Published January 27, 2017
ATLANTA—A former director of Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center, Father John L. “Jack” Vessels, SJ, died Thursday, Jan. 19, in Opelousas, Louisiana. He was 90 years old, a Jesuit for 72 years and a priest for 59 years.
His life will be celebrated in a Mass of Christian Burial on Saturday, Jan. 28, at 2 p.m. at St. Charles College Chapel in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, with visitation beginning at 1 p.m. in the chapel. Burial will follow in the Jesuit Cemetery at St. Charles College.
Father Vessels was appointed in 1996 to the Atlanta position where he served until 2002.
At the time, he called Ignatius House “a school of prayer at the service of the people and parishes of the Archdiocese of Atlanta and its neighboring dioceses.”
“As men and women of faith become more actively engaged in bringing Christ to the world in which they live and work, they need a prayer and spiritual lifestyle that sustains them in their day-to-day activities,” Father Vessels said.
While he guided Ignatius House the number of people making retreats there increased by more than 20 percent and the first phase of a capital campaign was completed, constructing a new kitchen and dining room and improving offices and the priests residence.
Part of his ministry in the archdiocese included watching out for immigrant Brazilian Catholics. He had served in the South American country for some 20 years, starting in 1966. Father Vessels worked to ensure the Brazilian Catholic community thrived by encouraging a native Brazilian priest to move to Atlanta to minister to both the Hispanic community and the Brazilian, Portuguese-speaking community at St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs.
Born in Enid, Oklahoma, on Sept. 16, 1926, he moved with his parents to South Texas as a boy. There he became fluent in Spanish as he attended high school at McAllen High and St. Joseph Academy in Kerrville, Texas. After high school graduation, he entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) on July 30, 1944 at St. Charles College in Grand Coteau. He was ordained to the priesthood on July 6, 1957 at the Church of San Ignazio in Rome, Italy, and pronounced his final vows at Jesuit High School in El Paso on Sept. 8, 1962.
After returning to the United States in 1995 from living outside the country, he was involved with retreat work at Ignatius House, Montserrat Retreat House in Lake Dallas, Texas (2004-2006) and Manresa House of Retreats in Convent, Louisiana (2006-2009). From 2009-2016 he was chaplain at the Lord’s Ranch in Vado, New Mexico, and a member of the community at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas, before moving to the Jesuit retirement community in Grand Coteau last summer.
Father Vessel’s upbringing in the border area of Texas and his knowledge of Spanish initially led him to expect that he would spend his Jesuit life working in parishes like those in El Paso and San Antonio. But his interests were broad. Tall in stature as well as warm and outgoing in his manner, he could speak with anyone and in several languages.
People related to him; students from his days in El Paso stayed in touch with him and remember him still with great affection. As international director of the Apostleship of Prayer, based in Rome, he traveled the world to promote this devotion to the Sacred Heart.
When he observed 50 years as a Jesuit, Superior General Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach noted that Father Vessels had done much to re-invigorate this devotion as well as bringing a buoyant and cheerful presence to the curia.
He studied humanities in Grand Coteau and philosophy at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. He studied theology for a year in Spain at Ona before transferring to the Gregorian in Rome, Italy, where he earned the licentiate in sacred theology. He earned a master of arts in Spanish and education at Texas Western College in El Paso.