Could you imagine giving away everything you own? What would be the most difficult possession to part with? For Father John Paul Ouellette, C.F.R., it was his 1983 Mustang convertible.
It isn’t needed on the journey he has been taking, a journey of faith that will not end on Sunday, May 20, at St. Adalbert’s parish in the Bronx when he celebrates his first Mass as a priest with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. It will be a major milestone, but there will be many miles to travel after that.
It’s a life-long journey that began in a morgue in Reno, Nev., in 1991. He was looking down at the body of his mother, who had died just hours earlier. Father Ouellette, 43, is the son of Irene and Del Ouellette of Reno.
“It was when I was there in the morgue that I realized, when I saw her, that she was no longer in her body,” Father Ouellette explained. “And it’s hard to describe that, but I knew somehow that she was still alive but she was no longer limited by her body, if that makes sense. I knew that somehow she knew all about me now. But I also had the realization there in that morgue that God also knew me and loved me, that there was much more going on.”
Until that moment, Father Ouellette’s expectations for life were not that different from other young adults his age. He was wrapping up his final year at the University of Nevada, Reno, teaching part time and engaged to be married. Like many in Nevada, he had helped put himself through school by working at a casino.
But that inexplicable religious experience in the morgue turned his world upside down. Larger questions started striking him. He and his fiancée postponed the wedding, and eventually the two parted ways. He spoke to a priest who asked him if he’d be interested in missionary service. He ended up doing two years of missionary work for a group in Minnesota, NET Ministries. NET is an acronym for National Evangelization Teams, groups of young people between 18 and 28, who leave behind their jobs, school, family and friends for nine months. They travel the country ministering, sharing the Gospel with other young Catholics and their families, and leading retreats.
During this time he started emptying out his closets, getting rid of everything he accumulated in his 20-something years. Then he gave up his beloved car. When he was finished discarding everything extraneous to his new life, all he had left was his suitcase and a sleeping bag.
“My identity was tied up with the things I owned,” he said. “And one of the first steps of discipleship was to give half the stuff in my closet to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. It was very difficult. But I did it and after that I experienced a freedom that I’d never experienced before.” Of the Mustang he said, “I loved that car.”
He served a third year with another group, St. Paul’s Outreach, doing evangelization on college campuses. He began to discern a calling, but he wasn’t sure yet exactly where it would take him. In 1994, his new spiritual director told him about the ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York.
“That’s when I decided to make my first visit to the Bronx,” he recalled, admitting to some trepidation. “And at that point I had no desire to even visit New York City because, outside, New York’s got a very mixed reputation, very rough. But people are the same everywhere.”
He discovered that he loved the community life of the Franciscans, serving in the soup kitchen, ministering to the poor, first in the Bronx and eventually in London’s equally impoverished East End where he spent eight years. But there was one thing he couldn’t do as a brother.
“I actually started thinking about becoming a priest over there,” he explained. “A lot of people just assumed I was a priest and I could do confessions. So there was this kind of ache in my heart because I was actually not able to help them make that connection. A lot of people don’t know what to do with the pain that’s inside them, especially if they’ve messed up in large ways, which a lot of people we deal with who’ve ended up on the streets have done. But God has actually given us a remedy for that and he’s asked me to apply that remedy.”
Father Ouellette will celebrate his first Mass at St. Adalbert’s Church in the Bronx on Sunday, May 20 at 9 a.m. Father Eugene Fulton will be the homilist.