SAN JUAN, RGV – After 47 years as a priest, Rio Grande Valley icon Jerry Frank is retiring.
Parishioners at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church held a party for him on Sunday evening. At the same event they welcomed Frank’s successor, Father Alfonso Guevara.
“Let me tell you, Father Jerry is a great motivator,” said Diamantina Herrera, part of the volunteer staff for St. John the Baptist and an organizer of the party. “Father Jerry has really allowed us to grow, not only spiritually with his guidance but also by giving us opportunities to really be leaders in our Christian community.”
Herrera, in charge of liturgy at her church, said she first met Frank when she attended a lay ministry class he was teaching back in the 1980s.
“We do not always agree, like I tell him every time I remember, but he has beautiful ideas. He is out there for the people. That is what he has taught us – to be about the people, not about us. People in the Lord’s name,” Herrera said of Frank.
“Sometimes he gives us major tasks to do but we look at him and respond. He took on this parish when it had a major building project. He saw it through. He helped it grow. That is what we want to do, have this community grow spiritually and grow as a community of Christ.”
Asked if St. John the Baptist is a thriving church, Herrera said: “It is a thriving church. Father Jerry came in when we had our last Oblate priest. So, for us having been an Oblate community for eons, oh my gosh, really? It was a major transition in our lives.”
Asked about the party and the long line of well-wishers that wanted a photo with him at the end of the evening, Frank said:
“It seems like my years here touched them and I know they touched me, deeply. I owe much to the people of the Valley. I came here from Minnesota to thaw out down here and I really did. They people are warm and lovely. You know how that goes. They mean a lot to me, their support, their love. We have been able to do a lot of good things together.”
In attendance at the party were three nuns from Casa Amparo de la Mujer in Reynosa. Frank said he was pleased they attended.
“All my years I have been trying to give them steady support from our parishes because they have a wonderful ministry for girls from the streets and orphaned girls. They educate them, they take care of them, they give them a start in life. It has been a blessing being associated with them over the years. We take second collections for them. I was just over there last week with the second collection. It was not much, $3,000. But for them, on the other side, that goes a long, long way.”
Frank leaves the Diocese of Brownsville on June 1. He has signed a contract with Unbound Incorporated, an organization that sponsors families in 20 undeveloped or poor countries around the world.
“They are going to send me around the country, preaching at parishes. I start in July. I am scheduled for Seattle, then the Bronx, then Houston. That is the way it is going to go, trying to get families to adopt poor kids. It is a great program. I am really impressed by it, by the way they organize their basic Christian attitudes and approach to everything. It is a $122 million a year project and 95 percent goes to the program, to the poor, the people,” Frank explained.
Frank said the Valley will still be home. “I will be living right across the road here, right next to the retreat house, where retired priests have their lodgings.”
Asked if he plans to stay active in the Valley, Frank said: “I am open to the Spirit. I do want to do some other things. The thing I feel strongly about and most attracted to is the New Testament, the Scriptures, and I want to continue to give courses on that and reflect on that. Build some educational and spiritual formation ministries around the Scriptures.”
In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the end of the party, Frank recalled his reasons for making the Valley home and reflected on some of his proudest achievements as a community activist.
“I worked with migrant workers in Minnesota with the government, Migrants Incorporated of Minnesota. I had been in Ecuador for a couple of years and they needed someone to do a summer program. I fell in love with the migrants. I eventually left the seminary in Minnesota and tried to get into law school but it was too late to sign up. So, I thought about it a while and the Spirit moved me to come back to the seminary,” Frank recalled.
“But, this time I decided to go where I wanted to go, which was down where the migrants came from, which was down in South Texas. So, it was through my work in Minnesota with migrant workers that came up to work in the sugar beet fields that I was brought down here. I was ordained for this Diocese 47 years ago. Bishop Medeiros ordained me up in Minnesota but it was for the Diocese of Brownsville. He was the Bishop of Brownsville at that time.”
Over the past 47 years, Frank founded a home for boys, Esperanza Home, did campus ministry at Pan Am for five years, and ran the Diocese’s Lay Ministry deacon training programs for about 15 years. He has been a pastor at St. Paul’s in Mission, Holy Spirit in McAllen, St. Joseph’s in Brownsville and, for the past six and a half years, St. John the Baptist in San Juan.
Asked about his community work, much of it in association with Valley Interfaith, Frank said: “The main thing has always been the Living Wage stuff. We have been consistently at that for 20-some years in Hidalgo County. Cameron County, completely and in every respect, came in line on the Living Wage campaign.”
In McAllen, while at Holy Spirit, Frank helped Valley Interfaith secure new programs to help low-income families.
“Changing McAllen by getting a whole bunch of programs adopted through the half cent sales tax. Then, when the city commissioners did not want to oblige us and would not respect the people’s choice, we turned the city around into single member districts. The clinic, El Milagro, After School enrichment, VIDA training, affordable housing, we got all of those things funded,” Frank said.
“Library branches in the north and south, all those things were kind of discarded once they were advertised in order to win the vote on the half cent sales tax. They wanted to put those monies elsewhere. This led us to do the single-member districts. We barely eked out a victory. It was 51-49 or something like that.”
Asked about his community work in Brownsville, Frank said:
“We kept the state from imposing that big highway through our parish. The parish really stood up against it. The school board, the city, the county, the college, the PUB, they all came across with a Living Wage policy, which also included their contracts for public works. Cameron County and Brownsville was the tops in coming to bat for living wages.”
Asked about Guevara taking over from him as priest of St. John the Baptist, Frank said: “Father Alfonso has been a very good friend over the years. He is a very humble person and a deeply spiritual person, very pastoral. If I had to pick a successor for the best interests of this community, he’d be the one.”
Rene Gaytán, parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist, has known Frank for just over a year. He said he has made a lasting impression.
“Let me tell you something, I have known several priests since I entered the seminary. Father Jerry is one of the most humble and wise men I have ever known. He has conviction. He really believes what he preaches. He is someone who not only speaks about God but someone who speaks with God. He is very involved in the Church but also in the community. Always looking for the best interests of the people, in all areas of their life, spiritual, emotional. I am glad I got to know him for more than a year because me, as a priest, as a new priest, he taught me how to spend time and energy with my people.”
Gaytán added: “It is honor for me to answer questions about Father Jerry. He is a very good guy.”