Seminarian Philip Johnson Writes About Fr. Price

This is the fourth article of a four-part series on the life and mission of Father Thomas Frederick Price, the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest for service in North Carolina and a co-founder of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society.

It is written by Philip G. Johnson, a native of Greensboro, NC, a former Naval Officer and current Seminarian in the Diocese of Raleigh. Father Price ministered to many of Philip's ancestors throughout his travels in North Carolina, so Philip has a special devotion to "The Tar Heel Apostle."

In this final article about the life of the Servant of God, Father Thomas Frederick Price, I wish to discuss many of the reasons that he has inspired me in my faith and vocation. I first heard stories about Father Price when I was a child, and while I did not know very much about him, the tales of a priest traveling around North Carolina by buggy in order to make "Every Tar Heel a Catholic" was very inspiring. Father Price was a priest before all else, and it seems that he spent every ounce of his energy in the work of saving souls. As a young man praying that some day I might be able to serve God as a priest, Father Price has long been for me a great model of priestly zeal.

Symbolism was very important to Father Price. I am not proposing that his beliefs or work were only symbolic, but it seems that he often made some sort of symbolic action prior to carrying out a task, desire, or promise. In 1901, after requesting permission to become a full time missionary in North Carolina, Father Price climbed and celebrated Mass upon Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, the highest peak of the Appalachian Mountains. This Mass was meant to "consecrate" North Carolina to God. Coupled with his goal of establishing a mission in every county, perhaps symbolizing that the Church had a "foothold" across the State, I believe these two powerful symbols helped to motivate his missionary work to convert all non-Catholic North Carolinians.

Similarly, his adoption of the leather-coated silver ring symbolizing his "spiritual marriage" to Saint Bernadette, along with his final request that his heart be buried near the young Saint's tomb, began and ended a beautiful lifetime devotion and prayer to Saint Bernadette to intercede for his priestly ministry. Indeed, his daily morning offering hinged on Our Lady and Saint Bernadette as he prayed: "O Mother Immaculate, Patron of America, who through little Bernadette, bade us pray and work for the conversion of the countless souls now perishing. I offer all the prayers, actions and sufferings of this day and every day of my life for their conversion, and I beg of thee to bless my resolution to do what I can throughout my life to bring about their salvation. St. Bernadette, pray for Father Price."

Many who knew him while he was alive recognized Father Price's holiness. Just after Fr. Price's death, Father (and future Bishop) James Edward Walsh wrote a letter to the Maryknoll motherhouse explaining the deep pain the death inflicted on the missionaries to China: "We feel that our loss is almost immeasurable. [Father Price] was at once, confrere, superior, and father to us, and his zeal, all the more stronger after thirty-five years in the priesthood, was a constant inspiration. He seemed to realize vividly the value of an immortal soul and he undertook nothing except 'what may be for the greatest good of souls.'"1

This passage highlights what I believe to be one of the most important aspects of Father Price's spirituality. While he had high hopes of converting the entire State to Catholicism, he never forgot the value of one immortal soul. He must have learned from his own parents' conversion that one honest conversion could produce many Catholics and transmit the faith to the next generation, so no mission or task was ever too small for his sincerest efforts. In his eyes, every soul mattered and was deserving of his time and sacrifice.

In 1936, eighteen years after accompanying Father Price on the first mission to China and having been consecrated a bishop in 1927, Bishop James Edward Walsh had the honor of interring Father Price's remains in the Maryknoll cemetery when his coffin was relocated from China. In his sermon, he spoke about how the Chinese people to whom Father Price ministered recognized his virtues. The Bishop commented: "Just how the Chinese around him, both Catholic and pagan, were able in those short nine months to appreciate his character seems to be something of a mystery. His Chinese vocabulary was limited to 'God bless you' and a few other phrases, so that he could not communicate his spirit or his thought to any extent by means of speech…. 'He was virtue,' they used to say of Father Price. And if you go to Yeungkong today, the mission where he spent only nine months, and that eighteen years ago, and ask if they remember 'P'o Shan Foo,' (Father Price) they will answer, 'Yes, that was the holy priest.'"

Only God knows the outcome of Father Price's Cause for Canonization, but there is no doubt that he has left behind a legacy of priestly service that will not soon be forgotten. As I have studied the life of Father Price, read his daily letters to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and considered the impact that he had on the Church in North Carolina and around the world, I realize that great victories for the Faith can be accomplished by emulating his tireless dedication, reliance on the Saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, devotion to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and trust in the Providence of God. Father Price worked hard and trusted in God to provide for anything that was lacking, and as a result he brought many souls to the Church.

Father Price's lifelong friend, Cardinal O'Connell, recorded many personal memories in his Seventy Years Recollections, but one passage is especially telling of how the Cardinal viewed his North Carolinian friend. He wrote: "Is it, knowing what I know, rashness on my part to say that Father Price was a saint of God? And am I too daring a prophet to venture to hope that some day, to the glory of the American Priesthood and the holy cause of Catholic Missions, the name of Father Frederick Price will have a place in the calendar of the saints of God's Holy Church? As if to complete the entirety of his sacrifice, he went over the unknown road into the untried mission fields as a missionary in China where, under the severest tests of hardship and suffering, he gave up his holy life for the holy cause of which he had become a great apostle. ...But the soul of Father Price still marches on, and following his holy leadership the great phalanx grows and grows, of young devoted American priests, the purposes of whose lives has been inspired and sanctified, to follow his noble, self-sacrificing zeal and devotion to bring the light of Christianity to shine amid the darkness of paganism, and I do not hesitate to bid them say, as I often do, 'Father Price, pray for us.'"

1 Letter of Fr Walsh to Fr Superior: Tung Chan Mission Diary, p.13. (Maryknoll Archives Vol. 1 Series1 Box 4).