Called to Walk in Their Footsteps: Father Joseph Lehane, C.S.C.

Fr Joseph Lehane, CSC

Fr. Jim Connelly, the Superior of Holy Cross House, the community’s medical and retirement facility, continues his monthly series on some of the heroic, faith-filled men in Holy Cross who have blazed the path of holiness for the rest of us. Today, we learn about Fr. Joseph Lehane, C.S.C., a “missionary’s missionary” who passed away this August.

When the United States was drawn into World War II, Joseph Lehane was enrolled in Rhode Island College, studying to be a teacher. He and many of his classmates decided to enlist in the army together in hopes of staying together in the same unit. It was not to be. Joe was separated from the others and sent to Asia, to Assam in Northeast India on the border with Burma, where he served at an air base that was shipping supplies over the Himalaya Mountains to China. Bombed by Japanese planes and threatened with being cut off by Japanese forces, Joe and the base survived the war.

Joe saw missionaries at work in China, Burma and India and began to think of returning to that part of India after the war as a priest. On a visit to Bandal Church in Calcutta, India, where the Blessed Mother had appeared, Joe met and prayed with old missionaries. A vocation was taking root that was nourished by the chaplain on the troop ship bringing him back to America and his home in Newport, Rhode Island. He thought of doing many other things after the war, but as he once wrote, “my vocation kept following me.”

A friend from high school days, Joe McCarthy, had joined the Brothers of Holy Cross and encouraged Joe Lehane to approach the Holy Cross Fathers in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Joe entered the Congregation, studied theology at the Holy Cross Foreign Mission Seminary in Washington and was ordained in 1957. He was sent to the Holy Cross missions in Bengal, now Bangladesh, in the same part of British India where he had served during the war. After being oriented to the language and culture of the country, Joe was sent to the mission of Srimongol near Assam where he served for most of the next fifty years. The parish priest when Joe arrived was too old and sick to move about the villages of this large mission and Joe did the travelling. When he arrived in 1959, there were 800 Christians in the mission and no mission buildings. Joe raised money from friends and family back in Rhode Island and when he left in 2007, there were 9,000 Catholics, schools and teachers in the villages, and a catechetical center at the mission.

Fr Lehane doing auto repair

Back in the United States in 2007 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, Father Joe Lehane was diagnosed with cancer and was unable to return to Bangladesh. After a long and gallant struggle with the disease, he died in August 2010. Joe was a missionary’s missionary in the best Holy Cross tradition and the presence of a thriving parish in Srimongol and a native Bangladeshi Holy Cross community are a tribute to his life and his witness.

“The footsteps of those men who called us to walk in their company left deep prints, as of men carrying heavy burdens. But they did not trudge; they strode. For they had the hope.” – Holy Cross Constitutions

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