Deacon Joe Manella has faithfully served the Church as a deacon for over 30 years. But his heroic actions began long before.
Joe grew up in Milford during the 1920s and 1930s, when local boys milked cows and delivered milk around town. But with the coming of the Second World War in 1941, Joe left Massachusetts to join the Air Force as a bombardier.
Joe used the Air Force’s exclusive “Norden Bombsight” to drop bombs accurately, so when he and his navigator were shot down over French Indochina (now North Vietnam), his knowledge of the system was in high demand to the Japanese.
Falling from his destroyed airplane, Joe parachuted to the ground, landing in a rice paddy. The local villagers, noticing the medal of the Virgin Mary that he was wearing, helped him by contacting a Chinese priest, who took Joe to a hospital. He tried to stay hidden and was moved by a French official to a more remote hospital, but Joe was eventually found and interrogated. He refused, however, to disclose any information about the bombing system, leading to even harsher treatment.
For three long years, Joe was interrogated, tortured, starved, and kept in a dirty cell, but he refused to speak. For a while he was given only a glass of water per day. Sustained by faith, prayer, and a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he saw visions of Jesus during his time in captivity. At one point during the long interrogations, Joe used his smarts to keep himself alive. When asked by his captors why he should not be killed immediately, Joe fibbed, telling his captors that he was a star for the Boston Red Sox. Soon after, Joe and the other weak, starving prisoners were forced to entertain the Japanese by playing games of baseball.
At the war’s end Joe was freed and welcomed home to Milford, where he eventually met and married Anne, who was his wife for 52 years. Together they had five children and seven grandchildren.
For many years Joe was the assistant principal at Stacy Junior High School in Milford. After he “retired,” he served the Diocese of Worcester as assistant superintendent of the diocesan Catholic schools, creating school evaluation processes that are still used today. He also served as a deacon at Our Lady of Loreto parish in Worcester.
Before he came to Sacred Heart, Joe spent the first 12 years of his diaconate working for Catholic Charities at Merilac Manor, a home for unwed mothers. There he comforted, advised, and affirmed many young women who had a need for a father figure like Joe. Some women said that Joe was the father that they wished they had had growing up.
In 1990, Joe began to serve at both Sacred Heart Churches, in Hopedale and in Milford, where he performed the many duties of a deacon. In addition to his liturgical service at weekend Masses and funerals, he also brings comfort, hope, and Sacraments to the sick who live in nursing homes or are homebound.
Joe celebrated his 90th birthday on August 18, but only began to reduce his duties four years ago, when he ceased to serve at Sacred Heart in Milford.
Even if you don’t know Joe personally, you may already have seen something personally important to him. Above the entrance to our church is a special stained-glass window that was designed by Joe. After his wife Anne died, Joe wanted to find a way to remember her. Working with an artist, Joe had the vision of Jesus that he had while a prisoner of war sketched and then put into stained-glass. You can see the image that Joe designed and donated every time you exit the church.
Joe’s long life has spanned 90 years, 10 decades, and two centuries. During that time he has lived with faith in Jesus Christ, showing that faith in many different ways, even before his ordination to the diaconate. We should praise God for the servants like Joe that he sends us and pray that we will be sent even more.
Article first published in Sacred Heart newsletter, September 2008