Fr. James Naughton, SDB, 75, died at 2:25 a.m. on Nov. 27 in the rectory of St. Theresa’s Church in Leeds, Ala., where he had been pastor since July 1, 2000. Suffering from terminal skin cancer, he came home from the hospital on October 28 and began receiving hospice care. The weekend before he died, he’d told Fr. Dennis Donovan that he didn’t expect to last until Thanksgiving, and he was right.
St. Theresa’s beloved pastor had had an earlier battle with cancer that cost him the sight in one eye.
Fr. Jim had been a Salesian for 56 years and a priest for 46 years.
James J. Naughton, the elder of Michael and Mary Cody Naughton’s two sons, was born in the Bronx on Jan. 27, 1938, and was baptized in the family’s parish church, Holy Family, on Feb. 14 and confirmed there in 1946. He attended Holy Family’s parochial school and was a member of the Dominic Savio Classroom Club (before Dominic’s canonization in 1954). In later years Fr. Jim said that even then he “saw something special in the life of St. Dominic Savio and his relationship with St. John Bosco.” That sentiment and the influence of his parents shaped his priestly and religious vocation.
Jim entered Don Bosco Juniorate in Haverstraw, N.Y., as a high school seminarian in 1952 and graduated in 1956. From there he was admitted to St. Joseph’s Novitiate in Newton, N.J., part of a class of 39 clerical and coadjutor brother novices, guided by master of novices Fr. Aloysius Bianchi. They made their first profession of vows on Sept. 8, 1957, in Newton.
Bro. Jim earned a B.A. in philosophy from Don Bosco College in Newton in June 1962 and carried out his practical training by teaching at St. Dominic Savio High School in East Boston from 1959 to 1963.
In 1963 Bro. Jim went to Italy for his immediate preparation for the priesthood at the Salesians’ theological school in Bollengo, near Ivrea in Piedmont. He was ordained in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians in Turin on March 18, 1967.
Upon his return to the U.S., Fr. Jim served until 1976 with passion and notable success as vice principal at Don Bosco Technical High School in Paterson, N.J., leaving a lasting, positive impression on both students and faculty. He remembered that first priestly assignment fondly: “I learned a lot from the kids that I instructed. They were truly an inspiration.”
During his years in Paterson he also earned an M.A. in education at Montclair State College (1972).
From 1976 to 1979 Fr. Jim was treasurer at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J.
|Fr. Jim in May 1984|
Then came two years as assistant pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Harlem. He helped set up and run a computer training center for local youths in addition to helping support the parish, youth center, and summer day camp with his ministry—including the youth workers provided by the city to assist with summer programs. He sent some St. Thomas youths for vocation weekends at the high school seminary in Goshen and to the province’s youth leadership program in the summer camps. From 1981 to 1985 he was pastor of the church and director of the Salesian community, and for another nine years he was, once again, assistant pastor. He was also provincial treasurer from 1985 to 1991.
In 1994 Fr. Jim moved to Birmingham, Ala., as assistant pastor of Holy Rosary Parish, also filling in at various times the roles of youth minister, vice director, and treasurer of the religious community. The Salesians at Holy Rosary were also responsible for St. John Bosco Parish a few miles away. He was pastor from 1995 to 2000, when he moved to Leeds, a suburb east of Birmingham, as pastor of St. Theresa’s Parish. His ministry at both parishes included jail visits and visits to the sick in their homes, nursing homes, and hospitals.
An article about St. Theresa’s Church in The Leeds News (May 6, 2004) noted the pastor’s “wit, wisdom and sense of humor [that] he uses in ministering to his congregation and to residents of the community.” As a New Yorker, the article observed, Fr. Jim had had to adapt to a much slower pace of life when he came to Alabama, as well as to learn “Alabama English.” He compiled a short history of the parish, which began in the 1930s with four Catholic families.
On Dec. 24, 1996, Fr. Jim received a liver transplant at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, which saved his life and left him ever grateful to his unknown donor. “I don’t know my donor,” he told The St. Clair Times of Alabama, “but I try to treat everyone as if they were the one who donated to me or the family of the person who donated to me.”
“I was so ill in November,” he told the North Jersey Herald a couple of months later, that I couldn’t remember anything. I did not know who I was or where I was.” With his typical humor, he began to mark Dec. 24 as his “second birthday” and to tell people that he was about 40 years old—59 years from his first birthday, and perhaps 20 from the age of his liver, averaging out to 40. “You have to have a sense of humor. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You can’t sit around and mope.”
He also quipped that the prayer at Mass “Deliver us, O Lord,” had taken on a new meaning for him.
He was a famously hard worker at whatever he did, and he had great respect for anyone else—Salesians or others—who also worked hard. Those who seemed to him to be less industrious were often the targets of his deflating humor.
He could gently mock himself, as well. After his liver transplant and his first bout with cancer, and perhaps also considering the vast geographical distance between Leeds and most of the rest of the Salesians of the province, he was wont to identify himself on phone calls as “James of Molokai.”
In 2007, at the time of his 50th anniversary of religious profession, Fr. Jim said that he had stayed young by trying to work with the young. He gladly acknowledged that he has “received more from God than I have given.”
|Fr. Jim presiding at Mass in Monrovia, Liberia, at the time when he was province treasurer. |
San Francisco provincial Fr. Thomas Prendiville is to his left.
In Harlem Fr. Jim collaborated with the province vocation director, Fr. Mark Hyde, SDB, who later served with him at Holy Rosary in Birmingham. He writes that Fr. Jim “had a heart as big as all outdoors when it came to the young and the poor. He thrived on his ministry at St. Thomas in Harlem and at Holy Rosary and St. John Bosco in Birmingham and St. Theresa in Leeds.
“When Fr. Jim was in Harlem, he frequently organized outings for his kids to experience life outside the city: to swim, to fish, to frog, to run around and play on grassy fields in Goshen and Newton.”
“In Birmingham,” Fr. Hyde continues, “Fr. Jim worked tirelessly for the well-being of the parishes, the food pantry, and the youth center. He was ever ready to assist with the youth ministry programs of the diocese and the youth ministry and sacramental programs of John Carroll Catholic High when they had no chaplain. Whenever a nearby, or not so nearby, hospital had an emergency, needed a priest, and couldn’t get hold of their chaplain, Fr. Jim was called and immediately responded. In Leeds he gave emphasis to youth ministry and tied into our province programs. He got the people and the youths of St. Theresa in Leeds as well as number of other nearby parishes involved in the work of the Holy Rosary Youth Center and the food pantry.
“In his outreach to the young and the poor,” Fr. Hyde sums up, “Fr. Jim truly had an oratorian heart like Don Bosco’s. His apostolic zeal made the love of God present in a very concrete way to the young and the poor.”
Fr. Jim is survived by his brother Michael of Chicago, Michael's wife Carol, his nephews James, Michael, and Daniel, the extended Naughton family, and his Salesian family.
Funeral arrangements are pending. It is expected that there will be Masses of Christian Burial at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Birmingham and the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw.