Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Thursday, February 25, 2021

RIP Fr. Frank Guidice

Former boss, mentor and friend

By Will Collette

Nancy-Burns-Fusaro wrote a fine remembrance in the Westerly Sun last Sunday, marking the recent death of Rev. Francis J. Giudice, known to his friends of which I was one, as Frank.

It’s a great article detailing his life as a favorite son of Westerly and his 60-year history as a Catholic priest.

One brief mention in the article is to Frank’s service as the first person in the Providence Catholic Diocese to be named as “Vicar for Community Affairs.”

That’s how I came to know Frank. The Diocesan Community Affairs office ran out of a ramshackle abandoned parochial school situated across Smith Street from the State House where I ended up working from 1974 till late 1979.

I was hired under the CETA program (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act), modelled on the Depression-era Works Project Administration (WPA) to use publicly funded employment to fight the effects of a deep recession.

Frank finagled as many job slots as he could from then Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. As I recall, roughly a dozen of us were hired all at once to some vaguely defined jobs that would supposedly teach us skills to land private sector employment. 

My job title was “researcher” and I was teamed up with prominent welfare rights advocate Ray Mitchell who had been working for Frank for several years prior.

It was great to work for Frank, starting with his insistence that we call him Frank. Ray and I could skip the prayer that opened each weekly staff meeting, smoke cigarettes and crack jokes - Frank was OK with that, though obviously not happy. 

He not only listened carefully to every hare-brained scheme we came up with, but usually let us do them – provided we did not cause him trouble with then Bishop Louie Gelineau.

Even if we did cause him trouble, we could always count on him to back us up and bail us out.

During that period, Ray and I worked with community organizations up and down the state. Technically, we were supposed to monitor and assist group that received church funding under the Campaign for Human Development grant program, but we did a lot more than that.

Frank let us do what we felt we needed to do. I can’t remember him ever telling me what to do – almost always, it was Ray and I telling him what we planned to do.

Our main focus was to expand the ability of low-income people to get help from the array of public benefits. This involved thorough research, scouting how programs actually worked in real life, training programs, and publishing lots of material.

This was how I first met Sis Brown who was being funded by the Catholic Church as an organizer for the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Frank assigned me to go down to the old Long House once a month to give Sis one-on-one training.

Later, after all the outreach and training, Ray and I started our active involvement in organizing all the local organizations into a pretty decent coalition to fight to expand public benefits. Working with RI Legal Services lawyer Ron Simon, we convened neutral turf meetings of the groups to discuss campaigns they could do together.

The first big one was a campaign to force hospitals in Rhode Island to stop suing their patients and to give low-income patients free or reduced cost care as hospitals were required to under a post-war federal hospital construction program.

My job was to figure out how the program (the Hill-Burton Act) was supposed to work and then deliver that information to the organizers who then mobilized low-income patients to go get that free care.

Rhode Island was the first state in the union to carry out a statewide organizing campaign to enforce the Hill-Burton Act. More than that, we succeeded. So much so, that I was asked to go around the country to show other groups what we did in Rhode Island and to work with public interest advocates in Washington to try to get a permanent federal policy.

Much to my amazement, it worked. Now virtually every hospital has a brass plaque in the lobby and waiting rooms saying that (1) no one will be denied care for lack of ability to pay and (2) the hospital will provide free or reduced cost care to those unable to pay.

Frank let me do all this work, even though it led to my recruitment in 1979 to move to Washington for a job at the federal Legal Services Corporation.

If Frank had been a traditional boss, I doubt any of that would have happened.

As Nancy Burns-Fusaro wrote, Frank was indeed a man of deep principles. As he fought with the church bureaucracy to try to push the church to get more engaged in social justice work, I remember celebrating with him one of his favorite victories. That was getting Bishop Gellineau to include in a public statement words that Frank lived by: “Charity is no substitute for Justice.”

I’ll never forget the look on his face when he told us about this.

After 25 years in DC, Cathy and I returned to Rhode Island. Shortly after, I saw a newspaper article about Frank’s passion during the last 20 or so years of his life, Providence-Haiti Outreach. Originally started as an orphanage, the program became a vital conduit for Haiti relief after earthquakes, hurricanes and civil war devastated the country.

I re-connected with Frank and was pleased to see that he had lost none of his fervor for justice. Of course, Frank rarely missed a chance to pitch – not that I needed much pitching – and since then, Cathy and I have happily donated to Providence-Haiti Outreach’s good work with some of the poorest people in the Americas. To donate, CLICK HERE.