Glenmary was not always Father Francois Pellissier’s first choice. Originally from France, he came to America under temporary oath as a brother with the Little Brothers of the Gospel. In 1975, when he was training to become a plumber, he met Dorothy Day in Manhattan, N.Y.
A former journalist, Dorothy converted to Catholicism and became a passionate and vocal advocate for social change. She formed the Catholic Workers Movement, which worked to provide opportunities and resources for the homeless and impoverished.
She recognized a similar passion for the less fortunate in Father Francois’ and encouraged him to join the seminary.
“I had no idea where to apply,” Father Francois said. However, he did have some experience in rural America. When he first emigrated in 1974, Father Francois was assigned to Appalachia, Va., with another French brother. While there, he met Glenmarians who were serving nearby in the Big Stone Gap, Va., mission and in Norton, Va. He began reading the Glenmary Challenge and fell in love with the religious community.
“I knew I wanted to be a priest, but there was not much sense of direction from the brothers in New York City,” Father Francois said. “I discerned with a spiritual director for over a year, and I was recruited by Father Les Schmidt (now serving in Big Stone Gap). I made two trips to (Glenmary) headquarters and spent some time at the Farm in Vanceburg, Ky.”
Now, Father Francois is active in prison and detention ministry in Georgia. He helps with the Kairos retreats and provides a Catholic presence in detention centers where immigrants await deportation. It is a difficult ministry, and during his tenure, he has encountered resistance from administration. He was the first Catholic priest at one of the facilities where he served.
“I was responding to a need in a new way, and people did not know what to do with me,” Father Francois said. “They were very suspicious.”
He was not allowed to bring in Bibles, rosaries or any musical instruments to help celebrate the religious service, so he created a calendar for each inmate. He included quotes and excerpts from the daily readings to inspire the inmates.
“It gives us something to talk about and gives them something to take back with them,” Father Francois said.
At the detention center, with its changing population, it is hard to build rapport with inmates. One week he may have several Catholics, all from Mexico. The next week, he may have a mix of Africans or people from the Middle East who do not speak Spanish.
But, there is friendship in the struggle. The Kairos team is an ecumenical group of ministers and volunteers from many churches in the area that has been embraced by the prison warden. Other local ministers visit the detention center with Father Francois to spread God’s love. He is particularly close to Deacon Leeann Culbreath, an Episcopal minister with whom Father Francois has strategized and collaborated to make a greater impact at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia.
That type of ecumenism has defined Father Francois’ career as a Glenmarian. Among his accomplishments, he helped bridge the gap between Protestants and Catholics in one of his missions.
“I simply suggested to the ministers to change the title of the group (Protestant Ministerial Association),” Father Francois said. “I was volunteering at the local high school as a tutor in the French class, and the ministers were curious how I could be preaching there. That was the kicker to get in the association.”
As a tall Frenchman in rural America, Father Francois has often encountered discrimination and adversity, but by staying true to himself and his mission, he has created inroads despite opposition. He also acknowledges that Glenmary still has room to grow.
“Being a strong individual with a sense of community is essential,” Father Francois said. “Loving people whether they like you or not is a major challenge in our small communities.”