From promoting Wheaties to saying Mass
by Noah Hahn
With his shaved head and clerical collar, it's easy to tell that Charles "Father Chas" Canoy has taken religious vows. But perhaps because of his light brown complexion, people often guess wrong about which religion. That's why, when Canoy was introduced to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in 2005, his first words to his parishioners were, "I am not, nor have I ever been, a Buddhist."
"I was born in the Philippines, but grew up in Columbia, Missouri," explains the thirty-six-year-old priest, pronouncing it "Missourah" with a native's drawl. "I'm kind of a political refugee," he adds with a chuckle. "When my grandfather was a senator in the Philippines, martial law was declared" by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. "My grandfather was one of his biggest opponents." Luckily, his grandfather was in France when martial law was declared in 1972.
Canoy's family moved to Missouri when his parents, both oncologists, received job offers there. Chas played varsity golf in high school and enrolled at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. Yet even while setting his sights on a business career, he also took philosophy classes and mulled the priesthood.
"After one year, I felt zero desire for the priesthood so I thought 'All right! I guess that means I'm called to marriage.'" He never married-but he did earn a bachelor's degree in marketing in 1994 and stepped right into a job at General Mills.
"Great job, company car, stock options," he says with a hint of wistfulness.
But inside, a struggle was brewing. "At one point, I just thought to myself, 'I don't know if I want to be promoting Wheaties for the rest of my life.'" And he came to believe God was calling him into further service. In 1998, he took a job in Ann Arbor for Legatus, a Catholic organization that aims to promote faith among business leaders-but he still felt unfulfilled.
"I knew that even though I was doing some type of ministry now, God was calling me
to something deeper," he recalls. In 2000, Canoy spent a year studying in Rome, but it proved too "distracting. It was the Great Jubilee Year [marking the third Christian millennium], a flurry of activity and celebration."
So he left Rome, and "in the middle of nowhere in Austria for thirty days," he began a process of spiritual exercises that "allowed me to get beyond myself and say yes to that calling." He made the final decision to become a priest during Lent in 2001. He returned to Michigan to earn a master's degree in divinity from Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary and was ordained in 2005.
Fr. Chas enjoys telling parishioners that "running a parish is like running a small business," though the "profit" is "spiritual." The priest's warmth quickly puts everyone at ease, says congregant Kathie Baxter. "I've never heard anyone speak as if they didn't connect with Father Chas."
After four years as a priest, he says, the "most difficult adjustment" to the religious life is "keeping my weight down!" He's been so busy he's had to cut back on sports, including his beloved golf. At the same time, his congregation is keeping him a little too well fed: "Everyone wants to have 'Father' over for dinner," he explains, "and they go all out."
St. Thomas is the city's oldest Catholic church. Some families have been attending services in its beautiful stone building on the corner of State and Kingsley for generations.
Though many older churches in central cities have seen membership decline, Canoy says St. Thomas has "remained steady at just under 2,000 families, despite a number of families having to move away for employment opportunities."
His convivial, optimistic nature is challenged by the current hard times. More people come to the church seeking succor, both spiritual and practical (the church offers free clothing and food through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul). "I wish I had more hours in the day!" he says, noting regretfully that he can't always see parishoners the moment they want an appointment.
Although St. Thomas is viewed by local Catholics as more conservative than the nearby St. Mary Student Parish, Canoy says he's "not into the 'traditionalist' label because of the baggage that can come with that label in some people's minds." Still, he defends the all-male priesthood: "Jesus called himself the bridegroom. If he's the bridegroom, then who's the bride? The bride is the church, made up of all his disciples. The Mass is rich with spousal imagery." And as for married priests, "For the sake of all involved, I don't think it's a good idea. Being a priest is all-consuming. The parish is a full-time family on its own and then some."
Fr. Chas spent the last four years in Ann Arbor. "I love it here," he says. "I think of Ann Arbor as my home." But priests are reassigned regularly, and in July he'll move on to St. Andrew's in Saline. "It's a bittersweet thing for me personally," he admits. "I'll miss celebrating the Eucharist with them [St. Thomas parishioners] on Sunday."
He doesn't expect to totally lose touch with his former congregation. "Ann Arbor will remain close to my heart," he says, "and I won't be too far away!"
[Originally published in May, 2009.]