Fr. Robert Seay, OFM, always dreamed of being a Franciscan priest. It took him, however, a little longer than most to realize his dream. Fr. Robert is African American, one of two in the St. John the Baptist Province along with Br. Giovanni Reid. Both friars serve in Louisiana, Robert in Lafayette and Giovanni in Shreveport.
It is probably fair to say that the Franciscans did not know how to deal with Robert when he joined. He was first directed to the Brothers’ School at Oldenburg, Ind., and learned the skills that most lay friars did in that time: managing the physical plant of a friary as a chef, sacristan, porter, mechanic, launderer or housekeeper. For six years, he worked in the business office at Bishop Luers High School in Ft. Wayne, Ind., in the financial department.
Inside, however, he continued to feel that urge to become a priest. He prayed. He discerned. He sought guidance. He was asking for something that hadn't been done before, a Brother requesting to be admitted to Holy Orders. But he finally received the permission he needed.
Being a non-traditional seminarian, black, and older, his path to the priesthood was different from the track usually walked by his brother friars. Because of his “delayed vocation” he was sent to Pope John XXIII Seminary in Boston for training and was ordained at age 33. During his Diaconate, he worked at the University of Cincinnati Newman Center. “We had an open working relationship with Bishop Joseph Bernardin, who encouraged us to coordinate efforts with a diocesan priest and a sister. We had a great team and spent much of our time with the kids on campus. Those young people brought an energy and vitality to the parish liturgies and it revitalized St. George, the associated parish.” Robert was one of the first friars to work in collaboration with other Franciscan provinces and their ministries.
Robert was privileged to do what few newly ordained men have done. He worked with people of influence and was often in the limelight, working to quell hotbeds of riots and racial unrest in Boston, New York and Louisiana. He was often invited to consult on testy, delicate community situations. Fr. Jeff Scheeler, Provincial Minister, describes Robert as “a peacemaker, able to quiet disturbances. ”Robert's quiet presence brought even the most volatile rabble-rousers to settle down. He gave people a chance to speak but would not allow grand standing or soap box tirades.
For the past 14 years, Robert has been pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Lafayette, La. St. Paul the Apostle has been an African American parish in Lafayette for more than 100 years. He also serves as the Chancellor of Holy Family tri-parish school. Robert uses what he calls “good pressure” to promote high academic standards in his 300-student school. More than half of the upper grade children receive Presidential Achievement Awards annually.
At age 80, Robert has been a priest for 38 years. Wherever he has been, he has made a difference. Many of his talents are kept unseen until a situation causes him to draw upon them, like being a painter and a sculptor. He is creative and designs a new concept for the annual nativity scene at his church every year.
One year he made a “Portiuncula”, a replica of the tiny chapel St. Francis rebuilt in the valley below Assisi, for his Nativity. The parishioners had to enter the chapel to see the crib as it was constructed to be like the first nativity scene St. Francis made. “It takes about a month to get the whole thing together,” he said.
Thank you, Robert, for all you do. We are blessed that you persevered.