Rev. James Alexander Gillis, sfm
Fr. Jim Gillis, died peacefully in his sleep on September 2, 2009, at the age of 86. He had been living in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, since 1979 where he was a well known and beloved presence in the community.
He was born and raised in Inverness, Nova Scotia, and graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. After serving in World War II, he joined Scarboro Missions and was ordained in 1950. His first mission was in the Dominican Republic, assigned to the parishes of Monte Plata and then Yamasa. In 1953 he returned home to recover his health, accepting to help out at the Holy Childhood office in Vancouver. In 1955 he was appointed to the Philippines, Scarboro’s newest mission. After language studies in Cebu City, central Philippines, he arrived in the small port town of Cabalian, Southern Leyte, joining other Scarboro missionaries in the area. Soon after, he was appointed pastor of Anahowan, the next parish up the road, and the smallest and poorest of the Scarboro parishes along that Pacific coast. Fr. Pat Kelly who continues to serve in the Philippines said, “the people of Anahowan still remember Fr. Jim Gillis for his compassionate, understanding manner.”
Health reasons again brought Fr. Jim home to Canada in 1961 where he worked in the Promotion department at Scarboro’s central house. He also assisted Fr. Jack McIver in setting up a language and culture learning facility for the new priests assigned to Scarboro’s missions in Central America, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.
In 1965 he began studies in Chicago and acquired a Masters degree in American History. He took a position as a history professor at St. Francis Xavier University in September 1967 and also assisted Frs. Howard Shea and Lionel Walsh in the newly-opened Scarboro House for seminarians near the campus.
“To be good missionaries you must become saints.” In his humble, Christ like presence and compassion with everyone, especailly the poor, Fr. Jim had become what our founder called us all to be.
In 1969, after considerable personal prayer and reflection, Fr. Jim decided to change the focus of his life and priestly ministry. In 1973, he accepted a position as Corrections Service Counsellor at the penitentiary in Dorchester, New Brunswick, where he worked for six years. Returning to Antigonish in 1979 he worked as a counsellor for Canada Manpower until he retired. In a quiet but very dedicated way, through service to others, Fr. Jim continued to live out his priesthood which he cherished.
At his wake, relatives and friends shared warmly of their memories of him and the quiet, gentle ways in which he exercised his priestly ministry. As stories and highlights of his life were shared, it was obvious that his care and compassion touched many people over the years.
“He was a champion of the poor,” one person said. Fr. Jim was known to give whatever he had to the poor and to anyone in need. Seeing that he did not dress warmly enough for the cold winter days, his family and friends often bought him coats and shoes and other warm clothing, which he promptly gave away to those whom he felt needed them more than he did.
“He was my friend,” said one woman who came to Fr. Jim years before, desperate for a job to support herself. Moved by her persistence and her tears, he found her a job which she said made all the difference for her future. Beside her, a middle-aged man added while smiling gratefully, “He got me two jobs!”
A priest chaplain shared that Fr. Jim regularly walked to the Municipal Court House in the mornings to sit with people about to be charged, quietly offering them reassuring support. He often visited the jail to be with prisoners and sometimes offered personal counselling. He was known for his compassionate way with people in trouble with the law. There was a special place in Fr. Jim’s heart for those on the margins of society—the prisoner, the forgotten, the elderly, and the infirm.
“He was a walker!” another person said. Every day, Fr. Jim walked all over town. People who saw him on the streets with his bag of groceries or other items, offered to buy him a carrying bag, but he refused saying that what he had was quite sufficient.
Fr. Jim lived in a cooperative apartment complex near St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish. This became for him a real Christian community which he served pastorally, often celebrating Mass for people who were sick or aged and unable to venture out. When asked, he offered this priestly ministry in the neighbouring complexes as well. People shared how he visited the sick, remembered people’s birthdays, and celebrated anniversaries. One family recalled that he celebrated Mass with them every Thanksgiving for 25 years. “He was like a brother to us.”
Fr. Jim had a special love for the Native peoples living on a reserve in nearby Afton, and they in turn loved him. During the wake, one of their Christian leaders told how Fr. Jim contributed to building the foundation of their church. “Without his help I don’t think we would have succeeded in continuing to build our church. He was always so supportive and encouraging of us.”
The same leader then spoke of his gratitude to Fr. Jim for encouraging him to develop his musical talent, which eventually led to the start of the community’s two parish choirs. Fr. Jim had also asked the man to share the story of his pilgrimage to Medjugorje at Mass six Sundays in a row so that everyone would hear how God’s love had so deeply touched one of their community. He added, “a side effect of all this was that I overcame my shyness and fear of speaking in public.”
On the morning of September 8, 18 priests concelebrated the Mass of the Resurrection for Fr. Jim at St Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish. Gathered were family, friends, and neighbours, among them a number of the Sisters of St. Martha and the Sisters of Notre Dame living in the town. Scarboro missioners present at the Mass were Frs. Gerry Curry, Anthony Marsh, and Mike Traher, with the pastor of St. Ninian’s, Fr. Tom MacNeil, presiding at the liturgy. Fr. Traher gave the homily linking Fr. Jim’s life as a priest and missionary with the Beatitudes. Fr. Curry offered the prayers of commendation.
Fr. Traher concluded his homily by recalling the exhortation of Monsignor Fraser, founder of Scarboro Missions, in a talk to seminarians: “To be good missionaries you must become saints.” In his humble, Christ-like presence and compassion with everyone, especially the poor, Fr. Jim had become what our founder called us all to be. After the celebration concluded, yet another person came forward to say how grateful he was that years ago Fr. Jim had given him and his family the money to be able to buy a house when they were in great need. They will never forget him, the man said.
Fr. Jim Gillis was indeed a very good priest and missionary, whose life and ministry reflected the person and heart of Jesus.