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Robin Huebner, Published July 26 2013

Robin Huebner Reports: 'Father Jack' takes indefinite leave from Peru parish

FARGO - The charismatic Devils Lake, N.D.-born priest who’s made it his life’s work to help the poor in Peru is taking an indefinite leave from his parish.

In a letter to supporters, the Rev. Jack Davis, known to all as “Father Jack,” said the time has come to “mend my brokenness,” and “restore my spiritual and mental health.”

Davis has ministered to tens of thousands in the impoverished city of Chimbote for nearly 40 years. During that time, he has presided over countless weddings, funerals and baptisms, and spearheaded the development of soup kitchens, libraries, a day care, medical post, hospice center and more.

But the time has come for Davis to rest.

Stress takes a toll

Susan Trnka, executive director of the Fargo-based Friends of Chimbote, said the stress of being on call for the poor 24 hours a day has taken a toll.

Though his health is stable, Davis has dealt with high blood pressure, chronic respiratory issues, and mini strokes brought on by stress.

When Trnka saw him during a trip to Chimbote in June, she said he had no energy to spend with visitors.

“I knew then he was really reaching utter exhaustion,” she said.

Friends of Chimbote funds the mission’s programs through a broad donor network of sister parishes in at least nine states and England.

The organization mailed out letters Friday to 4,000 supporters, explaining what it called an “inevitable change in leadership.”

The change, Trnka said, has been years in the making.

Time to leave

Davis traveled to Peru as a young priest in 1975, filled with compassion and enthusiasm to help the people of Chimbote, a city devastated by a massive earthquake a few years earlier.

He never left, making it his home for the last 38 years.

Now, at age 70, he says he realizes the demands placed on him were more than he could reasonably respond to.

In an interview by phone from the parish compound in Chimbote Thursday, Davis said he regrets not taking time off for renewal and rejuvenation.

While Davis left Peru several times each year, he said it was almost always for fundraising events or appearances in support of parish programs.

Davis admitted to feeling anger and resentment at times, toward the very people he’s been called to serve.

“When you give too much of yourself, you get resentful,” Davis said.

“I blame myself for never saying no.”

Davis said the last true sabbatical he took was a forced one, many years ago.

He went into hiding in 1991 after several friends were shot and killed by Shining Path terrorists. He was also targeted for execution.

This time away will be much different.

Continuing the legacy

Though Trnka said the timing of Davis’ departure could never be perfect, Friends of Chimbote is fully prepared to carry on his legacy.

The process began nearly five years ago with legacy statements drawn up by Davis and Sister Peggy Byrne, who joined him in Chimbote in 1982.

The organization used those statements to guide it through a long-term strategic planning process.

“It’s so important that our donors know we have been preparing since 2009,” said Trnka, “and that we are ready.”

Trnka said in partnership with a Peruvian civil group known as ACAF, they’ve been gradually taking on administrative work, fundraising and many of the mission’s daily tasks.

She and Davis feel they have the right people in place in Chimbote.

Trnka fully expects fundraising and mission programs to go on as normal.

The parish will continue to host groups of volunteers from the U.S. who want to see the effects of poverty firsthand and help where they can.

Also, plans are in full swing for fall fundraising galas in September in Fargo and Bloomington, Minn.

Trnka said while so many people associate Davis with the mission, she’s optimistic his departure will not deter donors.

“Maybe I’m fooling myself,” Trnka said, “but I think they’re going to show him how much his life’s work has meant to them.”

‘I’m still in’

Fargo businessman and restaurateur Randy Thor-son is one donor who says his support of the mission is stronger than ever.

“I’m still in,” he said en-thusiastically.

“For me, there’s no better time to step up. I hope other people feel the same way.”

Thorson first met Davis as a kid, while Thorson was mowing the lawn outside Nativity Church and school in Fargo.

“He was walking on the sidewalk,” Thorson recalled.

“His arms were swinging and he seemed so happy.”

The two struck up a friendship and a few years later, Davis presided over the wedding ceremony of Thorson and his wife, Julie.

Though Thorson lost touch with Davis while he began building his restau-rant business, their friendship renewed a few years ago.

Thorson credited his business success, in part, to the fact that he gives back to the mission.

He’s donated funds to add a second floor to an administrative building adjacent to the parish.

Of Father Jack, Thorson said, “He’s accomplished so many things.

“Now he can walk away proud.”

Leaving on the bus

Father Jack Davis planned to quietly leave Chimbote on a public transit bus this morning.

No fanfare, no farewell party.

After visiting friends in another part of Peru for a few days, he’ll begin a silent retreat at an undisclosed location on Thursday.

There, Davis said he will meet privately with only one priest, allowing him plenty of quiet time for rest, reflection and spiritual renewal.

Davis said he is not gone from Chimbote forever, but hopes to be back someday in a reduced capacity.

“When I feel I’m renewed, I will return,” he said.

Trnka said Davis is leaving Chimbote just as he arrived back in 1975.

“It’s not about one person,” she said. “It’s about the people and the mis-sion.”

“I would say, ‘Well done, Father Jack. It’s your turn to rest.’ ”