November 15- Worcester Telegram & Gazette : RPCV Thomas M. Wright appointed Provincial Superior of the Society of African Missions

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Read this story from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette on RPCV Thomas M. Wright and his recent appointment as Provincial Superior of the Society of African Missions, the top position in the U.S. branch of the international Roman Catholic order at:

Area native heads U.S. branch of missions order

Area native heads U.S. branch of missions order

Nov 15, 2001 - Telegram & Gazette Worcester, MA Author(s): Frederick A. Smock

WARREN -- Had the Rev. Thomas M. Wright followed in his parent's footsteps, he probably would have become a minister.

But his experience in Ghana while working for the Peace Corps led to his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his decision to become a priest.

In August, the 42-year-old son of William and Ursula Wright became the 11th priest to hold the post of Provincial Superior of the Society of African Missions, the top position in the U.S. branch of the international Roman Catholic order.

Brought to the United States at the end of the 19th century by the Rev. Ignatius Lissner, the SMA has only 35 priests in the United States. But it has 1,000 priests and missionaries worldwide, along with 250 seminarians.

"We are holding our own," Rev. Wright said.

But like orders serving the mission field, SMA always needs more missionaries. "Africa still needs missionaries. There is a lot of work that needs to be done in all fields in Africa," he said.

Perhaps, he said, the events of Sept. 11 will benefit the missions. "It may be that as we are dragged into the world arena again in a big way, people will come to be much more aware and concerned about what is happening in the world," Rev. Wright said.

The biggest challenge facing missionaries in Africa is violence, he said. "There has been a tremendous rise in violence. Africa used to be a peaceful place, but since the 1990s it has become an armed camp," Rev. Wright said.

According to Rev. Wright, the violence is carried on by "a small minority who are terrorizing the majority who just want to live in peace."

Even the priests of SMA are not immune to the violence. A while ago, an elderly SMA priest returned to Africa temporarily to fill in for a fellow SMA priest who was on vacation. The priest was out having dinner one evening when robbers struck the restaurant where he was eating. The 85-year-old priest "was a little slow" in reacting to their demand for his wallet "and they shot him dead on the spot," Rev. Wright said.


It is difficult for missionaries to work under these conditions, he said. There is so much violence that missionaries cannot go out at night, the time when most missionary work is done, because people are home from work. "They cannot visit homes or hold meetings because people will not go out on the streets after dark," he said.

The situation is not unlike that which has followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, he said. "These are people who are trying to survive from day to day" in the face of constant violence.

"They do not have lofty dreams. They are very happy, generous, open people. This is true wherever I have been in Africa. They are open and eager for the Christian message," he said.

Rev. Wright jokes about the fact that he, the son of two well- known and very active members of the Warren Federated Church, became a Catholic priest.

"What? One of the Wrights a Catholic priest!" he said in mock shock during a recent telephone interview from the SMA Fathers American headquarters in Tenafly, N.J.

Ordained a priest in 1992, Rev. Wright went directly to Africa after his ordination and worked in Liberia and the Ivory Coast before returning to the United States to become vocations director for the SMA in 1996.

Rev. Wright said he had made it known recently that he was anxious to leave his post as vocations director -- which involves seeking new members for the society -- and return to the mission field in Africa.

"Instead I got this job," he said. It happened at the provincial assembly of the SMA, the highest decision-making body of the society in the United States.

"Every six years we elect delegates to attend the assembly and to set goals for the next few years and elect new leadership," he said. As provincial superior, Rev. Wright is involved in administrative and policy matters for SMA in America.

Each assembly determines the direction for the society over the next six years, he said. Sometimes the directions are very specific and at other times they are not. "This time they were not very specific," he said. The assembly painted things in broad strokes "and now we can fill in the spaces," Rev. Wright said.

As a teen-ager growing up in Warren, Rev. Wright recalls feeling a need to get out and see the world. It was that longing to see what lay outside small, rural Warren that eventually lead him to the Peace Corps.

"I remember watching television one night, and a Peace Corps promotion came on, and it showed a guy riding an elephant in East Africa. It made me think, `I want that adventure,' " he said.

Over the years, he said, that one Peace Corps promotion came back to him again and again. After graduating from Quaboag Regional High School, Rev. Wright attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history.

"I changed my mind on so many things while I was in college, but one thing I knew when I got out of college was that I was going to Africa with the Peace Corps. I kept it in my mind and heart and that's how I got to Africa," he said.

When he began his work for the Peace Corps -- he was teaching in a Catholic school in Ghana -- Rev. Wright said he discovered that Catholic Mass was the only place where he could attend a church service in English.

"The Protestant churches where I was conducted their worship services in the local language, and I could not understand it. I wanted to continue to go to church and I wanted to be able to understand it," he said.

Working in the Catholic school, he said, he got to know both Ghana nuns and American Catholic missionaries. "I never got to know any American Protestant missionaries because there were not any in that area," he said.

"Going to Mass all the time, working with the sisters and meeting the Catholic missionaries, that is what got me interested in becoming a Catholic and a missionary and a priest," he said.

Rev. Wright said that when he returned to the United States from his Peace Corps service, he began looking around for a missionary organization that worked exclusively in Africa. "That's when I came across SMA and found out that the priest in the village in Ghana where I attended Mass each Sunday was an SMA priest," he said.

Recalling those years of attending Mass, Rev. Wright said he remembers being intrigued with the Mass and the role of the priest "even though I was a Protestant."

"I did not understand what he was doing, but I thought that I would like to be doing what he was doing," he said.

Rev. Wright said his parents were very supportive of his decision to become a priest.

"When I first told them, we sat down for a couple of hours and they asked me a lot of questions. They just wanted to make sure I had thought this out," he said. "I did not present it as something I was thinking of doing, but as something I was going to do. My mind was made up. I think they saw that I finally had some direction in my life."

He credits their strong commitment to their church as being one reason he chose to be committed to the priesthood and the mission field. "They were very committed to their church. I grew up always feeling the same commitment to the church, but now it's in the Catholic Church -- and not the Protestant church," he said.

William Wright said his son had talked about becoming a minister before deciding to covert to Catholicism. He and his wife didn't object to the move, he said. "We felt it was strictly his decision. It was his life," he said.

"He knew what he wanted," added his mother. She said she is happy he chose SMA because it is "a very giving order that works to improve the lot of the people they are serving."

"He has always enjoyed working with other people and helping other people," his father said.

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