Missionary from the Northeast, champion of civil rights lost his heart to the South

Father Francis Theriault, 1928-2012


Father Francis Theriault SVD, a crusader for civil rights, died in the early hours of Dec. 27 at age 84.

"Frank loved the South almost as much as he loved God," said Very Rev. Thomas Ascheman, provincial of the Chicago Province. "He followed in the footsteps of Divine Word Father Matthew Christman who was the driving force behind St. Augustine Seminary, the first school in the United States for black men who wanted to become priests and brothers. Like Father Christman, Frank’s passion for equality and justice flowed from his passion to see that African-Americans received fair and equal treatment both in church and in society."

Father Theriault not only spoke his beliefs; he lived them. He was once jailed for violation of Jim Crow laws. He went to an African-American barber for a haircut. Police officers asked him to leave the shop, and when he refused, the police escorted him out and into jail, where he stayed until his pastor could post his bail.

Born in Cambridge, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1928, he was the third of Nelson and Armelle (nee Moulton) Theriault’s four children. His older brother’s death before he was born left an impression on him for life; he realized that God had a plan for him.

Throughout his career, Father Theriault served the African-American apostolate. He professed religious vows as a Divine Word Missionary in 1948 and was ordained to the priesthood at Bay St. Louis, Miss., in 1955. The Society of the Divine Word assigned him to Indonesia, but for some unexplained reason, he could not get a visa. One of his classmates went in his place, and Father Theriault stayed in Mississippi.

During the first nine years of his priesthood, he served as assistant pastor of St. Rose de Lima in Bay St. Louis, Miss.; St. Francis in Yazoo City, Miss.; and St. Nicholas in St. Louis, Mo. In 1964, the Society of the Divine Word chose him as a vocations director for the U.S. Southern Province. He worked in this role until becoming pastor of St. Augustine in New Orleans in 1968.

In 1976, he returned to vocations work. Father Theriault also served as vice provincial in the U.S. Southern Province under two provincials: Father John Bowman, SVD, and then-Father Joseph Francis, SVD, who later became a bishop.

From 1979 to 1985, Father Theriault was rector of St. Augustine Seminary, where he studied three decades earlier. Following that, he was pastor of St. Martin and Our Lady of the Lake in Delcambre, La., (1986 to 1992) and St. Rose de Lima in Bay St. Louis (1992 to 2001).

Father Theriault began retirement at St. Augustine in Bay St. Louis in 2001 and moved to Techny following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite needing a motorized vehicle to get around, Father Theriault regularly attended special events, such as funerals, vows ceremonies and ordinations at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

Despite the geographic distance, Father Theriault remained connected with his friends and former parishioners in the South through email, snail mail and Facebook.

"He was so loved that one year, some of his former parishioners rented a bus and drove north to see him," Father Ascheman said.

Proud of his membership in both the Knights of Peter Claver (a Catholic fraternal organization primarily for African-Americans) and the Knights of Columbus, Father Theriault held the rank of fourth degree knight in both organizations.

Father Theriault is survived by nieces and nephews. Visitation will be held for him at the Divine Word Residence at Techny on Dec. 31, beginning at 9 a.m., followed by a Mass of remembrance at 10:30 a.m.

His wake service will be held on Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. in the St. Augustine Chapel in Bay St. Louis. His Mass of Christian Burial will take place in the chapel on Jan. 8 at 10:30 a.m., followed by burial in St. Augustine Cemetery and a luncheon at the Holy Spirit Center of St. Rose de Lima in Bay St. Louis.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations for in the name of Father Theriault can be made for the care of retired missionaries and may be sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.

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