Friday, March 19, 2010

Sepia Saturday--John Fraser

Each week we are following the lives of members of my Great Grandfather William's family as they appear in this 1890 family portrait. Last time we focused on the man himself (front row far left) and this week we move to the little boy (to his right), who would prove to be the true superstar of the family, John Fraser.

He was one of only two members of this family that I actually got to meet in person. But he wasn't an easy man to like.

John Andrew Fraser was born in Toronto in 1887 where he attended St.Michael's college. At 19 he left to study for the priesthood in Genoa Italy and was ordained on July 14,1901, the third member of his family to enter a religious vocation. Fr. Fraser worked in several Toronto parishes before sailing to Shanghai in 1902 as the first English speaking priest from North America in China as a missionary. In 1910 he left on a world tour promoting the cause of China missions through the U.S.A., Rome, Italy, Ireland, England and across Canada.

In 1918 Fr. Fraser founded English Canada's only society of Roman Catholic priests exclusively engaged in foreign mission work. It came to have 133 priests working in seven countries.

My Grandfather Charles, Msgr. John and Alexander

The mission was first named the St. Francis Xavier China Mission Seminary in Almonte. In 1921, following the death of his parents, the society moved to it's present location in Scarborough, changing its name to the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society. Its first priests left for China in 1925. Fr. Fraser stayed in China until 1949, hiding from the Communists for several years following the revolution.

He was made a Monsignor in 1932. When the communists prevented him from returning to China in 1950, Msgr. Fraser went to Japan at the age of 73 and started working there. In Nagasaki he rebuilt Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, destroyed by the Atomic Bomb.

Msgr John Fraser in China

About the Monsignor, Father Gerald Kelly writes, "...assessed from a purely natural point of view Msgr. Fraser left much to be desired. Respect and admiration he had aplenty, but of easy going, warm intimate friendship with others, none. Let us hasten to add that age, and a natural temperament conditioned by over a half a century of lonely and solitary work in foreign lands is hardly conducive to the characteristics we arbitrarily deny him....during his long years as founder and missionary he came into possession of hundreds and thousands of dollars, both for personal and mission work, he turned every cent over to the work, scrupulously recording every penny. Holidays, clothes, food, ordinary comforts, literally everything considered pleasurable beyond vital necessities of life were utterly foreign to him. A radio, the gift of priests some years ago, was found unpacked among his effects. Blessed with good health, Monsignor never missed saying mass in his life."

Father Roland Roberts writes, "When Father Fraser heard that I was thinking of buying a new suit one summer he did everything to talk me out of it. His final argument for saving the price of a suit was to take me to his room and offer me one of his old ones. Now Father Fraser was a very tall man with long legs and I am not. He thought that if I rolled up the cuffs...I suspect a short pair of stilts would have been better. I told Father Fraser I would think it over and then I ran all the way to the clothing store."

Roger Relow, SFM recalls, "Monsignor Fraser was in a very good mood and was talking animatedly when suddenly a big brown rat ran through his legs into the house....Monsignor took off after that rat at full gallop. He was well over eighty but he was running like a track star.....the rat ran out of the kitchen with Monsignor hot on his heels waving a frying pan over his head. Another dash through the house and then a noisy duel in the kitchen. From the racket that emanated from that off-stage confrontation the rat paid the price in full for his 'gate crashing'. Monsignor emerged from the kitchen a little flushed but seemingly none the worse for wear...It was just part of the daily routine."

Monsignor John Fraser, Formal Portrait

Father Hugh F. X. Sharkey also recalls an incident. In 1924 in Ching-Dee he was visiting Father Fraser in a house with no floors and the window open to the elements: "I was rooming, if you could call it that, with Father Des Stringer and we had collected some straw and had just bedded ourselves down for the night when literally hundreds of bats began to swoop and dive at us. Father stringer and I were on our feet swinging sticks and coats and whatever we could get our hands on in an effort to drive the pesky bats from the room when Father Fraser appeared in the doorway.

" 'Oh my, a few bats will never hurt you! Go to sleep and ignore them. This is all part of missionary adaptation. And what's more you're keeping me awake.'

"Well I must confess that we ignored his advise and after a time succeeded in driving the bats out of our room. Just as we were beginning to drop off we heard a great thrashing noise in the next room. When we went next door there was Father Fraser swinging frantically at the bats with a short plank. Apparently when the bat colony vacated our room they emigrated to his. I can still see Father Stringer leaning up against the wall and trying to keep a straight face as he offered some words of comfort, 'This is all part of our missionary adaptation, Father. Just go to sleep and ignore them!.'"

Msgr. Fraser died September 3, 1962. His Seminary and several Adult Education colleges around Toronto are named in his honour. His life story has been the subject of a book, a magazine series, a comic book and a television documentary.

Scarboro Missions continues to flourish and has recently received the Racial Harmony Award from the Scarborough Committee on Race Relations, special praise from Pope John Paul II for its Ecumenical work and interfaith dialogue and Swami Veda Bharati, an internationally renowned Hindu teacher from India, honoured Scarboro Missions for their interfaith initiatives.


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