The late Capuchin Franciscan Fr. Regis Paul Scanlon’s ministerial life was as remarkable as a profile from Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Not only was his ministry wide-ranging, but his “crowning” work came 13 years after being given just a month to live.
Born on Feb. 17, 1943, in Pittsburgh, Pa., to Jeremiah and Dorothy (Meyer) Scanlon, when he died after a long illness on Nov. 6, 2021, in Centennial, Colo. at age 78, he had been a priest 49 years and a Capuchin friar 54 years. Ordained a priest in 1972 in Herman, Pa., after initially studying to become a math teacher, he likely never imagined the extraordinary mission God had in mind for him.
During his ministry, a now canonized saint asked him to lead retreats for her nuns. He became a globally known defender of the faith. He won an award for his work leading prison ministry. He served in parishes, taught in a high school, and did campus ministry. He founded a homeless shelter for women.
“He never met a soul that wasn’t worth saving,” Provincial Minister Br. Mark Schenk said at Fr. Regis’ Nov. 14, 2021, vigil service at St. Jude Church in Lakewood. “And he was never afraid to speak the truth in charity when a person’s soul was at stake.”
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from St. Fidelis College Seminary in Herman, Fr. Regis’ first six years of priestly assignments were spent as associate pastor at parishes in Kansas, Colorado and Ohio, during which time he earned a master’s degree in systematic theology from Washington (D.C.) Theological Union.
He then ministered 10 years as a math teacher and associate dean at a Capuchin high school in Hays, Kan. This was followed by seven years in campus ministry: one year at Washington University in St. Louis and six years at Auraria Campus in Denver. He also taught at St. Thomas Seminary and in the Denver Archdiocese’s diaconate program.
In the late 1980s, Fr. Regis became a well-known apologist through his work with Mother Angelica on EWTN and three teaching series he made for the TV network, including “What Did Vatican II Really Teach?” He was also a sought-after contributor to several Catholic publications, including Homiletic and Pastoral Review and Crisis Magazine.
In the 1990s, at St. Mother Teresa’s request, he served as instructor and spiritual director for her Missionaries of Charity, who he gave retreats to internationally. Locally, he was chaplain to their AIDS hospice for men and when that closed, to their homeless shelter for women. He was also confessor to the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Littleton and the Benedictine nuns in Boulder.
In 1998, the unexpected happened when he was asked to switch from preaching and writing to leading prison ministry for the Denver Archdiocese. To do so, he recruited a small army of volunteers to assist him and nine other clergy who served 9,500 inmates in 17 Denver area prisons and jails.
“Prison ministry was not my choice,” he told his brother Capuchins when the province gave him an award for that ministry in 2007. “I was certain it was not God’s choice and I asked God to send me a sign.”
Soon afterward, he lost his voice due to an aortic aneurysm putting pressure on his vocal cords. Surgery repaired the aorta but left him with a diminished, gravelly voice. “I’m certain now the assignment was God’s will,” he declared at the time. “His ‘sign’ actually saved my life.”
In 2010, he stopped serving as director of prison ministry, although he still ministered to inmates. His ministry had revealed to him the shortage of facilities for homeless women and had convinced him of the need for a comprehensive shelter to help them restore their dignity and rebuild their lives. Addressing this became a mission for him.
“In 2 Corinthians, St. Paul writes about how he received a thorn in the flesh from God to keep him from becoming conceited. Sometimes God sends us a thorn in the flesh for our good, or for the good of others,” Br. Mark said at Fr. Regis’ vigil service. Drawing laughter he added, “Archbishop Charles Chaput called Fr. Regis a ‘thorn in the side’ after he had come to the archbishop for years about opening a shelter for single homeless women.”
Father Regis’ hope was realized in the twilight of his life—and long after defying death following several life-threatening medical issues in the year 2000—when the Julia Greeley Home was opened in metro-Denver in 2013. It has served 75 women since its founding.
“Thanks be to God he was a thorn in the side, because many people have been brought back to the practice of their faith, many people have been reconciled with their spouses and families, and many people have rediscovered their dignity as sons and daughters of God because of it,” Br. Mark said. “Fr. Regis also had a knack for drawing others into his ministry. This is most evident in his ministry as a prison chaplain and in his work with the Julia Greeley Home.”
Father Regis was a faithful son of the Blessed Mother, Fr. Michael Suchnicki recalled at his religious brother and 50-year friend’s Nov. 15 funeral Mass at St. Jude’s. “He loved her very, very much. Every morning … I would see him in our chapel praying the rosary before we had our community prayer at Mass.”
“He felt a conviction from the Blessed Mother that he wasn’t supposed to love just one woman, he was supposed to love all women,” said Jean Torkelson, communications advisor to the Julia Greeley Home, eliciting laughter. “That’s what he told these women he had dedicated his life to do.”
At the vigil service, fellow friar Fr. Blaine Burkey asserted, “The Julia Greeley Home … is really the crowning glory of Regis’ life.”