Fr. Paul LaForge, SVD
As he celebrates his Golden Jubilee, Fr. Paul LaForge shares some highlights of his fifty years of ministry as an SVD missionary priest. “This is a significant milestone, a chance to reflect on the past and to be thankful for all the memories,” he says. And what memories he has!
Fr. Paul’s story begins in Detroit, Michigan, where he was born on November 14, 1930, into a large family of seven boys and one girl. “My sister ran the show back then, and she still does now,” he laughs. He grew up during the tough early years of the Depression, when the only job his father could find was at a restaurant. “We shared the food that he brought home for us with another family across the street, whose father could not find work,” says Fr. Paul. Later, his family relocated to Pontiac, Michigan, where he attended St. Michael’s Catholic Grade School, graduating in 1944. “I still maintain ties with the class from St. Michael’s,” he adds.
From the time he first served Mass as an altar boy, Fr. Paul knew that he wanted to become a priest. Initially, he applied to the local diocese. He also received some SVD literature in the mail and soon after, a visit from Frs. Bauer and Luis, SVDs, who gave him information about Divine Word High School Seminary in East Troy, Wisconsin. Before long, Fr. Paul found himself immersed in a new life of education, activities and strict routine in East Troy. “I loved it,” he recalls.
After graduating in 1948, Fr. Paul went on to complete a two-year novitiate at Techny and two years of college in the juniorate at St. Paul’s Mission House (now Divine Word College) in Epworth, Iowa. In 1952 he returned to Techny to complete his bachelor’s degree. From 1954-58 he studied theology at Techny and was ordained there on June 7, 1958. One week later, on June 14, Fr. Paul offered his first Mass at his home parish of St. Michael’s.
“I’m a city person,” he says, “and I really hoped to go to Japan for my first assignment.” Realizing his dream in September of 1958, Fr. Paul arrived in Tokyo, eager to learn the language and serve in pastoral ministry. But the dream contrasted with reality. “Going on my first drive through the city was more fearful than crossing the Pacific Ocean in an airplane to get to Japan!” After two years of training, he began teaching at Nanzan Junior and Senior High School for boys.
In 1965, Fr. Paul returned to Chicago to study psychology at Loyola University, where he received his Master’s degree in Clinical Counseling Psychology in May of 1968. After another year of studying theology, German and Spanish, he went on to the University of Michigan, earning another Master’s degree in TESOL – Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
By September of 1971 Fr. Paul was back in Japan, teaching at Nanzan High School for boys until 1973, when he transferred to the Nanzan Junior College for girls, teaching there until 1989. As if that wasn’t enough responsibility, Fr. Paul also became the Director of Yohanekan, a 70-student dormitory for boys attending Nanzan University, and he remained dormitory director for sixteen years. Fr. Paul also fondly recalls his excursions into the Japanese countryside to buy gifts for his students. “The country people would laugh,” he smiles, “when I told them I had 70 sons and 120 daughters!”
For twelve years, from 1989-2001, Fr. Paul taught an International English course at Nanzan University, combining composition work with newly-implemented computer technology. “The students shared their particular expertise and learned from each other,” he says. From 1996-2001, he taught in the Business Department at Nanzan University, in addition to teaching courses on Business Ethics and English Teaching Methodology in two different graduate departments. Utilizing his psychology degree, Fr. Paul pioneered the development of the very first Human Relations Department in Japan.
Memories aside, Fr. Paul lives very much in the present, making the most of each day and looking ahead to new accomplishments. In May of 2001 he “retired” and came to Divine Word College to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. But that wasn’t enough for this lifelong teacher and student. He enrolled in art and philosophy classes at the college, and today is a full-time student in Cross-Cultural Studies, anticipating his second Bachelor’s degree in 2009.
Along the way, Fr. Paul also discovered the artist within him. Accomplished in Japanese and Russian art techniques, he believes that “art is an effective way of communicating the Gospel message as a Divine Word Missionary.” He adds, “My art is a prophetic proclamation of the Life and Light and the Word of God present among all people.”
What’s next for our entrepreneur in education? As he pauses to reflect on a half century as a Divine Word Missionary, Fr. Paul LaForge says, “This is my chance to recall the Divine Presence in the present and to surrender the future to the goodness of God.”