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Father Jim Jones forgave all, including his attackers

ST. PETERSBURG — One man kicked him in the face and midsection while two others blocked the door.

The attackers wanted money, something the 62-year-old victim told them he didn't have. Father Jim Jones wasn't wearing garb that would have identified him as a religious man that evening in 2006, when he used a public restroom near the Pier.

His assailants didn't know they were mugging a Franciscan friar who had vowed to live simply, not accumulating wealth.

He arrived at St. Anthony's Hospital, where he had retired as head chaplain the year before, with serious injuries, including a broken jaw. From his hospital bed, Father Jones struggled to practice one of the most fundamental tenets of his faith: forgiving the men who had put him there.

Father Jones died Dec. 14, at St. Anthony's. He was 68 and had suffered from heart disease.

At a funeral Mass Monday at St. Paul's Catholic Church, Bishop Robert Lynch recalled visiting Father Jones in the hospital.

"He said, 'I hope in some way they can experience the mercy of the legal system, as God will show mercy to them,' " said Lynch, who leads the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "It was incredible."

The incident typified a man who "walked the walk" of his Franciscan order.

"Father Jim epitomized the Franciscan spirit of gentleness and simplicity, and was not interested in accumulating any kind of treasure or honors for himself," said Msgr. Robert Gibbons, pastor of St. Paul's.

Father Jones loved his hometown of St. Petersburg, and kept in touch with a wide circle of friends and associates he counseled, as one might with an extended family.

"He was good at keeping in contact with people," said Sister Mary McNally, the vice president of mission at St. Anthony's Hospital and a Franciscan nun. "Many people have said (recently), 'I just talked to him last week;' or, 'He called me every Sunday.' "

Father Jones was born in St. Anthony's Hospital. He attended St. Paul's Catholic School and St. Petersburg High School, and announced as a young man that he wanted to become a friar.

Father Jones attended what is now St. Petersburg College, then continued his education in New York state, his family said. He also became a registered nurse and worked at St. Anthony's Hospital for a time.

"After he became a friar, then he wanted more," said David Thomas, his nephew. "And that's when he went on to become a priest."

An ordained priest since 1976, he lived at St. Anthony Friary for many years. He served as head chaplain at St. Anthony's Hospital from 1989 to 2005.

Nearly two dozen priests and friars congregated at the altar at his funeral Mass, following a prescribed liturgy. Their presence and that of Lynch also served as a reminder that many members of the clergy looked up to Father Jones.

"Father Jim exuded a sense of peace," said Father John Tapp, a diocesan priest and the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, who delivered the homily for his former mentor. "I believe he was close to God, and God was close to him. Part of that was natural. It was also something he worked on."

Tapp, who said Father Jones was his spiritual adviser for several years in the 1980s, recounted lessons learned over the years. As a counselor, Father Jones could challenge or console his subjects.

Tapp recalled a man who used a disarming sense of humor to get people to laugh at themselves. He advised priests to pray when they were able and to "let God be God," rather than trying to control situations.

It was an edict Father Jones challenged himself to maintain after his brutal mugging, in which one man was convicted of false imprisonment and the other two were not immediately caught.

Tapp visited Father Jones during his recovery, and it was his turn to minister to his mentor.

"He knew he had to forgive," Tapp said. "We prayed the 'Our Father,' but he wasn't there yet."

Then Father Jones, who had always said that "forgiveness is a process," dug a little deeper.

"He said that the attacker may have had an addiction," Tapp recalled. "He prayed for whatever that person needed."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

.Biography

Father James Allen "Jim" Jones, O.F.M.

Born: July 5, 1943

Died: Dec. 14, 2011

Survivors: sister, Leona Thomas; several nieces and nephews.

Father Jim Jones forgave all, including his attackers 12/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 8:26pm]

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