Robin Huebner reports: Farewell to Father Jack
FARGO - A beloved priest from North Dakota who took an indefinite leave of absence from his longtime mission in Peru a year ago has left the parish for good.
The Rev. Jack Davis, known to many as “Father Jack,” was the guest of honor at a recent farewell Mass and party at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Chimbote, Peru.
Davis celebrated Mass outdoors at the July 17 send-off with a crowd of more than 500 people to whom he and Sister Peggy Byrne have ministered for nearly 40 years.
“It was a wonderful occasion,” said Davis, speaking by phone from his new home at a diocesan retreat in Jimbe, Peru – a 90-minute drive from Chimbote.
“It was a chance to say goodbye and express my appreciation,” he said.
He also called it bittersweet.
“I was so tired when I left last year, so stressed out,” said Davis, who turns 71 in August.
The Devils Lake, N.D.-born priest announced an abrupt sabbatical last July, expressing regret for not taking time to balance the demands of serving the poor, and stating a need for rest and renewal.
At the time, he said he hoped to return to Chimbote in a reduced capacity.
But after time away and consulting with the bishop of Chimbote, Davis determined he wouldn’t return in any role and informed the parish of that during the celebration.
“Will he stop helping people in need? I don’t think he ever can. That’s just what’s in his heart,” said Susan Trnka, executive director of the Fargo-based nonprofit Friends of Chimbote.
“But I don’t think he’ll ever want to enter or restart anything of this magnitude,” she added.
Trnka attended the celebration in Chimbote, along with several dozen other visitors from North Dakota, Minnesota and other parts of the U.S.
She said the event was emotional for Davis, who shed tears many times.
“Anytime he would tear up, almost everybody else would tear up,” Trnka said. “And then they would just start clapping, clapping, clapping – until he would compose himself.”
Even before the final blessing could be said, the crowd began moving forward to greet, hug and take pictures with Davis.
Following Mass, there was a meal for parishioners and a dance in the courtyard, all planned by Davis’ cohort, Sister Peggy.
“We danced until we were silly,” Davis said, laughing.
When Davis left Chimbote last July, he said he was “burned out” from the intense stress of ministering to the sick and the poor, and from the constant fundraising required to cover programs for people in need.
“The well runs dry,” he said, “You have no more to give.”
Davis left the parish without fanfare and sought a life of quiet study and solitude.
He spent a month by himself on an island off the coast of the state of Georgia. He then spent seven months at a seminary in northern Spain, studying Scripture.
Davis also traveled, attending the canonization ceremony for Popes John Paul II and John XXIII in Rome in April, and visiting family members. He has siblings in North Dakota, Minnesota and New Mexico.
“I came back relaxed and refreshed,” Davis said. But that didn’t mean he was ready to return to the noise, dirt and poverty of Chimbote.
“I learned I enjoy solitude, having been busy for so many years.”
Davis is now carrying out his days of private prayer and study at a retreat center in the Andes Mountains, which he describes as a tranquil and strikingly beautiful setting.
“I’m where I think the Lord wants me to be.”
Even though Father Jack has left Chimbote, Trnka said his mission continues, guided by legacy statements from him and Sister Peggy, and by the nonprofit’s board of directors.
Friends of Chimbote will sponsor its annual Fall Gala fundraisers on Sept. 18 at the Holiday Inn in Fargo and the following day in Golden Valley, Minn.
Sister Peggy, 76, continues her work in Peru alongside Friends of Chimbote partner ACAF – a Peruvian civil organization that administers mission programs.
Trnka said she still feels the presence of Father Jack when she visits the parish.
“If I see a building or a person or a program, I’ll remember him talking about it or taking me there,” said Trnka, “and that will never go away.”
A display about Davis is planned for the parish administrative center in tribute to his many honors and years of service.
A second floor is currently being added on to that center, thanks to donations from Fargo businessman and restaurateur Randy Thorson.
Meanwhile, as Father Jack continues his renewal in the mountains of Peru, he will pick away at the 450-plus unread emails he’s received from people here at home and around the globe.
“I will respond to them,” he said. “I’m just taking my time.”