Although the Rev. Francis Privé, as a Catholic priest, has no children of his own, all the young souls who have passed through his care over the years are his, in a way.
In 50 years as a Vermont priest, Privé oversaw youth programs all over the state, encouraging kids to find their faith and providing a safe space for them to learn.
His final assignment was in Morrisville, where he was born.
This year, Privé, 78, will step down as pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Morristown. His last day at the parish will be July 1 — but he’ll still be a priest.
“After all these years, you will achieve senior status,” Privé explained. “I will be one of the senior priests, but not with appointed or assigned duties.”
That leaves him free to garden, gab and get comfortable.
Privé grew up in a large Catholic family, which moved from Morrisville to Johnson when he was in the third grade.
He felt the tugging of the priesthood from an early age, he said.
“During summers, we would go to Hyde Park for Bible study for a week of vacation. … At the time, we were studying the saints, and they’re kind of heroes, you know. I said, ‘Hmm, it would be nice to be a saint.’ I could do that if I were ordained as a priest, if I worked a little harder at it,” Privé said. “I thought maybe if I asked through prayer, I would get an answer” on whether he should consider the priesthood.
“Little St. Theresa’s Church was right across the way, so we went out for recess on Thursday and I spent my whole 10 minutes in church, praying that the answer would be written on the wall: Should I become a priest? Yes or no.”
Little Francis’ faith was tested that day.
“No answer on Thursday,” he said. “I went again Friday and did the same thing. No answer.”
So, to Privé, the priesthood was out.
But when he enrolled in Newport’s now-defunct Sacred Heart High School, he and the rest of his class went on a three-day retreat with a Jesuit priest who opened his eyes, once again, to the calling he’d felt years ago in that sweltering Hyde Park summer.
“What he talked about during the retreat was how he had done so much for other people, because there are many people in need. You don’t have to be out on a mission. You can be right here doing the work of the Lord, and your ministry has rewards,” Privé said.
“It really caught my attention,” he said. “I said, ‘This is what I’ve got to do.’”
Beginning his senior year, despite the five-year, all-expenses-paid scholarship for electrical engineering at the University of Vermont burning a hole in his pocket, Privé turned his attention back to the priesthood.
“At that point, I went to see my priest in Newport,” Fr. Bernard Messier, “and I said to him, ‘Father, I want to become a priest.’ He said, ‘Well, you should think about this.’”
Messier sent Privé away for a month to ask himself whether he wanted to devote his life to the church.
“I came back exactly a month later and said, ‘I thought about it and this is what I wanted to do,’” Privé said.
In the summer of 1958, Privé was 18 and had just graduated high school, but learned he had to stay another year at Sacred Heart to study Latin. He learned three years of Latin in a single year, he said, as well as bookkeeping and typing.
To earn money while he studied, Privé worked on a dairy farm. He also studied at a seminary in Rutland.
When he was ordained, he headed to St. Johnsbury to serve in St. John the Evangelist Parish. He spent four and a half years there, attempting to visit every family in the parish at the request of the bishop.
He said he visited about 300 people there, and served about 160 kids in the church’s religious education program.
His next assignment was in youth ministry at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Burlington, where he had 300 kids in the elementary grades and 60 in the high school program.
He spent 10 years in Burlington before taking a position in Shelburne as the director of youth ministry for seven years. He also spent time working with religious education programs in Georgia and Underhill before returning home to Morrisville.
“I’ve always enjoyed young children, eighth-graders who are always full of ideas, and the high schoolers. I just find working with them keeps you young,” Privé said with a chuckle. “I’ve had more children along the way in the parishes that I’ve been” than he could have had biologically.
Privé knows church attendance is slowing down statewide. Vermont and New Hampshire swap places from time to time as the union’s least religious state.
But Privé’s faith is bulletproof, and he knows families for whom the same is true. As long as they still believe in and worship the Catholic Holy Trinity, priests will have a place in society, he said.
“I think there are fewer people of faith, but I think the people of faith today are really ruled by that faith. They know that there’s a spirit within that is at work, and they begin to listen to that spirit. And I preach on this all the time,” he said.
To bolster his parish, he says it’s been important to him over the years to let churchgoers help direct their own worship.
“If you allow people to become involved,” they want to stay, he said. “Parishes go through different phases. There’s a phase where there’s a lot of families, a lot of children, a lot of students, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got the old people and those others have gone to college and most of them don’t come back. You see them during the school years and then they might come back to be married,” but often, they move away, he said.
“What we need to be concerned about as priests, it’s a simple message — you need to get people involved. … I always involved couples or people in whatever I was doing in the parish. I didn’t do it alone, because that doesn’t work. The parish has to realize that it’s their parish, and they’re the ones who have to make it happen or not.”
Privé knows he’s made a difference in the lives of the families to whom he’s ministered over the years.
“They really listen. I talk to them about the spirit inside us, and that we need to listen to that spirit. Even the last Mass I did last Wednesday, I talked about that. Don’t go on vacation from the spirit of God inside you. Listen to that spirit, and be guided by that spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence in our lives, and we have to listen and find the direction that is being pointed out to us.
“What kept me in the priesthood? Well, I listened,” Privé said.