Father Frank Donio and the Feast of the Annunciation
Every week since the pandemic started in 2020, my immediate family members, including my wife Gina and I have received an email from my brother, Father Frank Donio S.A.C. He has been a Pallottine priest for nearly 30 years. A worldwide missionary order, the Pallottines once ran St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church on Third Street in Hammonton. My brother was an altar boy there as a child, as were his three brothers, including myself. Along with many other things, he walked in the procession of saints on the Feast of St. John, the Feast of the Assumption and of course, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel as an altar boy, and later returned to Hammonton to walk on the 16th of July as a priest.
My mother and father, Frank and Angela Donio, prayed for a child. My mother walked behind St. Jude on the 16th of July in 1965. One year later, she walked behind St. Jude pushing a stroller with Frank in it. Later, Father Frank would become the Rector of the St. Jude Shrine in Baltimore, which is run by the Pallottine Order. After that, he was the Provincial of the Pallottines’ Immaculate Conception Province in the northeastern United States. He is also the Founding Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center.
In 2016, he met Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome. He sent us a wonderful photo of the two shaking hands.
Last Saturday, March 25, Father Frank sent his weekly email again. March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation, which is known in the Catholic faith (and throughout Christianity) as the day the angel Gabriel told Mary she would be having a child—Jesus Christ. It is nine months before December 25, Christmas Day.
There were two photos with his usual reflection, readings, blog posts and podcast interviews. The photos, taken on March 22, were of a group of 10 people and Pope Francis. There was Father Frank—who is, in addition to his roles with the Pallottine Order, the Executive Director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men—standing in the second row behind Pope Francis, smiling broadly.
I cannot express to you all how proud I am of my brother Frank.
He has worked hard throughout his life of faith—he entered the seminary right out of high school, then amassed a wonderful education at institutions like the Catholic University of America, Villanova University and others, obtaining an undergraduate degree, master’s degrees and a doctorate. He is an adjunct assistant professor at Catholic University.
Along the way, he has touched so many lives in a positive manner. He’s casually brilliant, but down-to-earth. He’s caring and funny. He’s a man who stays connected to his family.
If you’re ever in his presence, you know what I mean.
If you’ve had him pray for you, you know what I mean.
I’ll come back to that last one at the end of this column.
This past weekend I texted with Father Frank, me in Hammonton just blocks away from St. Joseph Church, him in Rome just fresh off of meeting with Pope Francis again. I asked him about his meeting and its purpose. Here is what he texted me:
“The leadership of the Conferences of Major Superiors of Men was in Rome to meet with the leaders of various offices (dicasteries) of the Holy See (Vatican) to discuss the concerns and issues of religious communities of men in the United States. We also had an opportunity to meet with Pope Francis for a few minutes. He was very supportive of us. He even gave us a ‘thumbs up’ in encouragement of our work,” Father Frank wrote, and you can see this in the photo he sent. While I am unable to reproduce it here due to copyright issues, it is a wonderful shot of the small group reacting to Pope Francis’ gesture.
Father Frank said Pope Francis was once a major superior himself.
“It is important to note that Pope Francis is a Jesuit. Jesuits are a religious community of men. He was also a major superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, prior to being a bishop. He fully understands our role as major superiors or heads of religious communities,” Father Frank wrote.
Receiving the image of Father Frank with Pope Francis made me remember a time when my brother was praying for me. I was sitting in Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia with a large cancerous tumor in my chest, and a foot-long blood clot in the arm they had put a port for chemotherapy into a couple weeks prior. They decided they had to see if the port still worked, and the only way to do that was to start chemo on that day—March 25, 2009. Father Frank called me on the phone and said, “Today is the Feast of the Annunciation. Watch out for messages, Gabriel.”
Sure enough, the nurse who gave me the chemo—whom I had never seen before or since that day—answered my question about where she was from with a cheerful “Wildwood.” She said her family used to own a couple of motels down there, on Atlantic Avenue, then said the names. Our little group in the hospital room went quiet.
“Have you heard of them?” she said.
“Well,” I said with a laugh, “My father owns one of them.” Pointing to a cousin who was in the room, I added that her uncle also owned part of the other one with my father.
Look for messages on the Feast of the Annunciation, Father Frank? You nailed that one, brother, I thought.
Whenever people need help, I text or call my brother Frank. I was thinking about that day 14 years ago, and how many years I’ve been cancer-free since then. I think about all the people Father Frank has helped in Hammonton and throughout the world. Back when I had cancer, I called him “The God Squad.” I am proud of his accomplishments, up to and including meeting with Pope Francis last week.
Most importantly I love him for always being there for me and our entire family.
That’s the message that really came through from Father Frank this past Saturday, on the Feast of the Annunciation.
Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.