FRANCIS JOSEPH PARATER
BORN 10 OCTOBER 1897
DIED 7 FEBRUARY 1920
NORTH AMERICAN COLLEGE
VATICAN CITY STATE
Silent martyr for all souls of Virginia, pray for us.
Excerpt from The Servant of God: Frank Parater, Seminarian
by the Rev. J. Scott Duarte
Frank Parater was born on October 10, 1897, in Richmond, Virginia, ten days after the death of Saint Therese, the Little Flower, who would prove important in Frank’s spiritual life. His father, Francis Joseph Parater, Sr., was a Catholic of Portuguese ancestry, and his mother, Mary Raymond, was a former Anglican communicant at St. John’s Episcopal Church and a convert to Catholicism. That marriage was his father’s second. His first wife was Elizabeth Miller who bore him five children, three of whom survived infancy and grew to adulthood. The eldest son of this first marriage, also named Francis, died in 1887 at the age of twenty-seven, just a few months before the birth of our Servant of God, who was again named Francis Joseph Parater, Jr.
When Elizabeth was ill and learned she was going to die, it is said that she expressed the hope that her husband would remarry, and even suggested Mary Raymond as the person best suited to raise her children. Eleven children were born to this second marriage, but only three survived infancy, Marie, Grace, and Frank, who was the youngest. His sisters were of great importance to him, especially Marie who was his confidant and who later became instrumental in preserving his letters, journals and other documents and personal effects.
Frank was named for his patron saint, Francis DeSales, founder of the Sisters of the Visitation whose monastery was just three blocks from the modest Parater home. Their house faced Jefferson Park, where Francis Parater, Sr. was the groundskeeper, a work that he voluntarily extended to the grounds of the nearby monastery. Frank’s father was highly regarded in the city and once was appointed a term on the City Council. This proximity to the Visitation Monastery, Monte Maria, also permitted the Parater family to hear the bells that regulated the life of the Sisters, announced the Angelus, and called the faithful to the 6:40 a.m. Mass. From his first Holy Communion as a boy, Frank faithfully served that Mass until the time that he left home for college, though he also served Mass at his parish church of St. Patrick’s. Above the Monastery chapel’s altar was the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that became a symbol for him of the tremendous love that Jesus has for all people. Frank grew in his devotion and wrote, “Remember the Sacred Heart never fails those that love Him.”
His neighborhood, still known as “Church Hill,” was densely populated, family centered, and marked by a spirit of ecumenical cooperation. Many of the students at the Sisters’ school were Protestants, and as a youth, Frank joined the newly established Scouting movement that met at a local Methodist Episcopal church. He was well known to the Rector of his mother’s former parish, St. John’s Episcopal Church, itself famous as the site of Patrick Henry’s speech, “Give me liberty or give me death!” After Frank’s early death, its Rector energetically praised his virtues.
A warm and loving family introduced Frank to a loving God and gave him confidence in himself to overcome the physical limitations of his small stature and to pursue goals that others would have considered beyond their reach. The world was a fascinating place for Frank Parater. He became a collector of sheet music, of post cards, of stamps, and of autographs, writing many notable figures of the time, including several European monarchs, for their autographs and collecting the stamps from their replies! He began a practice of keeping a record of his activities and his thoughts, compiling, for instance, a list of the books that he read. In one year, it amounted to over three hundred titles, many drawn from the classics and poetry. He would often quote from such works in his journals and speeches.
In the Scouts and in high school, he acted in various plays and was sought after as a speaker at public events. Frank was valedictorian of his primary school, his high school, and ultimately at Belmont Abbey College Seminary. In a vigorous debate during high school, Frank argued convincingly for the rights, dignity and innate value of the black man against opponents who argued for the continued segregation or even the re-enslavement of blacks. He carried on copious correspondence with friends, and after leaving home for college, he wrote his family faithfully. His correspondence reveals his personality and his spirituality, just as it provides insight into his family’s life and his own experiences. From his personal journals we can also see his personal sacrifices to help others, in spite of a meager income.
These same journals convey Frank Parater’s missionary zeal to serve the Church in Virginia and his support for the new organization known as the Boy Scouts of America. His answer to the question, “Why am I a Scout” is to be found in this passage from his writings:
We, Catholics, are selfish. With our Divine Religion and all its wonderful aids for leading a pure and holy life, not to mention our character developing parochial schools and Christian motherhood exemplified in our Catholic mothers…but what of the non-Catholic lad or the son of indifferent parents? Should we not help them? Think of what it would mean if the 8,000,000 boys in America were taught ‘To do their duty to God, their country, and to obey the scout law: to help other people at all times, to keep themselves physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.’ No! It would not make angels of them – we don’t want them angels. It would not abolish the flagrant abuses that we witness on all sides. But it would lessen these evils; it would make our Catholic boys better Catholics; it would teach the non-Catholic true Catholic principles of morality; it would produce better men, true patriots and real citizens; it would lead our boys to something higher than mere accumulation of riches or the desire for fame.
Frank enrolled in the Scouting movement on January 19, 1914. Advancing quickly through the ranks, by 1916 he was an assistant scout master, the scribe of Troop 32, and the official photographer of the Richmond Council. He served as camp director in Richmond and during the summer of 1916 was the first camp director of the newly-founded Camp Ackerman in Plainfield, New Jersey. In the camps he ran, he introduced a half hour of prayer in the evening schedule, consisting of a chapter of Sacred Scripture, a talk by the director and the recitation of the “Our Father” followed by silent prayer. His efficiency and organizational skills are noted in newspaper accounts.
As he graduated from primary school, Frank began thinking about the priesthood. He was worried that he could not pronounce Latin well enough to be a priest. When he was only fourteen years old, he began to correspond with Walter Nott, then a Richmond diocesan seminarian at St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland, and eventually an alumnus of the North American College, about his desire to be a priest. Nott allayed his fears, encouraged him to pursue his priestly vocation, study Latin, develop skills necessary for public speaking and stick to his high ideals, despite the efforts of some in Scouting and among his friends to dissuade him from his calling.
Frank possessed marvelous talents and gifts. These were crowned with a purity of heart and a missionary zeal that would ultimately find expression in his act of oblation that may be found in the Pontifical North American College’s Manual of Prayers. In this stirring document of self-offering, Frank declares that:
I have nothing to leave or to give but my life and this I have consecrated to the Sacred Heart to be used as He wills. I have offered my all for the conversion of non-Catholics…This is what I live for and in case of death what I die for.
The spiritual conversion of others is what he died for – and what he lived for. That, among his many other virtues, is a desire worthy of imitation by Frank Parater’s successors at the North American College today.
Excerpt from the American College in Rome
by Robert McNamara, pp. 467-470:
At the North American College, as at all Catholic seminaries, the piety of the students exceeds – it goes without saying – the piety of the average layman. Among such pious students as these, there will always be a small percentage whose spirituality can be called really unusual; and in this group there will appear, from time to time, a person whose holiness tends to the heroic.
Frank Parater certainly belonged to this latter class. Born in Richmond, Virginia, on October 10, 1897, he had received his early education first under the Xaverian Brothers and then under the Benedictine Fathers who conducted Benedictine High School in Richmond. Though not by disposition an athlete, Frank was none the less an “outdoors man,” and became very much interested in Scouting, as a moral and religious apostolate especially well adapted to spreading and maintaining a staunch Catholicism in the South. It was this apostolic interest of his, in fact, which prompted him to enter the seminary at Belmont Abbey, North Carolina, as a candidate for the priesthood.
In 1919, the Bishop of Richmond decided to send him to Rome to complete his studies. He was officially enrolled in the roster of the American College on November 25th. Here those same qualities of cheerfulness, optimism and manliness which had made him loved wherever he had been, soon endeared him to his new companions. But it was not long before the Collegians detected beneath his cheerful exterior manner, a tremendous earnestness. Even when he won the “Epiphany bean” in January 1920, and was therefore crowned King of the Revels, he surprised all by the masterly way in which he presided over the festivities. His new schoolmates also sensed his strong piety. Not that he affected devout singularities: he was careful to avoid anything of the sort. But every now and again he would make some remark which was as deep as it was spiritual. Often, for instance, he would speak joyfully about the glory of living in a city hallowed by the blood of martyrs, and of the great privilege it would be to die and be buried in such holy ground.
In late January 1920, Parater suddenly fell ill, apparently of acute rheumatism, and was advised to go to bed. But the malady, far from yielding to rest, quickly developed into rheumatic fever which brought with it tremendous suffering. So delirious did the pain make him that it often took more than one man to hold him in his bed. Removed to the hospital of the Blue Nuns on January 27th, he continued, in his delirium, to preach sermons to an imaginary congregation. Finally he recovered from this mental confusion, but his physical condition was by then desperate.
It fell to the lot of Father Mahoney to explain to Frank that his illness was serious and possibly fatal. Parater said he was aware of that, and was not afraid to die. When he was about to receive Holy Communion in the form of Viaticum, he wished to get out of bed and kneel; but having been told he should not do so, he was content to kneel on the bed itself. Death came not long after, on February 7th, which was the first Saturday of the month. His passing brought great sorrow, not only to his fellow Collegians, but also to other seminarians at the Urban College who had made his acquaintance and taken an immediate liking to him. The American College men kept vigil at his wake. Monsignor O’Hern sang the Mass of Requiem, and the whole student body followed the hearse on foot to the Campo Santo. Here he was entombed in the College mortuary chapel, which stood in that same perennial burial ground in which St. Stephen, St. Lawrence, and hundreds of other early Christians had, in their own time, been laid to rest.
Frank’s painful illness and premature death had a depressing effect upon his fellow-students. But not for long. On the very day he died, Francis Byrne, another Richmond seminarian, while searching for Parater’s passport, came upon a paper labeled “My Last Will.” The dead seminarian had written it almost seven weeks before, while he was still in excellent health; and he had sealed it in an envelope marked: “To be opened only in case of my death.” Byrne, seeing at once that this little document – a spiritual rather than a financial testament – was something extraordinary, straightway delivered it to the Rector. O’Hern, equally impressed and deeply moved, read it to the Collegians assembled in chapel:
Act of Oblation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
(marked to be read only in the event of his death in Rome)
I have nothing to leave or give but my life, and this I have consecrated to the Sacred Heart to be used as He wills. I have offered my all for conversions to God of non-Catholics in Virginia. This is what I live for and, in the case of death, what I die for. Death is not unpleasant to me, but the most beautiful and welcome event of life. Death is the messenger of God come to tell us that our novitiate is ended and to welcome us to the real life. Melancholic or morbid sentimentality is not the cause of my writing this, for I love my life here, the College, the men and Rome itself. But I have desired to die and be buried with the saints. I dare not ask God to take me lest I should be ungrateful or be trying to shirk the higher responsibilities of life; but I shall never have less to answer for – perhaps never be better ready to meet my Maker, my God, my All.
Since I was a child I have desired to die for the love of God and for my fellow-man. Whether or not I shall receive that favor I know not but if I live, it is for the same purpose; every action of my life here is offered to God for the spread and success of the Catholic Church in Virginia. I have always desired to be only a little child, that I may enter the kingdom of God. In the general resurrection I wish to always be a boy and to be permitted to accompany Saints John Berchmans, Aloysius and Stanislaus as their servant and friend. Do we serve God and man less worthily by our prayers in heaven than by our actions on earth? Surely it is not selfish to desire to be with Him Who has loved us so well.
I shall not leave my dear ones. I will always be near them and be able to help them more than I can here below. I shall be of more service to my diocese in heaven than I could ever be on earth.
If it is God’s holy will, I will join Him on Good Friday, 1920, and never leave Him more – but not my will, Father, but Thine be done!
Rome, December 5th, 1919