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Celebrating the Work and Legacy of Father Jenco

Lawrence Martin Jenco was born November 27, 1934, and grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Joliet, Ill. After studying at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the United States and the Pontifical University in Rome, he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1959. Jenco joined a small religious community called The Servants of Mary (O.S.M.). His ministry took him to many different countries where he worked among the oppressed of the world, including Australian aborigine alcoholics, California migrant workers, Indian lepers, and Cambodian refugees.

Jenco was serving as director of Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Lebanon, when he was kidnapped by Shiite Muslim extremists on January 8, 1985. Two months later, AP correspondent Terry Anderson was also kidnapped and held at the same undisclosed location as Jenco. When Anderson learned that a priest was being held captive nearby, he asked to see him. The bearded, white-haired Father Jenco heard Anderson’s confession — the first in 25 years — which to Anderson represented “my first formal step back to the church.” Later, Jenco and Anderson shared a cell where they spoke often of their spiritual odysseys and of the role of the church in ministering to the poor and underprivileged.

Jenco was released after 19 months in captivity, while Anderson was destined to remain imprisoned about five years longer, until 1991. But as Anderson later told a radio interviewer, his time spent with the priest in the early years of captivity was instrumental in helping “build a structure I could hold onto” in the years to follow.

Once freed, Jenco resumed his ministry by serving as chaplain at the University of Southern California, providing outreach programs to the Hispanic community. He spoke often of his experiences as a hostage and emphasized the need to forgive. He and Anderson remained friends until Jenco’s death from cancer in 1996.

Anderson calls Jenco “a wonderful personal example. . .the closest thing to a saint I have ever met.” In June 2001, Anderson honored his friend through the establishment of the Father Lawrence Martin Jenco Foundation to continue the legacy of compassion and giving Jenco spread to so many.