By Jeanne Sager
JEFFERSONVILLE December 30, 2003 Whispers of an impending changing of the guard in western Sullivan Countys Catholic churches became a shout this weekend in Jeffersonville.
Father Paul Osborne, the last in a long line of Franciscan priests to lead St. Georges and St. Francis parishes in Jeffersonville and Youngsville handed over the reins to a Diocesan priest during Sundays masses.
Because of dwindling numbers in the brotherhood, the men in the simple brown robes who have overseen births, weddings and masses in many of Sullivan Countys churches for the past century are beginning to say goodbye.
In their stead, Osborne explained, will be priests from other orders, including the Diocesan priests who differ from the Franciscans mostly in their style of clothing.
Osborne had been pastoring to the people of the Jeffersonville area for the past year and a half when he was informed by the Holy Name Province, which oversees the Franciscans in the region, that he was going to be moving on.
The Holy Name Province covers not only Sullivan County but a stretch of land from Massachusetts down the eastern seaboard to Florida, sweeping west as far as Buffalo.
Already the Franciscans have pulled out of two parishes in the past year, Osborne said one in New Jersey and another in Connecticut.
Another three priest removals are planned in New Jersey, he continued, although plans havent been set for Sullivan County.
The real problem is finding enough priests to staff the traditionally Franciscan parishes, Osborne explained.
Sullivan County was once flush with Franciscans, with many men falling in love with the rural area during their time at the former St. Josephs Seminary in Callicoon.
That school for priests, which was a vibrant part of the community from the early 1900s, closed in the 1970s.
To a lesser degree, the seminary was facing one of the biggest problems of the priesthood today a fading interest in the vocation.
We have very few recruits coming in, and the desire or interest of the greater number of friars is for urban ministry rather than rural, Osborne explained.
That is only amplified by the number of vocations that come into the priesthood from urban areas rather than places like Sullivan County.
The rumblings of change have been heard in other area parishes though, where the Franciscans at the head of the church are getting older and facing retirement age.
Even the priests in those other parishes do not know what the future holds.
Father Gus Richardson at St. Marys Church in Obernburg has heard talk, but he said he doesnt know whats going to happen.
Asked if he was leaving the area, the Franciscan said, I hope not.
Osborne could only say that his official last day in Jeffersonville is today.
Moving in in his stead is Father Ignatius Vu Xuan Thu, a Diocesan priest who came into the county Saturday and helped celebrate mass with Osborne Sunday.
Vu Xuan Thu was born in Vietnam in 1945 and studied at Saigon University.
After years in the Vietnamese Military Academy and a long time on a farm, he spent a year and a half as a postulant and novice in a Benedictine monastery before escaping the Communist regime and moving to the U.S.
Vu Xuan Thu was ordained a priest in 1994 after studying at St. Josephs Seminary in Dunwoodie. His time since has been spent at parishes in White Plains and Staten Island.
In a letter to the parish, the new priest said he will enjoy the nature and the quiet environment of Jeffersonville.
I consider this a very good chance, Vu Xuan Thu wrote. I hope I will have a simple and humble service in this place, knowing that God, faith and the archdiocese is always behind me.
Osborne said he is being sent back to the Buffalo area where he was once a music teacher at a Catholic high school.
Brought up on a farm, Osborne enjoyed Jeffersonvilles rural feel, and he will miss the area and the people.
The people have been so good to me, he said. I really enjoyed my stay here.
The only difficulty, Osborne said, was adjusting to living alone in the friary in Jeffersonville.
Before being sent to the village, Osborne never lived in a friary with less than eight priests.
His replacement will have the manse next to St. Georges to himself, and people should expect to see him in the area.
The parish will hold welcoming ceremonies for Vu Xuan Thu after each mass during the weekend of January 10 and 11.
Franciscans are still at the helm of a number of county parishes.
In addition to Richardson, Father Ignatius Smith at Holy Cross in Callicoon and St. Patricks in Long Eddy, Father Anthony Moore at St. Anthony of Padua in Yulan and Sacred Heart in Pond Eddy and Father Tom Jones of St. Francis Xavier in Narrowsburg are all members of the order molded in the image of St. Francis.
Those priests are here to stay as long as possible, according to Father John Felice, head of the Holy Name Province.
It is our intention to stay there as long as we can, Felice said. Our friars love it up there, and the people love them.
But because of age plus the requirements to live in fraternity, eventually our ability to stay everywhere will be limited, he continued. We are not rushing out of there it is clearly not our desire to leave.
We will serve the people of Sullivan County as long as we can.