As a young man, he thought he couldn’t live his dream of becoming a Roman Catholic priest because he stuttered. But if he did stutter, hardly anyone noticed, and now the late Monsignor Francis X. Frey is remembered for more than half a century as a priest, serving growing Catholic parishes in West Texas and then congregations elsewhere in retirement.
Monsignor Frey, who spent his last years here, died Friday at age 85 of a type of stomach cancer, at the Family Hospice and Palliative Care Center in Mt. Lebanon. His final illness came several years after he survived the normally fatal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
He enjoyed preaching, praying, building up congregations, traveling, gardening, swimming, walking, cooking and just being with friends and relatives, his family said.
“If one word would describe him, it’s just joy,” said his sister-in-law, Sue Frey of Spring, Texas, a Houston suburb where Monsignor Frey lived briefly after retirement.
Wherever he served — including saying a weekday noon Mass at Holy Child Church in Bridgeville until his final months — he had a “way of giving homilies that really touched people’s hearts,” said his sister, Alice Kenawell of Bridgeville, where he lived the last few years.
Former parishioners kept in touch from decades past. His former bishop called from Texas in his final hours, and Ms. Kenawell put the phone to her brother’s ear as the bishop told of the service he had done for thousands of people.
Monsignor Frey grew up in Shadyside, the ninth of 13 children born to J.W.A. Frey and Ellen M. Frey.
The family was deeply devout, many of them serving at the altar or in the church choir, activities that instilled in him a lifelong love of music and liturgy, which he later sought to pass on to youths in the parish schools of Texas where he served.
Two older brothers became Roman Catholic priests and a sister became a nun.
He went to St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, expecting to become a Benedictine monk, believing a stutter would keep him out of the pulpit. “I never noticed that he stuttered,” recalled Ms. Kenawell, and soon enough colleagues at St. Meinrad encouraged him to become a priest.
He soon was in touch with a bishop of Amarillo, Texas, who sponsored him through his subsequent training at St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, Pa.
“They were looking for priests, and Pittsburgh had a lot of priests,” Ms. Kenawell recalled.
He was ordained in 1958 at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh and said his first Mass at St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon, near where his family had moved. He immediately began work in Texas and transferred into the newly created Diocese of San Angelo when it was created in the early 1960s.
He was founding pastor of St. Agnes Church in Fort Stockton, Texas, in the 1960s and, in a later term there in the 1980s, led the parish during its construction of a new building. He also was longtime pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Odessa.
In 2009, he was named a monsignor, a papal honor for priests.
He planted gardens at the parishes where he served — and also bequeathed a thriving garden he had tended in Ms. Kenawall’s yard.
Gardening formed “part of his prayer time, too,” Ms. Frey said. “He had that solitude while he was working the earth and making things beautiful.”
He also enjoyed vigorous swimming, both in indoor pools and in a river by a brother’s cottage, and going for walks while praying the rosary.
In retirement, he lived for a time with his brother, Tom, and Ms. Fey in Texas and he soon was helping at a nearby parish, saying Mass and building lasting ties. It was there that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Family members attribute his recovery to prayer, an early diagnosis and successful medical treatment.
He also found a way to combine his vocation with his love of travel, serving as a chaplain on cruise ships and visiting everywhere from Alaska to Spain.
“He loved being a priest,” Ms. Frey said.
Other survivors include Charles Frey of Lancaster, Bernard Frey of Meadville and Ellen Pry of West Sunbury.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at noon today at Holy Child Parish, 212 Station St. in Bridgeville. His interment will be in Odessa. Later memorial services also are planned in Texas.
Peter Smith: petersmith@ post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.