The Rev. Vincent T. Freeh has been on a mission for 60 years since he became an ordained priest in 1959. It was then that he declared his faithfulness to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.
A celebration of his 60th anniversary of ordination is Friday, June 7 at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 320 W. Lynde St., Watertown. A 5:30 p.m. Mass will be followed by dinner at 7.
The priest and missionary, known casually as “Father Vince” and who served as pastor at Our Lady of Sacred Heat parish in Watertown from 1988 to 1997, is also a Renaissance Man.
To prepare for his missions, Father Vince found he needed to learn skills not readily available in the underdeveloped areas of the world. So, in addition to spreading the faith, he became practiced as an automotive mechanic, an electrician, a welder, learned how to operate heavy equipment (and invented one, called The Beast) and acquired an amateur radio license. He also has a pilot’s license. He plays guitar, which he found helps to break down language barriers and he writes poetry.
He is also quite the sage. For example, there is this:
“The laws of human behavior are permanent,” he said. “If I tell a lie, I become a liar. If I steal, I become a thief. If I act selfishly, I become selfish. If I’m just left on my own, I don’t learn relationships. You have to learn, to have meaning, in terms of your relationships.”
Father Vince mentioned the above as he recalled an eight-session seminar on family evangelization he developed as pastor at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. He is working with his eldest nephew in Pennsylvania to update the program, dubbed the Mary’s Gate Project, for a national audience.
His cross-cultural experience spans from 6000 B.C. on Manus Island in the South Pacific to current Spanish culture in Latin America. He believes his background in philosophy, psychology and journalism has helped him benefit from a wide variety of cultures and made him more aware of the assets and liabilities of our own.
I met the Reverened at the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart on Thompson Street. The missionaries are an international congregation of religious priests and brothers who reach out to those who are poor—materially, emotionally or spiritually. The religious order was founded in France in the mid-1800s by the Rev. Jules Chevalier. It has a long history in Watertown.
In 1875, Bishop Edgar P. Wadhams wrote to the bishop of Montreal for a French-speaking priest to take up residence in Watertown. Father Jean Baptist Chappel arrived here on Jan. 1, 1876. One year later, Father Joseph Durin and two seminarians came here from France and formed the first Missionaries of the Sacred Heart community outside of Europe.
In 1881, Father Durin was chosen to lead the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to work among the indigenous population of what was then known as the Territory of Papua and new Guinea. Before he left Watertown, he obtained permission form the bishop to invite a group of religious sisters to come to Watertown to open a school of children. The Sisters of St. Joseph accepted the invitation in 1880. Their motherhouse is at 1425 Washington St.
Internationally, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart are active from the South Pacific to Colombia. It’s worked to build chapels, clinics and orphanages, as well as provide funds to support schools, health centers and seminaries.
Father Vince, 85, is spry, laughs easily and recalls dates and memories with ease.
He was born the 10th child out of 13 to Charles and Catherine Freeh in Bucks County, Pa. A twin sister didn’t survive. His seven brothers all became engineers, working at jobs ranging from mining to helping to develop nuclear bombs.
He recalled the day, and the moment, he decided he would pursue a career as a Catholic priest. He had decided not to go to school that day and to while away the time, he was in the kitchen of his farmhouse home working with the soil of the farm, which resembled molding clay. His father drove school bus, and when he finished his rounds in the morning, before coming home, he would stop at the general store and post office.
“When he came home, I was at the kitchen table using this modeling clay, making cups and stuff,” Father Vince said. “He parked the bus and started walking across the lawn to come into the house. He had very heavy footsteps, really carrying a load. My mother recognized it right away. When I saw her astonishment, I got up and followed her out to the porch.”
His father carried an open, yellow envelope, which he slowly handed to his wife. The letter informed them that their son, Charley, “a favorite son and favorite brother,” was dead, killed in World War II.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I ought to do something so people don’t have to suffer like this,’” Father Vince said. “I went into the house, back to the modeling clay and wrote out the word priest. I don’t know if I even spelled it correct, but I put it in my mind.”
But he said, “I didn’t put the collar on right away.”
For example, he dated — and shared his thoughts on modern dating.
“People don’t know how to date,” Father Vince said. “It’s a strange thing today. They know how to have sex, but that’s not dating. I dated three girls. That’s how I found out about me. When you date, you find out how people relate. It’s all about what you should do, not date to mate, but to discover who you are and how you might entertain relationships and develop maturity.”
He attended a high school in Geneva, Ill., that prepared students for the priesthood. He said former classmates back in Bucks County wondered where he went.
“They thought I went to reform school,” he said, laughing. (He then shared a story of one classmate who was sent there, after devising a harpoon system out of a rubber band and sharpened pencil that targeted the teacher’s gold fish).
After his profession of temporary religious vows as a member of the United States Province of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Father Vince studied philosophy and theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Shelby, Ohio, and made his final profession of religious vows in 1965. He was ordained as a priest on May 30, 1959. He later did studies in psychology at DePaul University, Chicago and in journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
He was editor of a monthly mission and family magazine for four years before going to Papua New Guinea in 1963. While there, he was engaged in pastoral ministry, education, health, village and economic development and leadership training. He worked in the country for 10 years, over a span of about 20 years.
His main location was home to a central elementary school, a girls’ vocational school, a training college for midwives and infant welfare nurses and a health center.
He also founded a technical training school for young men, focusing on on-the-job training to make the school self-reliant and to equip its students with skills to run businesses of their own. The school is still in operation.
“I had this on-the-job-training rationale,” Father Vince said. “You teach a guy how to weld, and he can make a living. But while he’s learning, you can use that to build stuff and make money while in training.”
Father Vince said he logged about 100 hours a month in a 24-foot boat and developed a reputation as he traveled the Papua New Guinea islands.
“They would get worried,” he said. “I would go out in some pretty serious weather. They called me ‘Father Cowboy on the Salt Water.’ I took risks when something had to be done.”
But some of those risks took their toll. He was sent home once with toxic hepatitis that developed from a “serious case of malaria.” At another time, he was sent home because of gastric erosion, which required him to receive 22 units of blood.
Father Vince also served as liaison for nine years as a Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Colombia.
Father Vince left as pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart parish in 1997 when he was appointed director of the Sacred Heart Retreat and Renewal Center in the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio. He returned to the north country in 2008 to “renew work on the restoration of family as an essential cultural value” that he had begun previously here.
“That was a very good course,” he said. “I was going to pick up on that, but times had changed so much, that we had to start all over. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
He’s developing the program with a nephew, John J. Freeh Jr., of Center Valley, Pa.
Mr. Freeh retired in 2007 as president of Lockheed Martin Systems Management. He spent the last six years of his career there. Most of his career was spent in management at General Electric and Lockheed Martin, two companies with licenses to operate the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna, N.Y. The lab is dedicated to the support of the U.S. Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program.
Mr. Freeh said he comes from a large family which includes 25 cousins.
“Father Vince would regale us with stories from Papua New Guinea,” Mr. Freeh said in a phone interview. “He came back with a deeper appreciation for culture and family roles in promoting, developing and strengthening culture.”
The Freeh Family Foundation grew out of those ideas.
“We began to collaborate and work on a seminar series of interactive seminars,” Mr. Freeh said. “We tried to promote the idea of strengthening families through faith with a focus on culture.”
In 2007, when Mr. Freeh retired, he and his wife established the Faith in Families Foundation.
“We have these two parallel paths that cooperate and converge, to what is now the primary Mary’s Gate project,” he said.
There is no launch date, but its vision includes a web site and podcast.
“We hope this is a place where people who are experiencing less than the joy that they should be experiencing in life can come and find some refuge, support and can stop and consider what it really takes to be happy in this world,” he said.
Mr. Freeh said he is inspired by his uncle Vincent and wanted to be like him when he was younger. He spent three years at a high school seminary thinking he was going to be a priest.
“He, like most of the Freehs, were problem solvers,” Mr. Freeh said. “They grew up on a farm. They were in very poor circumstances and they figured out how to make things happen on the farm.”
Necessity, Mr. Freeh said, is not only “the mother of invention.
“It’s also a great feature because if you don’t learn to do it yourself, it doesn’t get done. When the family welfare depends on that, you just do it.”
Father Vince said the Mary’s Gate program will focus more than on Catholic families.
“If you just work with Catholics, you can’t change the culture,” he said. “We’ve got to reach out to everyone. You do so based on the laws of human behavior. They apply to a scientist, they apply to a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Muslim — they apply to everybody. There’s no exception. That’s our platform. What I hope to do is to have a model and have other groups, like parishes by religion, to do the same thing in their own context.”
When he’s not working on the family program, Father Vince enjoys fishing and playing bridge. Now that his family program is taking shape and making strides to his satisfaction, he hopes to return to another favorite pastime — something that for many, is done on a wing and a prayer.
“I should play golf more often,” he said. “I hope to get out more.”
“Sunday Portrait” is an occasional column featured in the Watertown Daily Times’ Sunday edition. If you have a suggestion for a “Portrait” subject, write to Chris Brock at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY, 13601.