Though known for establishing the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola initially found inspiration for conversion in the life of St. Francis of Assisi while recovering from a debilitating leg injury. Likewise, it was a leg injury that left Father Michael Blackburn, OFM, with the time to clarify his vocation to become a Franciscan.
Father Michael, who has been the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Spokane, Washington, for the past 19 years, was born in 1955 in New Orleans, Louisiana. “I am the middle child of five,” he says. “As my dad was a career Navy man for 24 years, we moved a lot.” Although his father was not Catholic or very religious, his mother was. “My mom came from a strict German Catholic background, and she made sure that all five of us kids went to church, received the sacraments, and prayed before eating and going to bed,” says Father Michael.
“In 1964, my dad retired from the military, and we moved to Simi Valley, California,” he recalls. “During that time, when I was in grade school, I began to think about being a priest. I became an altar server at my home parish, and I found I really enjoyed it. It’s hard to explain, but I felt God was calling me.”
The Long Road of Discernment
After graduating from Simi Valley High School in 1973, Father Michael spent one year at Moorpark Junior College with the hope of figuring out what he wanted to do. He nearly joined the Marines but entered St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, instead. However, he realized that he wasn’t called to be a diocesan priest. “After graduation, I left the seminary and worked as an assistant manager at a drugstore for one year, but I knew that was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
That’s when Father Michael’s discernment process paralleled St. Ignatius’. It wasn’t a battle injury that sidelined Father Michael, but an accident. “On my way to work on St. Valentine’s Day, 1979, I was in a motorcycle accident and broke my right leg. I ended up in a cast for five months, which put an end to my working situation,” he says. “But God used that time to get my attention, and as it turned out, it was then that I decided to join the Franciscans. I loved ecology and all creation, and since St. Francis is its patron saint, I figured it was a perfect fit.”
The next few years took Father Michael to various areas of the West. “After being accepted into the formation program in 1979, I spent my first year in Portland, Oregon,” he says. After a year in the novitiate in Los Angeles, he moved to Berkeley, California, and spent the next three years studying theology. “I graduated on May 18, 1985, was ordained a deacon on August 31, 1985, and was sent to Spokane as an associate,” Father Michael says. “After six months as a deacon, I was ordained a priest on March 1, 1986.”
In 1991, he left Spokane and moved to Las Vegas, where he was assigned as pastor of St. James the Apostle Catholic Church. “It was a time of growth for me personally and spiritually,” he recalls. “Sadly, though, in 2004, my province pulled out of Las Vegas, and the diocese took over. I went on sabbatical for six months, five of which I spent in Glasgow, Scotland, living with the friars.” He returned home, moving back to Spokane, but this time as a pastor, a position in which he has served for nearly two decades.
Welcoming the Stranger
One part of his time as pastor he will never forget. “During my time here, I have had many ups and downs, but one thing will always stand out in my mind,” Father Michael says. “In 2013, a fellow priest in Spokane was in need of a kidney transplant, and I felt the call to see if I could donate one of my kidneys. After going through many thorough examinations, I was found to be a match.
“But then an unexpected event happened. There was a lady who was supposed to receive a kidney from her brother, but they didn’t match. So we were crossed-matched, and the priest ended up receiving a kidney from the brother, and I donated my kidney to his sister on July 2, 2013. God works in mysterious ways.” Father Michael notes that, 10 years later, all involved in the kidney donations are doing well.
Being a priest does not exempt one from the pain of loss. Since 2015, Father Michael has lost both his parents, two classmates, and two fellow friars. “Since 2019, I have had to put my dog down, I got COVID-19, and I found myself living alone,” Father Michael says. “All these losses have taken their toll on me, but God has been my strength.”
Father Michael is not sure what the future holds for him, but he is putting his trust in God. “Wherever I end up, God will have my back,” he says. “I have come a long way since 1979, and I have thanked God more times than I can count for calling me to be a Franciscan. In all honesty, joining the Franciscans was a lifesaver for me.”