Big Sisters Homes tour. We give space to many community programs, from 12 step addiction programs to Big Brothers/Sisters. If it’s a community-building group needing space and we can provide it, we do,” he says.
He measures his dozen years here by speaking only positively, a character trait others have recognized and adopted. “It’s been a rich experience with great variety. I’m more appreciative of the skills people have. I’m happy to let people go do what they do. I think I’m a more confident preacher.”
So, when a priest is 58 years old and has served long and well, where does he go next? “I asked to go to an urban, poor parish. I’ll be taking up residence at St Paul’s Basilica. An enormous building with a serous history, St Paul’s centres in the Queen & Parliament area in downtown Toronto. It embraces Regent Park, Jamestown housing projects, and it pulls largely from a downtown, urban community with great challenges.
It’s the first parish of the diocese and, compared to St Mary’s, it’s a poor parish. He feels he was partially prepared for this service during his years in Scarborough near Danzig St, a very multi cultural area with strident poverty.
“I’m ready to be in the city,” he says.
As he packs his administrative and leadership skills, he also packs his empathy for people, his wisdom about the human condition, his readiness to look at people’s incredible journeys and the challenges that come with that. He has the relevant strengths of a corporate leader plus the ability to create community.
Should serve him well. Should make an enormous contribution to an old, old parish.
Sunday, June 23 is Father Frank’s final services at St Mary’s. At 1 pm, the church community and its friends are invited to drop by for a hamburger, a shake of the hand and a quick goodbye. Father Frank will be there. With his eye on what lies ahead.