During his annual spiritual retreat in 1908, Father Thomas Frederick Price, who was 48 at the time, felt called to write a letter to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Mother of God. That practice of writing her a letter—almost daily—would continue until his death in 1919.
Many people, of course, maintain a diary, noting their daily encounters, experiences and feelings. Father Price, now known as the “Servant of God,” was not alone in his practice of writing.
Today his letters, contained in various diary books, can be found in the archives at Maryknoll (N.Y.), the foreign mission society which Father Price helped to co-found. The letters provide us with significant insight into the life, motivations, disappointments and deepest spiritual aspirations of the first North Carolina-born Catholic priest ordained to serve in his native state.
These daily entries provide us with abundant evidence of the deep Marian devotion of this courageous missionary priest. His heartfelt relationship with Mary as a spiritual mother enabled him to share, in the form of a letter, the daily joys and sorrows that arose amidst his priestly ministry in the name of Jesus, her Divine Son.
It was precisely during these years when Father Price experienced a call to expand his missionary apostolate, which even then included parish and mission work, the maintenance of an orphanage, and the publication of two nationally marketed magazines. He felt called by God to form the first U.S.-based foreign mission society so that American priests would be prepared to preach the Gospel and to establish the Catholic Church where it was not yet known. He himself would join the first group of four Maryknoll missionaries, who left the U.S. for China, in 1918.
His own mother, Clarissa Bond Price, a convert to the Catholic faith and mother of eight, had shared her own deep devotion to the Mother of God with her children and husband, Alfred, a newspaper editor, who also converted to the Catholic faith. Two of their daughters entered the convent, professing vows as Sisters of Mercy. This faith, of course, was held and professed in the midst of significant Southern antipathy to the Catholic religion at the time.
In addition to this deep devotion to Mary, Father Price developed an intense and emotional devotion to St. Bernadette Soubirous, the visionary of Lourdes. This devotion developed before her beatification and canonization and took expression by his wearing a wedding band. Moved by Bernadette’s purity, her faithful commitment to God’s Will in all things, and her intimacy with the Mother of God, he found in her a spiritual companion. Furthermore, in spiritual union with these two holy women, he re-consecrated his priesthood, and left all that was familiar to him behind, becoming the spiritual father of the first Maryknoll seminary and then of the first mission group in China. Within a year of his arrival, at the age of 59, he died on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary.
With deep Marian devotion to a loving spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin, fostered by his own valiant, earthly mother, and accompanied, spiritually, by a sister-friend, Bernadette, Father Price was enabled, by God’s grace, to become a man of God, a priest of Jesus Christ and a tireless missionary, both in North Carolina and in China, while fostering other men to take up their cross and follow in the footsteps of Jesus as priests and servants of the Gospel.
Father Price’s letters to Mary show us how men with strong Marian devotion can become real and effective spiritual fathers.
Father James F. Garneau, Ph.D., V.F., K.H.S., is pastor of St. Mary of the Angels in Mount Olive and Episcopal Delegate for the Cause of the Canonization of the Servant of God, Father Thomas Frederick Price.