A time for every purpose

Father John Tokaz, Saint Joseph's beloved chaplain, will be leaving in June for a new assignment

Fr. John

According to Father John Tokaz, "Eighty-five percent of life is just showing up."

But for the Saint Joseph's College chaplain, showing up could mean appearing in a wizard costume at a Halloween party, dancing on the speakers at the Senior Ball or driving through campus in his PT Cruiser with the windows cranked down and the radio cranked up. His zest for life is contagious; his connection with students, legendary.

Whether kicking up his heels on Saturday night or delivering the homily at a crowded Sunday evening Mass, this unconventional traditionalist commands the love and respect of everyone on campus.

With no previous experience working with students, Father John began his duties at the college after a "pesky nun" from Portland kept after him to check out the position.

Now, nine years later, Father John is preparing to leave Saint Joseph's to take up new responsibilities with other Capuchin brothers in Interlaken, N.Y., where he will be a parish priest. (With a doctorate in Church history, he also hopes to teach at a nearby college at some point.)

"Usually our assignments are six years, so I feel I'm like an overdue library book," he says. But often, a book is overdue because its readers love it so much they cannot bear to let it go. And the thought of parting with Father John has some wondering how they'll get along without him.

Baseball coach Will Sanborn says he and Father John "have become quite a team."

"When he leaves, I'm going to have to retire," Sanborn jokes. "He helps me make sure that, as a coach, I approach things with balance, and he helps me see that it's the students, not the sport, that's the most important thing."

Sanborn credits Father John with turning around the focus and the attitude of his team.

Shortly after the chaplain arrived on campus, he shared his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in the first of what has become an annual program known as his "Drunkalogue." The program became popular with students because of Father John's willingness to share all of who he is.

When Sanborn heard about the session, he asked Father John if he would talk to his baseball players. With some trepidation, Father John agreed to help.

And he still cherishes the memory of that day.

Thirty baseball players listened, asked questions and began to work on many of the issues that plagued them individually and as a team.

By the end of that first season, the team had made Father John an honorary member, presenting him with an engraved clock and a baseball cap.

He takes the role seriously. As their "character coach," as Sanborn has dubbed him, the chaplain attends most of the team's practices and games, prays with them before each and even helps team members with their homework.

"There's probably more Christ in John Tokaz than in anybody I know," Sanborn says. "He has that caring feeling toward everybody. He'll roll up his sleeves and do whatever it is to help."

The close relationship the team shares with Father John made the announcement of his departure that much harder to accept. Even freshmen, who had known him for just a few months, had tears in their eyes.

Father John connects not only with the baseball team, but with all students and with their families and friends. Alumnus J.P. Lambert and many others say the chaplain has participated in countless family gatherings, weddings, funerals and sick visits, sometimes driving six hours to Aroostook County to attend.

"It almost seems like he doesn't sleep," Lambert says. "He just always makes time."

But for Father John, it's all part of the job, which can include a stint as auctioneer to raise money for Spring Break Workfest or a welcoming presence for a lonely freshman.

"Taking the time to get to know people can get lost, because we all get so busy," he says. "But this is my life. And I have the luxury of having a life where I can get involved with other people."

Father John thrives on his involvement with the students. Hopping from one table to the next at mealtime, he eats his salad with one group, his dessert with another. At basketball games, he's all over the bleachers the way the team is all over the ball, shaking hands, smiling and talking.

Along the way, he encourages students in their faith, whether Catholic or not. Some students have rediscovered their faith with his help; others have joined his "Journey In Faith" program that leads to becoming Catholic.

Amazed by his memory, students say he knows everybody's names - even incoming freshmen. And if there's one he can't remember, he makes a game out of learning it: "I'll pay you a dollar every time I get your name wrong." The sincerity and love he reflects to others allows each student to feel appreciated and important.

"When they come here at 18, they're kids, and when they leave at 22, they're adults - they're different people," Father John said. "To be able to perhaps contribute ... to their growing up and becoming adults is just wonderful. I don't understand how anyone can not love it. I mean, it's so life-giving."

And after they've become adults, Father John continues to keep in touch with many of them.

Tina (Patman) Renaud '02 and her husband, Christopher Renaud '02, met on campus. Father John encouraged them in their relationship. He confirmed and baptized Renaud during her sophomore year and was one of the priests at the couple's wedding.

Several years later, the Renauds continue to attend Mass on campus and get together with the chaplain.

As the former director of Campus Ministry, Sister Sylvia Comer has worked closely with Father John. She says she's "never witnessed such love to others."

"Working with him has been a real blessing in my life," she says. "Father John radiates God in what he does and who he is. He's a real sign of the presence of God among us."

Father John was what attracted Campus Ministry president Jill Cote '06 the most when she was considering colleges. Once she arrived, his example motivated her to change her major to theology.

"He has inspired me that no endeavor is too great if it brings you closer to God," she says. "I've seen people cry at Mass during his message - it always speaks to right where we are in our lives and what we're going through."

Another admirer of Father John's messages, Dean of Students Michael Connolly appreciates their simplicity and practicality.

"He's a very good homilist," he says. "He's able to take the message of the Gospel and break it down into concrete examples for the average person."

Surrounded by the knickknacks that have turned his tiny office into a vibrant, whimsical space, Father John's eyes get a little misty as he considers leaving the place he's called home these past nine years. And, characteristically, he makes light of his accomplishments and his routine.

"Really and truly, it's about showing up," he says. "That's it ... showing up with a helpful, hopeful attitude. That's all I do - it's simple."

But for those he's touched through the years with his candor and his compassion, his intensity and his laughter, his showing up at Saint Joseph's College has been far more than simply helpful or hopeful. It's been a tremendous blessing.

by Peggy Roberts