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 | By Brittany DeHaan

The Award Goes To...

October 4, 2023 | During the Annual Convocation for Priestly Renewal, Bishop Gregory Parkes presented Father James Johnson with the 2023 Father Luis de Cancer Distinguished Priestly Service Award.

Since 1998, the Diocese of St. Petersburg has honored a priest serving in the diocese who best exemplifies selfless and dedicated service to the people of God.

About Father Johnson

He was born on April 16, 1953, in St. Petersburg Florida. He attended St. Paul Catholic School through 8th grade before going on to graduate from St. Petersburg High School in 1971. While in high school, he was active in his community through activities such as assisting as a counselor at Our Lady of Good Counsel Camp and through Boy Scouts where he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. He spent two years at St. Petersburg Junior College before completing his Philosophy degree at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach followed by a Master of Divinity degree there. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 17, 1980, by Most Reverend W. Thomas Larkin.

Following his ordination, Father Johnson served as Parochial Vicar of the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle from 1980-1982. He was then assigned as Director of Pastoral Ministry at Tampa Catholic High School from 1982 to 1984 during which he was also the Parochial Vicar of St. Lawrence Parish. In 1983, Father Johnson began to serve as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserve which he continued to do until 2005, earning the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during his service.

In 1984, he was assigned as Diocesan Director of Vocations while serving as Parochial Vicar of the Cathedral parish once again. He also returned to Our Lady of Good Counsel Camp where he served as director from 1984 to 1987 and again from 1996 to 2023. Over the years, he served as Parochial Administrator and Pastor for parishes throughout the diocese including St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish in Spring Hill, St. Stephen Parish in Riverview, Holy Family Parish and School in St. Petersburg, Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Inverness, and finally St. Scholastica Parish in Lecanto before being granted retirement status on July 1, 2023.

Throughout his ministry, Father Johnson provided assistance to the Diocese of St. Petersburg in numerous other capacities including Associate Director of the Diocesan Youth Office, a member of the Diocesan Seminarian Board, Associate Director of Catholic Scouting for Boys, and as Vice-Chancellor for Canonical Affairs for the Diocese. He was also a member of the Catholic Charities Hernando-Citrus County Advisory Board. He served as Director of the Notre Dame Residence for Priests from 1985 to 1988, was a member of the diocesan Clergy Personnel Board from 1985-1996, 2006 to 2011, and 2020 to present, a member of the Presbyteral Council from 1990 to 2001 and 2017 to 2022 and member of the College of Consultors from 1990 to 2001 and 2011 to present. In addition to these ministries, Father Johnson served four separate terms as Vicar Forane of the Citrus, later called Northern, Deanery, providing support and guidance to his brother priests.

He is now retired after 43 years of active priestly ministry and continues to reside in Citrus County where he enjoys the natural beauty of his surroundings while still making himself available to assist local parishes as needed.

About Father de Cancer

Father Louis de Cancer was the pioneer Dominican missionary to the New World and to Florida. He was a native of Spain and was inspired like many others, to come to the New World to spread Christianity.

He came to the New World in 1518 and worked successfully among the native peoples of Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Guatemala. A disciple of the famed Indian protector, Bartolomeo Las Casas, Father de Cancer had particular success in Guatemala. His efforts were so successful in an area known for its bellicose natives, that it was renamed the “Province of True Peace.” De Cancer believed that aggression and violence were counter-productive to the spread of the Gospel and that the native peoples needed to be treated with dignity.

Having read of several failed expeditionary attempts to Florida, de Cancer became convinced that a true missionary effort needed to be undertaken. By late 1547 he had received permission to undertake such an expedition. The Santa Maria de la Encina set out from Vera Cruz, Mexico in early 1549 with de Cancer and three other Dominicans bound for Florida. He insisted that it be an unarmed vessel.

Father de Cancer’s high ideals were put to the test as he arrived on the shores of Tampa Bay in May 1549. Undoubtedly marred by previous contacts with Spanish Conquistadors, the native peoples were very suspicious of this latest venture. Despite warnings from the captain, de Cancer pressed onwards and continued to make contact with the natives despite the fact that one of the Dominicans had already disappeared. Just a few days after celebrating a Corpus Christi Mass ashore, Father Luis de Cancer, a remarkable man of peace and Gospel virtue, was martyred on June 26, 1549, by a band of Indians shortly after setting ashore in the sight of his companions.