Obituaries: The Rev Lawrence Jenco

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The Independent Online
Father Lawrence Jenco endured over 18 months of captivity at the hands of radical Shia Muslims in Lebanon from 8 January 1985 until 26 July 1986. He was captured on his way to the doctor, just a few months after arriving in Beirut to take up his new position there as Director of Catholic Relief Services.

Jenco's ministry as a Catholic priest was driven by his love of the poor and his sense of social care for others. That is what led him to Beirut, then in a state of war, to minister to the worst afflicted - many of whom were themselves Shias.

He had been ordained a member of the Servite order in 1959, after studying for the priesthood at Mount Carmel College in Canada, the St Joseph Seminary in St Charles, Illinois and in Rome.

For the next 25 years he worked with the poor and the mentally and physically handicapped, and from 1981 travelled abroad in the employ of the Catholic Relief Services, first in North Yemen (for two years), then in Thailand (1983-84), and for a year in India before taking up his post in Beirut.

Foreigners were particularly at risk of kidnapping by Muslim factions in Beirut in the mid-1980s (Jenco was the 10th of some 71). Nonetheless Jenco believed that he was not the person the Shias wanted to take hostage, rather that he was mistaken for someone else.

Mistake or not, he was held against his will for more than a year and a half, the first six months in solitary confinement, naked and chained to the wall of a tiny cell in southern Beirut. After this he began to be moved from hideout to hideout, in a number of gruelling journeys. It was at this stage that he was placed in the same room with the Associated Press correspondent, Terry Anderson, the longest-held of all the American hostages, who had been taken captive two months after Jenco.

Though baptised a Roman Catholic as a child, Anderson had little use for religion as an adult. He attributes his adult conversion to the Catholic faith to his fellow hostage, Lawrence Jenco. Anderson dedicated a piece of his poetry in his book Den of Lions (1993) to Jenco. Upon learning of his death, Anderson said of him, "He added more to my life than any other man."

At various times Jenco also shared a cell with two other American hostages, David Jacobsen, a hospital administrator, and Thomas Sutherland, a university dean.

It was his great faith in God, rooted in the Christian scriptures, that allowed Jenco to develop a practical spiritual strategy almost unheard of in this modern world. This was demonstrated by a story he told about an encounter which, though he did not know it at the time, turned out to be on the day before his release from captivity. His young Shia guard entered his room. Jenco pulled down the blindfold over his eyes. Until then he had always been addressed as "Jenco" by his guards. That day his guard said, "Dear father, can you ever forgive me?" In reply Jenco said, "Sayid, do you remember those early days [of captivity]?" (He described them as very violent and fearful days.) "Yes, I do," replied the guard. "I hated you," continued Jenco, "I must ask for your forgiveness." Chained and blindfolded, the American hostage seeking forgiveness for hating his guard is not a common occurrence.

After eating his last hostage meal, he read from the Scriptures and wrote this prayer: "God, give me a new heart and a new spirit. You have asked me to love unconditionally. May I forgive as you have asked me to forgive, unconditionally. Then you will be my God and I will be your son." He called the book he wrote about his captivity Bound to Forgive - the pilgrimage to reconciliation of a Beirut hostage (1995). Unlike many of his former, fellow hostages, Jenco wanted someday to return to Lebanon to visit the Shias who held him captive for 594 days.

After his release, Jenco accepted the position as Campus Minister at the University of Southern California (in Los Angeles). Immediately before his death he was an Associate Pastor at St Domitilla Church in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.

When it was determined this past winter that he had cancer, Lawrence Jenco said, "I always thought that God had a cross for me to carry, and I never thought the cross was being a hostage. Now I think I know what that cross is - to learn how to die." And, as he did with so many experiences throughout his life, he not only was a learner, but a great teacher. For those who knew him during these past seven months, he taught by courageous example how to die in peace and with great dignity.

John Cusick

Lawrence Martin Jenco, priest: born Joliet, Illinois 27 November 1934; ordained priest 1959; died Chicago 19 July 1996.