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Interview with Fr. Jim Conyard

November 14, 2007

Fr. Jim Conyard S.J. shares his vocation story...

"My name is Fr. Jim Conyard. I am a Jesuit and I am at St. Mary’s parish in downtown Eugene. I say Mass here [at the Carmel], however I am mainly a confessor and a spiritual director. I come from a family of a Mom and Dad - his name was Joe and my mother's name was Anne. I was born in Spokane, WA in 1931, April 23. I was the third in the family. The first was seven years older than I, my brother Joe, and then my sister, who is fifteen months older, and then I had one who was seven years younger than me.  Although I was born in Spokane, when I was four, my Dad was transferred to Portland. He found a home there for us, but I was sick-I think I was having my ear lanced-and I couldn’t travel. So, my parents put me with some people we knew and eventually they sent me down on the train. In the beginning, we grew up in the Madeline parish in Portland, and the parish school was right across the street. The streetcar went right in front of the house and the church, so we could easily get downtown which was very convenient; he [Dad] made a good choice with our white brick house on the corner. Well, another year in that house and my mother got pregnant with my younger brother, and we had to move. We moved to a bigger house near All Saints Parish in the Laurelhurst district. I lived there until I left for the Jesuits."

"I went from the second grade on to All Saints grade school, and to Central Catholic for high school. It was the only Catholic high school in Portland and it was all boys at that time; it is co-ed now. When I was ten, I had a paper route at Providence hospital, which wasn’t too far from where I lived; a bike ride. That was a very fortunate thing. My older brother Joe got that as a route. When the hospital opened, he asked for it and got it, and then he gave it to me."

"I was ten and I kept it [the paper route] until I was senior. It became like a second home for me. I would get up in the morning-it was a morning route and the papers were delivered to the corner just above the hospital, eventually they were delivered right to the hospital-go to Mass and Communion, and then I would eat! I could eat all I wanted for a quarter.  I never understood that, how they ever charged just a quarter, and I hit it good! It was a good breakfast. Then, I would deliver the papers. I eventually started a radio business in the hospital, renting radios to patients. It was with the Emerson radio company. They had a connector to the radio, which was a hearing device so that you could put the radio under your pillow and still hear it while not bothering others. It worked very well. So, I had that business plus the paper route to keep me with spending money so I didn’t have to get an allowance from my dad. I liked being financially independent.  I was very active in the parish. I played on the teams and liked the priest very much. He was here at St. Mary’s a while ago, Fr. Keys. His first appointment as a young priest was at my parish, he was very good to all of us and I have very dear memories of him."

While you were in school you played sports, right?

"Oh yes, I played them all. I liked them all! I played for fun. Football, basketball, baseball in the summer - I enjoyed it. I was in different clubs. I remember joining the Kilowatt club, when different classes would show movies we would present it. I was also in the Lettermen’s club - we would monitor. We would wear the lettermen’s sweater in the lunch room at noon and had an area to patrol. My job was to watch the pop machine; there they sold Coca-Colas and pops. If there weren’t any problems I just sat there and ate my lunch. If there were problems we [the Lettermen’s club] were supposed to handle it. It was kind of like policeman, but it was fun. I went to the Proms - I was actually in charge of the Senior Prom. There were two Catholic girls’ schools and we invited them to the Senior Prom. We would have meetings at my house to plan it and it was a good thing."

"Nothing much happened until my senior year when I got a lot of pressure from my parents and my older brother about, 'What are you going to do next year?' My sister had already gone to Seattle U., and I really did not know what I was going to do. Personally, I thought it was a waste of money to send me to college. I wasn’t ready for studies. I didn’t know what I wanted to specialize in. I had some invitations to play baseball, but I played that for fun. I didn’t plan on making that my life. I just didn’t take it that seriously, although they talked as though I could have, but I didn’t want that. So, my story really is that I didn’t know what I was going to do when I graduated. It was June… July-the heat is really on now-and when it got to be August I started avoiding my folks because I still really did not know. Then, one day my sister announced she was going to get married. First, I have to backtrack: In March there is a Jesuit novena called the St. Francis Xavier novena, and my mom had us make that novena my junior year: all the kids and her, my dad was traveling on the road. She said, 'We all are going to make this novena to find out what each of you is going to do with your life.' So that by the time I was a senior we all would now what we were going to do. I know what I am going to do, Joanne knows what she’s going to do, and hopefully Joe’s going to know what he’s going to do. Being older he was in the War."

"He [Joe] came out of the Marine Corps. He had been trained at the University of Washington, so he went back and got his degree in Economics because it was paid for. At the same time, he was also working. He was a salesman for Emergent School Supply; it was owned by a Catholic man in Portland who hired him, and who was a friend of the family. So, Joe seemed to be all set and knew what he was going to do. Well, Joanne announced she was going to be married September third, so that date was put on the calendar.  But Jim, me, still didn’t know what he was going to do!”

“One of those early days in August, I was just footloose and fancy free, avoiding my parents and those tough questions. I was going up the stairs to my room, and I got kind of ‘zapped’ there on the stairway. It wasn’t a vision or anything, but it was definitely from God. I saw that my place was to join the Jesuits, to go to the Priesthood. That filled in all of my question marks, because I had a lot of trouble being part of something my whole heart wasn’t in to. It wasn’t in studies, and there wasn’t any job, and I didn’t feel that any employer was worth my whole life, all my talents, and whatever gifts I had. Yet, the vocation to the Priesthood filled the bill for me, it was a perfect fit. That’s the way I saw it, that I was willing to give myself not part-time, but full-time to God! I liked all the things the Jesuits did; teaching, retreat houses, parishes, missions… I liked all of them.”

Did you have contact with them?

"No. I never went to one of their schools. But having come from Spokane my parents were involved with the University parish. The Jesuits kept coming through Portland and visiting the house. So I knew them indirectly. In Portland there was a Jesuit retreat house and some of them would come to visit but I can’t say they knew me. They were just acquaintances. They were visiting my folks and I was just in the house. When that thing happened to me my mom was in the bathroom-she had just taken a shower or a bath-and I called to her and said, 'Mom can I take the car?' She said, 'Well I’m going to this bridge party…' I said, 'Well, when you have to be there?' and it was about two hours away. I told her, 'I’ll be back in plenty of time.' So, without saying anything to anyone, I called one of the Jesuits in town who had taught me at Central. His name was Fr. Joe Burke and he was from Boston. He was actually living at the Madeline but taught at Central. I called him and said, 'I want to sign up for the Jesuits and I don’t know were to go, could you take me? I’ll come and get you.' He said, 'I’m going back to Boston for the summer. I’m taking the train.' I said, 'When does it leave?' He replied, 'A couple of hours.' I told him, 'We’ve got time. I’ll be there.' I went right over and got him. He took me downtown to the Jesuit Provincial Aid where I had to go through 3 or 4 examinations. They sit down with a folder and ask you these questions. And, so I was down in the basement for the first set of questions, and then upstairs, the second floor I think was where the next ones took place. I ended up with the Provincial for the last exam and he asked me a lot of good questions. Just exactly what I expected to hear: on my morals, my spiritual life, did I ever work, did I have a car, and did I ever date. Simply, what kind of a life had I been living? When he was finished, he told me, 'We will get in contact with you. We will write you as to the results of this interview.' I said, 'That’s fine' and I left. I went home and I never did tell anyone. My reason was because if I get a letter saying I’m turned down… My grades weren’t the greatest, that’s for sure!"

"Actually I liked it [school], but I was a busy and didn’t study very much. I always passed, though, but that’s not the kind of student the Jesuits were looking for. I figured that in the interview that they were looking for things beyond grades, other qualities that make a good applicant for a vocation. So I trusted in God; I came from a good family, went to Mass and communion everyday, was leading a good life and was happy. But, I wanted to know what to do with my life!"

"Finally the 'zapping' time came. I don’t know what to call it… I didn’t hear any voices… it was an enlightening thing. I didn’t come up with it, I couldn’t have. It was just pure gift! It was a gift to me that solved my problems and lots of other people’s problems too, from wondering about me, that is. I didn’t say anything. A few more days went on and then my older brother got me and said, 'You and I are going on an overnight hike.' I told him, 'I don’t want to go.' He said, 'You’re going!' Really, all he wanted was to get me alone and drill me on what I was going to do next year because it was time to decide. It was, by now, the middle of August. We were going to go to Mount St. Helens, where the volcanic eruption in the 80’s was. It was a good drive from Portland and I didn’t want to go that far for that, just an overnight camping trip. Anyway, he figured he had me, so he started right in. 'Now, I want to know what you’re going to do next year? Who are you talking to? What are you thinking? You’ve got to make up your mind here.' He had suggested I go into the Marine Reserves, and I did not want to do anything like that. So I told him, 'I really do not know.' And I didn’t. I didn’t know if I was going to be accepted, so I wasn’t going to say anything. Then he got really ticked off and he said to me-remember he’s 25 years old-'Well I don’t know about you. You’re not saying anything. But I’ve made up my mind; I’m going to join the Jesuits. I’m going to become a priest.' As it happened, he was there the day before me to sign up. I was there the very next day and neither one of us knew about it!"

"When I heard that from him, I couldn’t believe it. He kept bringing these girls home to dinner and meeting with the parents and all. They were all nice looking girls, going to school or working, and I thought one of these is probably going to be his wife. I thought, 'Good, that’s fine.' I wasn’t that interested. Then he said this, and I thought, 'I wonder where that came from?' I had never heard anything about it; we never talked about it in the family. My folks never pushed anybody for anything. My original thought was, 'Now, if I’m accepted and we go together, they’re going to think I’m going because of my older brother!' I didn’t want that. I was completely independent of that. He didn’t spend a lot of time with me and I didn’t spend a lot of time with him. He was older and had older friends and such. No. This was mine. And it wasn’t influenced by him at all. Right after that, he announced that he had quit his job. The day he signed up he had quit. He had been driving to work that morning-he was living at home-and he said to himself, 'It’s today or never!' So, he turned the car around and went to the Jesuits and signed up. Then, he went to work and told his boss that he was going to quit. I think he might have told them what he was going to do, I don’t know, but the boss said, 'Why don’t you keep the car for awhile. It’s a company car, but keep it.' My brother had told him, 'My plans are to take my sister, who’s getting married, my mom, and my brother Jim to Reno, and then to San Francisco. It’s my sister’s last big thing before she’s married and it’ll be good to treat  her and let her see what life is like in Reno, where they gamble and have sawdust on the floor in the bars.' He wanted to show us that, and I was thinking, 'Oh, okay.' He announced that we were all going on the trip and I said I didn’t want to go. And his response was, 'Well you're going.'  We had a sixth grader, Bill, at home and he just stayed home. He wasn’t invited. He stayed home with his friends; his cousins lived across the street, so he had playmates. He was happy."

"So, we left for Reno in Joe’s car and, that very morning, the letters came in the mail. We missed them. They came about ten and we had left around nine. We went to Reno, stayed overnight and then left for San Francisco. When we got there, they informed us, 'We’re having a convention and we had to move you to another hotel. We’ve made the reservations and it’s a nice place.' But, we had left instructions with my Dad, who was at home, to forward it to our hotel. We were in the new hotel and Joe was taking us out at night to this very expensive place on the roof of a hotel so we could hear Mel Torme, a singer called the 'Velvet Fog.' That was a big deal to hear him, and it was good. Before we went out that night to dinner-we had been there for a day-the mail came. They brought it to the room. Meanwhile, my brother and I had gone for a walk. He wanted to go to the liquor store to buy some liquor and took me just so I could know, 'Now, this is how we do this.' So, he bought a pint of Bourbon and Gin, two bottles. We went back to our room and they were going to have a drink before we went out to dinner. The mail was there. An envelope had come for me. Joe didn’t get one, but I did. So, I sat down on the bed there and opened it up, just as I did my Dad called. He said, ‘I want to talk to Jim.’ Well, I had taken that time to open the letter and it said, ‘You have been accepted to the Jesuits. This is the date that you enter: September 7th.’ My sister was getting married on the 3rd and we were entering on the 7th; that would be three kids gone from the house.  Before I took the phone from my Dad, I gave the letter to my brother. He was standing by the window with ice in his drink and I couldn’t withhold it any longer. Then, I went to the phone and my Dad said, 'Jim, I want to know what that letter from the Jesuits is all about.' And I said, 'Well, I had applied and… uh… I’ve been accepted. And I’m going on the 7th of September.' He said, 'That’s you that’s going, not Joe?' I replied, 'Yes, he’s going too, but I don’t know anything about his letter. I’m just speaking for myself.' Then he said, 'Well, both of you, here’s the plan: We’re not going to announce that. We’re going to let Joanne have her wedding. Everything’s going to be around her. After the wedding we’ll take care of you guys. We’ll drive you down there.' Joanne had her wedding and nobody knew. As far as I know it never came up, although there were Jesuits at her wedding and the reception was at our house. I saw them sitting in their black suits, a brother and a priest-there were some from the Retreat house and some from the Provincial’s residence who had examined me. I looked at them, and they looked at me, and I was thinking, 'You’d better not say anything, because this is private.' They never did. Nobody ever said a thing."

"Joanne had her wedding and, when that was finished, we had a few days. When the letter, came there was also a sheet that told you everything you needed to bring; clothes, steamer trunk, etc., so we went shopping to get that stuff. The day came when it was time to leave and I was lying on my bed, my mom came up."

Did she know at this point?

“Yes, everybody knew. She knew the night I got the letter in the hotel. She had said, ‘If it’s for you, its mighty fine calling. Very fine.’  They, my family, didn’t ever say anything about that novena of grace, but I thought about it. Our prayers were answered. Because a year ago, we were praying that we would know what we were going to do, and now Joanne had announced, Joe had announced, and I had announced. Pretty good novena if you ask me. Ever since then, we’ve always been very faithful to making that novena. It is a Jesuit novena from St. Francis Xavier. You pray for the intentions that you want to happen, or in thanksgiving. Petitions or thanksgiving, part of the novena service is to read petitions and then the answers if anybody got an answer, at any time. This way, people know prayers are answered through these novenas. So, that was a good thing in our family.”

“Anyway, that morning, I was lying on my bed and I was supposed to be packing my trunk- well, I couldn’t do a thing. I remember my mom came up and said, ‘How are you doing, up here?’ I said, ‘No good. I’m not doing anything, I can’t seem to do anything.’ She said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ It was all there- she just had to put it in the trunk- t-shirts, shorts, socks, pants, jackets, sweaters… I was thinking, on my bed there, ‘This is the last time I’m going to see my folks. The Jesuits don’t go home, for summer, for vacation,…This is what I’d asked for, I wanted to go give myself, wholly. I knew the Diocesan priest went to Mt. Angel to study, but they got to go home in the summer. This was different. I knew this was it. I went through that, and she got everything all packed up. We took it out to the car, put the two trunks in; one for Joe and one for me. There was a woman coming down the street, she was strolling her baby, she was kind of nosey and really a talker. Her husband was a doctor, the one my family went to. I don’t know what she saw, if she saw the trunks go in or not, but she said something like ‘You guys going some place?’ a response of, ‘Um, Yeah…’ then, ‘Well, where are you going?’ and Joe walked away, and I said, ‘College.’ And it was. She asked, ‘Where?’ and I continued, ‘Sheridan.’- The novitiate was in Sheridan Oregon. And she said, ‘Oh, the University of Sheridan, Wyoming, that’s a probably a really good school!’ I let it go at that; let her fill in the blanks. Then, she kept going, said hello to my mom, and then she left. So, nobody ever really knew, never told any of my classmates, senior friends or ballplayers. So, we drove down to Sheridan. It was about 65 miles. We got out of the car, got it unloaded. There were guys there helping who had been there awhile; novices. It was a big long house and a tall building. One half was for novices-which is a two year novitiate with a lot of prayer and such- and the other half was for Juniors-third and fourth year, that started your college, liberal arts training. We were connected to Gonzaga University, so we were students of Gonzaga although we were at the Junioriate. I met some guys who were also entering; some were crying, some were alone, some had family. There was a guy sitting there all alone and I went and sat down next to him, introduced myself and asked were he was from. He said he was from Yakima, WA and he told me, ‘I’m on a Football scholarship to the University of Portland and I quit the whole thing to come here. I hope I did the right thing.’ He was wearing a white t-shirt, was real tan, a real ‘macho’ guy. He was a really nice guy. He had two uncles that were Jesuits-his name was Bill Bishop- and both were teachers. They were well respected. Anyway, we made friends there that day. He was my first friend there. There was another guy, a senior in high school, named Tom McCarthy. He is now a Jesuit. He was in my class and he had also entered that day. There were a lot of us, 43 novices, first year and second year. It was after the War, and there were a lot of guys from the service, who were older and had been in combat. They had this vocation thing within them, but the War came and they had to go to war. When they came back, some wanted to get married, but thought they might have a vocation so they had to see if it was really for them or not. So, they came. There were a lot of mixed emotions of people that day. It was a very solemn day, when the door closed you were there and you life started as a Jesuit novice.”

“Anyways, I was four years in that place and never once had any doubt that it was for me. Never once did I have any trouble. There were others that left. They were never announced. You never got to say goodbye to anyone. Once in awhile you’d see a steamer trunk in the hallway and you’d think, ‘Who is going? Who left?’ We played all sorts of sports: handball, football, baseball, basketball. Handball was a good one.”

What is “Handball”?

“It a hard round ball that you hit with your hand. You don’t have a racket. There is a front wall and a side wall that you can ricochet it off of. I would hit it and then you would return it, and it would go back and forth. You can play either singles or doubles. It’s Jesuit game, a good game.”

“Anyways, we went out for a walk everyday, usually in fours, and then we’d have lunch. We’d set the tables for the night meals and then go to recreation, come in and have a half hour siesta. Next, was ‘Order’: you would line up in the hall and they’d read what you’re going to do. Like, ‘You’re going to be peeling apples over in the kitchen’-because they would be canning or making pies or something. ‘You’re going to play Handball, and you’re going to go for a walk.’ Everybody was assigned to do something, and you had around an hour, an hour and half. You came in and had showers, and then you either had a study period or class, or prayer time if you were a novice. It was a real good schedule and the days went fast. You were busy, it was a good life, I enjoyed it all. I was with all kinds of different people from all over, all different backgrounds; it was a good time there.”

“So, that was how I got in. It was just handed to me, and it resolved all my questions. Briefly, I’ll just tell you that from there, our four-year house, you went to Spokane, Washington, through another monastery house that was three years. There, you took three years of St. Thomas philosophy and Science. Still, you were connected to Gonzaga, although you wouldn’t take classes at the university. For summer school, though, you would take classes at Gonzaga; English courses, like Shakespeare. There were really good teachers and good courses. After you finished this, you would teach high school for three years. I was sent to Gonzaga High School. There were 21 priests and 21 scholastics teaching there. Others were sent to Seattle-we didn’t have Jesuit High in Portland yet- Missoula, Yakima, or the Indian Missions. We had Indian Missions then and some who were thinking about that got to go there. The Ligancy, that’s what this period was called, lasted three years; you taught in high school for three years. After that, if you were you were approved, you were sent to Theology where you could pick the place you wanted to go. You could choose Toronto, which would mean a lot of winter, and a lot of Hockey players liked that. They wanted to go and play Hockey. You could go to California. I chose that for the weather. Some people went to Europe, depending on how good of a student you were. If you were a good student, good in Languages, you could go to Germany, or Italy, or Norway. Theology was four years, but at the end of your third year you got ordained. On weekends, after you were ordained, you would go out to parishes and hear confession, preach, say Mass, and then come back and go to classes during the week. But, if you ran into things in the confessional you needed some more help on, you had your professors right there. It was wonderful follow-up training for us. You were talking about ‘real’ things in the confessional and so we learned how to deal with all sorts of problems. After Theology, there is another year of training. It’s a ten-month period called Tertianship. You would be like a novice again, in the sense that you made a long retreat, 30-day retreat. You only make that twice in your life; once as novice and once as Tertian at the end of your training, it’s a real opportunity. During your ten months, they send you out to the different things the Jesuits did. You could be sent to a parish, you could be sent to give a retreat, you could be sent to a hospital, to a prison to be a Chaplin, all the different things the Jesuits did you got a taste of. So, when the ten months were over they sat down and talked to you about where you thought you were being called. ‘What kind of work do you think you would fit?’ Some would want to teach, one would be in a parish, retreats, mission, hospitals, maybe prisons.”

“I didn’t want to be in a hospital, although I had been given a hospital that summer before I went to Tertianship- I was at Providence hospital in Portland. It about killed me. I was there alone, there was an elderly priest there, but he said Mass in the morning and that was about it. I had the patients all day and all night. For Lent, I was sent to Monroe, Washington, where I took care of the parish alone and I also had a mission parish in Skycomage that I took care of, way up in the mountains. And, I had a prison that I had to visit, so I was very busy. It was good training, but I knew it was coming to an end. It was just for the Lent. I had the experience of being a Chaplin in a prison; I’d never care if I wasn’t there again, very discouraging, a hard place. So, that is basically the Jesuit training. I’ve been a lot of different places, done a lot of different work with the Jesuits, and I count it all as a blessing. It’s a great calling if it’s for you, and it was for me. It was a good fit. I can’t answer for others, but I can answer for me.”

Thank you very much for sharing your story, God has definitely blessed you. As one last question: Do you have any advice for those discerning a vocation?

I think it’s a really good idea to have a spiritual director, to talk to somebody, because I think that… Let’s say for instance: You were my spiritual director and I was struggling with knowing what I want to do. And I came in, sat down and said, ‘I think I need to talk about what’s going on inside of me. Here are the things I’m thinking about.’ In talking to you confidentially, I hear myself and I make self-discoveries. The dots start being connected. Some of the best advice I ever heard was from a priest who asked me, ‘Jim, what are you going to do next year?’ Summer was approaching and I said, ‘I don’t know! I really don’t know and a lot of people are asking me and I’m getting really tired of saying I don’t know,  because I really don’t know. But, they think I’m withholding something.’ He said, ‘Well, I tell you what we’ll do. Why don’t you and I write down what you do not want to do.’ That was really good advice, really good. It helped me a lot. Because I found out, ‘I don’t belong in medical school, I don’t want to go into the Service…’ It was, really, very helpful. So that would be my advice; to find a spiritual guide.”

For the Faith 
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