A man on a mission

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Father Wayne Paysse follows in the footsteps of great missionary-spirited priests whose pictures hang on the conference room wall at the Black and Indian Mission Office, along with paintings of Philadelphia philanthropist and religious sister St. Katharine Drexel and Mohawk Indian Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Founded in 1884, the organization has a rich history. As executive director since 2007, Father Paysse is the seventh in his post, serving the mission to evangelize African-American and Native American communities in the United States.

The office is appropriately headquartered in a historic brick Washington, D. C., home once owned by St. Katharine Drexel, who dedicated her life to serving oppressed minorities. Its walls are decorated with beautiful art and colorful handicrafts of the diverse people the organization serves. The Black and Indian Mission Office is the umbrella organization that encompasses the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the Black and Indian Mission Collection and the Catholic Negro-American Mission Board.

"I live in the home of a saint," Father Paysse said, explaining how the organization obtained its location. "She sold the house to us for $1."

Father Paysse spends two to three weeks a month visiting mission locations across the country, assessing situations, and recruiting support for the important and never-ending needs of the many poverty-stricken communities he serves. Through his office, grants are dispersed to bishops to further their efforts in serving African-Americans and Native Americans - after meeting Father Paysse's approval and undergoing the scrutiny of the board of directors, which includes Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O'Brien and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan.

Father Paysse's many stories of appreciation are heartwarming.

"In April of 2007 there was a black Catholic community in the diocese of Austin, Texas, that needed hymnals," he said. "A grant was given so they could buy them. They wanted me to visit, so I drove up and there were the wonderful people standing in front of the church holding the hymnals. They sang when we went in church."

Physical poverty is often accompanied by great spiritual depth and love for Our Lord, he said, in addition to devotion to the Church.

"I'll never forget the first time I set foot on a reservation," Father Paysse said about a visit to a Native American Catholic ministry in Phoenix. "It's like another world. Despite the extreme poverty, the people were so happy and loving. They had the biggest smiles. They had a huge choir."

His organization is able to support Catholic religious education programs that benefit churches, urban centers, reservations, inner-city schools and small village parishes.

In the Arlington Diocese, the Black and Indian Mission Office has provided grant money for tuition assistance for financially stricken minority families. Donations from the diocese have improved the lives of many.

"I am most grateful to (Arlington) Bishop (Paul S.) Loverde and the Arlington Diocese for their support," said Father Paysse. "This diocese is one of the most generous."

In 2010, more than $221,000 was donated from the Arlington Diocese at the second collection designated for the Black and Indian Mission Office, which takes place this year the weekend of March 12-13.

Father Paysse's passion for the missions began as a young boy when he heard stories from visiting missionary priests in his hometown of New Orleans. His aunt, a parish sacristan, hosted breakfasts for guest priests after Sunday Mass. Young Paysse was invited to come and listen to their exciting accounts.

Growing up in a devout Catholic home, surrounded by Sicilian relatives and wonderful priests, he received formation for his future of serving as a missionary.

"I thought everyone was Catholic and Sicilian," he said laughing.

His Catholic upbringing included daily rosaries after school with his mother and siblings, along with his grandparents who lived next door. On Saturdays he enjoyed helping the parish priests, often working in the churchyard.

"My whole life was centered around the parish," he said.

"Since the second grade, I was interested in being a priest," said Father Paysse. "I admired my pastor who was so holy in church and very human. He would take the (Catholic Youth Organization youths) to Florida, take us swimming, camping and on trips. Monsignor was always with the parish, the men's club, the altar society."

Following high school graduation in 1979, Father Paysse entered St. Joseph Seminary College, run by Benedictines monks, in St. Benedict, La., and earned a bachelor's in philosophy.

"I loved the seminary," Father Paysse said. He knew immediately that he was in the right place and enjoyed the spirit of service and hospitality.

"I would prepare and serve the meals and sit with the monks. Afterward, I would wash the pots and pans," he said.

In addition to his natural spirit of service, Father Paysse had a gift for leadership. He served in student government at the monastery and was often selected as driver for the monks, hearing about their lives and learning from their examples of faith.

In 1987, he received a master's of divinity from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and was ordained. He was named associate pastor of St. Genevieve Parish in New Orleans as his first assignment. Through the years, he served as pastor of three churches in New Orleans, serving African-American, Native American and biracial communities. He served as a spiritual director and adjunct professor at St. Joseph before being named diocesan director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in New Orleans.

All of his experiences prepared him for his current assignment at the Black and Indian Mission Office. Because of his heavy travel schedule and small staff, Father Paysse often rises at 4 a.m. and works late into the evenings to fit in his work and prayer time. He says he loves his job being a missionary.

"I do it because I love God," he said. "When you love God, it all works out. Often we say, 'How will we do it? We don't have the money.' We pray and God makes it all happen."

Socarras is a freelance writer from Annandale.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011