By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator   

Long before crossing the threshold of high school, or even taking his first steps into a first-grade classroom, Father Donald Blanchard sat in the pew at his home parish of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Baton Rouge and was awestruck as he watched priests celebrate Mass.  

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Father Donald Blanchard is shown at his ordination at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge in 1959. Also in the picture, from left, Father Kenneth Baker, Father Blanchard, Father Gerald Burns and Father Frank Uter. Photo provided by the Archives Department of the Diocese of Baton Rouge  

 

As he would say later, “There was just an attraction of what I saw the priest doing. It just stuck with me.”  

His life would never be the same. At an age when many youngsters think of the future as being the upcoming weekend, Father Blanchard’s life compass was already pointed toward the priesthood. By eighth grade he was attending St. Ben’s seminary in St. Benedict, the launching point of what would become a 50-year pilgrimage as a priest. 

“I didn’t know any (priests) personally but the parish priests were always very kind and solicitous,” said Father Blanchard, who celebrated his golden jubilee Feb. 24 during a Mass at Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Baton Rouge alongside Bishop Michael G. Duca. “When I started school at Sacred Heart, it was every day (of being around priests) and a real impetus.”  

“The first example of the priesthood was my parents,” he added, saying he was child No. 6 in a family of eight. “Their example of their fidelity to God first and foremost, to each other and their generosity to us and really teaching us what it meant to be a local church, the family of the church, and all of the things we did there. They were really my example of what it means to be servants, what it means to be concerned with the good of others.”   

His road to the priesthood and even a brief period early into his ordained life, however, were not without a couple of brief obstacles.  

After graduating from St. Ben’s, Father Blanchard continued his formation at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. But it was after his first semester at the Carrollton Avenue enclave that the first doubts began to seep into his thoughts.  

So at the Christmas break he made the decision to leave and informed his parents, siblings and friends, who all offered their support.  

“My parents always said ‘It’s your life. What you feel are you are called to do is what we want you to do,” Father Blanchard said.  

He followed up with a visit to Msgr. William Borders, who was then the director of seminarians, to discuss his decision. According to Father Blanchard, when Msgr. Borders asked why he was leaving, he simply replied “I’m not happy.”  

“Msgr. Borders said ‘I could care less. Happiness is an emotion and you never make a radical decision based on whether you are happy or not.’  

“I had to think about that.”  

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Father Donald Blanchard

 

Msgr. Borders convinced Father Blanchard to return to the seminary for one more semester, and it was then the fledgling seminarian spent time in internal retrospection, reaching the conclusion the priesthood was indeed his calling.  

After spending part of his time in seminary studying at Gregorian University in Rome, Father Blanchard was ordained March 1, 1969 by Bishop Robert E. Tracy. But one more crisis was awaiting, that coming in the early 1970s when he was serving as pastor at St. Philomena Church in Labadieville. Quite simply, he was “extremely lonely.”  

So upon request of Bishop Tracy, he was granted a one-year leave of absence, but it would only take him half that time to return to active ministry, doubts forever annulled.  

“I came back to the joy of many, to the dismay of others,” he said, with his hearty and always infectious laugh.  

Father Blanchard, whose presence is felt as soon as he enters a room, served the Diocese of Baton Rouge in a number of roles, including vocation director and the inaugural vicar for priests. His ministerial assignments, in addition to St. Philomena, include parochial vicar at St. Aloysius Church in Baton Rouge and pastorships at St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Baker, Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant, Christ the King Church and Catholic Center in Baton Rouge and St. Jean Vianney Church in Baton Rouge.  

But he readily admits his true calling was, and to this day, is not behind the desk, not scrutinizing financial statements, but ministering to his parishioners, to those who are ill, to those facing death, as well as baptizing.  

“All of the things a priest is called to do I love,” Father Blanchard said. “My greatest joy is helping others discover God’s love and mercy and assist them in any way I can to come to that and let that be their grace.  

“I particularly love preaching and I’ve been told I’m good at it.”  

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One of Father Donald Blanchard’s favorite icons that he has prayed is that of the Blessed Virgin with Jesus at the Resurrection.  Photo provided by Father Gerald Burns  

 

“I couldn’t stand administration; I did it because it was part of the package and tried to get the right people to help me with it,” he admitted. “When I retired and walked out of the rectory (at Sacred Heart, which, fittingly, was his last pastoral assignment) I felt this energy released from me, knowing that I did not have that burden anymore.”  

Retirement has brought great joy to Father Blanchard, especially being able to return to his role as a priest. But he has also developed an amazing aptitude in writing icons, a demanding and unique skill. 

He said his interest in icons traces back to his youth, perhaps because of the Byzantine art that is so prevalent at Sacred Heart.  

He has written more than 100 icons during the past nine years, and word of his stunning work continues to spread throughout the diocese.  

“Writing icons has helped my prayer life tremendously,” Father Blanchard said. “I get lost; I become so focused and so disciplined but it’s so energizing.”  

“I’ll go hours without eating anything while writing this prayer,” he added, saying that it takes him about 90 hours to complete one icon. But he’ll often work on one for 10 consecutive hours.  

Some of his favorites include those of St. Clare, the Baptism of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin after the Resurrection, the Sorrowful Mother, Our Lady of Tenderness, the Visitation of Our Lady and St. Michael.  

Perhaps even more important in retirement is the fact Father Blanchard has found his true calling.  

“I’m a priest for the first time in my life. I’m doing what I was ordained to do,” he said with a laugh punctuating his priestly joy.  

 

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