Learning is a Lifetime Affair

Think you’re too old to learn something new? Think again! Research indicates that the more the brain is exercised by learning different and challenging things, the longer it will function on a vital level. And no one knows this better than Fr. Paul LaForge, SVD, at Divine Word College.
In May, at the age of 78, Fr. Paul graduated from DWC with a bachelor’s degree in Cross-Cultural Studies. Remarkable? Yes, but even more impressive is the fact that this is his second bachelor’s degree. And he has also earned two Master’s degrees. In his ministry as an SVD missionary, Fr. Paul has spent 73 continuous years in the classroom – as student and as teacher – and some years, as both.
Fr. Paul’s story begins in Detroit, Michigan, where he was born on November 14, 1930, into a large family of seven boys and one girl. He grew up during the tough early years of the Depression, when the only job his father could find was at a restaurant. “We shared the food that he brought home for us with another family across the street, whose father could not find work,” says Fr. Paul. Later, his family relocated to Pontiac, Michigan, where he attended St. Michael’s Catholic Grade School, graduating in 1944. “I still maintain ties with the class from St. Michael’s,” he adds.
From the time he first served Mass as an altar boy, Fr. Paul knew that he wanted to become a priest. After graduating in 1948 from Divine Word High School Seminary in East Troy, Wisconsin, he went on to complete a two-year novitiate at Techny, Illinois, and two years of college in the juniorate at St. Paul’s Mission House (now Divine Word College) in Epworth, Iowa. In 1952 he returned to Techny to complete his first bachelor’s degree. Ordained on June 7, 1958, Fr. Paul offered his first Mass one week later at his home parish of St. Michael’s.
“I’m a city person,” he says, “and I hoped to go to Japan for my first assignment.” Realizing that dream in September of 1958, Fr. Paul arrived in Tokyo, eager to learn the language and serve in pastoral ministry. But his dream contrasted with reality. “Going on my first drive through the city was more fearful than crossing the Pacific Ocean in an airplane to get to Japan!” After two years of training, he began teaching at Nanzan Junior and Senior High School for boys.
In 1965, Fr. Paul returned to Chicago to study psychology at Loyola University, where he received his Master’s degree in Clinical Counseling Psychology. After another year of studying theology, German and Spanish, he went on to the University of Michigan, earning another Master’s degree in TESOL – Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
By 1971 Fr. Paul was back teaching in Japan. He taught there for a total of 41 years, at the high school, junior college, undergraduate and graduate levels. He fondly recalls his excursions into the Japanese countryside to buy gifts for his students. “The country people would laugh,” he smiles, “when I told them I had 70 sons and 120 daughters!” From 1996-2001, he taught in the Business Department at Nanzan University, in addition to teaching courses on Business Ethics and English Teaching Methodology in two different graduate departments. Utilizing his psychology degree, Fr. Paul pioneered the development of the very first Human Relations Department in Japan.
Memories aside, Fr. Paul lives very much in the present, making the most of each day and looking ahead to new accomplishments. In May of 2001 he “retired” and came to Divine Word College to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. But that wasn’t enough for this lifelong teacher and student. He completed nearly all of the art and philosophy classes at the college, eventually earning his second bachelor’s degree this month.
Along the way, Fr. Paul has also discovered the artist within him. Accomplished in the Sacred Art of Iconography, as well as Japanese and Russian art techniques, he believes that “art is an effective way of communicating the Gospel message as a Divine Word Missionary.” On any given afternoon in the college kitchen, you might find Fr. Paul “slow-baking” one of his intricate, beautiful icons in the kitchen oven. “My art is a prophetic proclamation of the Life and Light and the Word of God present among all people.”
What’s next for Fr. Paul?
“I am devoting these later years to the mastery of digital equipment,” he says. “I’m learning more about computers, cameras, video equipment and laptops, and continue to be engaged in my art.” As he pauses to reflect on over half of a century as an SVD missionary, he adds, “This is my chance to recall the Divine Presence in the present and to surrender the future to the goodness of God.”
Does he have any final words of wisdom to share?
“I may be saying farewell to the classroom…but I’m going onward with learning!”
It’s never too late.