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An unusual journey: Retired Episcopal priest finds new spiritual home in Catholic Church

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Fr. James Shannon has retired after 16 years as rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Grand Forks and is converting to Catholicism. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

At first, when the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota asked the Rev. Dr. James Shannon to accept a call to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Forks, he declined.

Shannon was rector of an Episcopal church in Liberal, Kan., at the time.

“The bishop wanted me to consider St. Paul’s because of my nature of getting along with people,” Shannon said.

“I said no three times, I think.”

But eventually he said yes, and moved here with his wife, Ruth, in 2003.

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The church he has pastored for 16 years is filled with “wonderful people,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a better church. It was a smart move on God’s part.”

Shannon retired recently, delivering his final sermon Sept. 29. A farewell party followed the worship service.

But the rector who takes his place will not see Shannon in the pews on Sundays. The Episcopal Church does not allow rectors to remain in the churches they’ve served -- and the nearest Episcopal church is in Fargo -- so Shannon had to find a new church home.

He has.

Shannon will become a member of the Roman Catholic Church on Nov. 24 during a service at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center on the UND campus.

While his conversion has raised a few eyebrows, it’s not really a big leap spiritually, Shannon said.

He sees a lot of similarities between the two denominations, he said. “There’s not that much difference.”

“There’s something in the Catholic church about realizing, this is where it all started,” he said. “Christ established that church.”

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“Their motto is ‘Come home,’ ” he said. “I feel that. I feel at home there.”

He attends early morning mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, surrounded mostly by retired people, he said, and evening worship at the Newman Center, with college students.

“That makes me feel good,” he said.

He has been receiving instruction from the Rev. Luke Meyer, pastor at the Newman Center, and -- although Protestants don’t share it -- Shannon is fully in accord with the Catholic belief regarding the Eucharist.

“I have always believed, when taking communion, that, wow, I’m holding the body and blood of Christ,” he said.

Unusual journey

Shannon’s journey in faith has been anything but conventional.

He was raised as a Baptist and, after seminary, served in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, United Methodist and Episcopal churches.

“It’s most unusual,” Shannon said, noting that “most pastors today have secular training, college and seminary. Coming from the work field, I’m unusual. What can I say, I’m unusual.”

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“Who knows the mysteries of God?” he said.

Meyer, who is instructing Shannon individually, said, “He is a deep man of faith. It’s a joy to work with him and to share with him the beauty of the Catholic traditions and the splendor of truth. I’ve been encouraged and edified by his witness.”

Shannon is the first clergyman Meyer has prepared to be received in the Catholic church, he said. “Our conversations are a great source of building up one another and sharing faith. It’s a great privilege and sacred trust.”

Shannon has also been asked to consider becoming a Catholic priest, but he declined, he said. It would mean attending seminary, again, and for now he’s happy to be a member, not the priest, in the church.

‘Rebellious kid’

A native of Winfield, Kan., who, from age 5, grew up in southern California, Shannon was “kind of really shy, a loner,” he said. “I was a rebellious kid,” who tested his father’s patience.

“He was constantly forgiving me. I was constantly doing what I wasn’t supposed to do,” he said.

“He was, to me, the picture of God.”

His father, who had been a pastor but left the clergy to become a doctor, “was a great role model to me, of courage -- he had polio and had to learn to walk again -- and love,” Shannon said.

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After graduating from Camarillo High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at LeTourneau University in Texas and worked in that field for a time.

“I found out I wasn’t a very good engineer,” he said. He felt God’s call to the ministry, but resisted.

“I said no several times,” he said. “My first inclination is to say no to God. It really should be the other way.”

He served in the U.S. Marine Corps for two-and-a-half years, he said. “God found me there.”

He entered Covenant Presbyterian Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., where he earned a master of divinity degree and then took his first pastorate at Lemmon, S.D.

He served as a pastor in Lemmon for 13 years. Then, during his six years with a Dutch Reformed church in Westfield, N.D., he “started to feel God’s call into the Episcopal church” and began to do research, he said.

That led to training through a seminary in Pennsylvania, during which he served three United Methodist churches in Linton, Braddock and Moffit, N.D.

“The Methodists, God bless ‘em, they’ll take anybody,” he said.

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He was ordained at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Bismarck, first as deacon then as a priest, and then went to Liberal, Kan.

Health challenges

In the last decade, Shannon, 69, has faced serious health challenges that impacted his faith and his ministry. He has had two bouts with cancer -- first at age 60 and again seven years later.

Early in his battle, after difficult treatment sessions, “I came home with no desire to live, no hope,” he said. “God gave me hope.”

In the most recent bout, during the course of his treatment “something happened to me when I was at Mayo (Clinic in Rochester, Minn.).”

He was away from his church about eight months, he said, and when he returned to the pulpit “one of my congregants said, ‘You were good then, but you’re really good now.’ ”

“I love to preach; I got better at it, and really enjoyed it.”

His illness made him stronger, he said. “I never believed in miracles, but they happened to me.”

“I always thought I had a strong faith, until I got sick,” he said. And, in dealing with sickness, his faith “got real.”

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Parishioner, not preacher

After being a preacher for 40 some years, Shannon is no longer in the pulpit but in the pew.

“Now I’m not doing the feeding, I’m being fed,” he said. “And I’m loving it.”

As for what he’s given the congregants at St. Paul’s, he said, “I hope they will learn to accept everybody equally -- that the love of Christ will be not only in them, but move through them and touch others.”

He hopes that “they have a strong faith, that God will never leave them or forsake them,” he said. “We’ve had tough times, but we’ve gotten through them -- and to hang in there and be there for each other.”

Shannon recalled that when he first came to the church “it was a like a tomb, cold and dead,” he said.

After his first sermon, infused with irrepressible Irish humor, “one guy said, ‘We’ve never laughed in our church,’ ” Shannon remembered. “I said that’s a shame, because our faith is something to laugh about -- the joy.

“They got better at it,” he said. “It was like I gave them permission to do it.”

Shannon appears intent on pointing others toward Christ.

“You know, preachers and rectors, it’s not about us. It’s about who’s in us,” he said. “It’s about Christ and the joy he brings.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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