MILWAUKEE — In his home of Senegal, Abbe (Fr.) Jules Pascal Coly is surrounded by people. Despite his quiet, humble demeanor, people yearn to talk with him, pray with him, and be around him to experience what Fr. Coly calls a gift from God.

Abbe (Fr.) Jules Pascal Coly, a priest from Senegal, and another priest lay hands and pray over individuals attending a Mass July 7 at St. Margaret Mary Parish, Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald photo by Peter Fenelon)

Abbe (Fr.) Jules Pascal Coly, a priest from Senegal, and another priest lay hands and pray over individuals attending a Mass July 7 at St. Margaret Mary Parish, Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald photo by Peter Fenelon)

Although his crowds were smaller in Milwaukee last month, many people came to experience his healing gift and witness his faith-filled life.

“I’m an instrument of God,” Fr. Coly frequently says when people approach him and thank him for his help. “Thank Jesus, not me,” he says.

He was in Milwaukee July 4-10 for a series of worship services, healing prayers and Masses at several parishes. The programs were sponsored by the St. Christophe Catholic Senegalese Association of Milwaukee and the African Catholic Committee of the Black Catholic Ministry Commission of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Funding was provided, in part, by a grant from the U.S. bishops’ Office for Black and Indian Missions.

Fr. Coly, the third oldest of seven children, grew up in Dagana, Senegal, a town of roughly 1,500 people in West Africa. In a predominantly Muslim community – Fr. Coly’s family was one of three Christian families in the town – “there was harmony between Muslims and Christians,” he said. Of Fr. Coly’s 22 childhood friends, he was the only Christian and said “all of them (my friends) would be willing to give up their life for me.”

Fr. Coly’s mother and father instilled a habit of praying in their family. He had wanted to become a priest from a young age and recalled standing on his kitchen table proudly singing the Gloria. He entered the seminary in fifth grade and began the journey to priesthood, what he called “the perfect lifestyle for me,” he told the Catholic Herald during his Milwaukee visit.

Despite his early vocational call, he was offered another career opportunity at age 16. A good soccer player, the teenage Fr. Coly was recruited by the successful French club soccer team, Paris de Saint Germain.

Neither money nor fame lured Fr. Coly from his path to the priesthood, however, and on June 29, 1997, he was ordained in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and appointed pastor of Martyrs of Uganda Parish in Matam, Senegal.

“My calling was helping mankind,” he said.

The priest worked with the Boy Scouts in Matam and taught children – Christian and Muslim – a love of nature, a respect for nature, a respect for their neighbors and, most important, to never forget the Lord.

Three years after his ordination, while he was studying pastoral development at the University in the Ivory Coast in 2000, Fr. Coly recognized and accepted what he termed his gift of healing after an interaction with a sick man who came to the university.

Fr. Coly recalled going downstairs of his residence and meeting with a man who was sick and wanted to talk to a priest. He sat and prayed with the man and told him to drink Holy Water for three days.

The man returned to Fr. Coly after those days and said he was healed.

The priest described the gift as a two-stage process. First is the feeling, the sensation that “something is there,” he said.

“You feel a power in you. Then your hands are burning,” he described. “You hear a voice that says ‘get up and pray.’

The second stage is the act of healing. And if you don’t reach out and pray for a person, Fr. Coly said, “you are hurting in your heart.”

After the priest became aware of and accepted his gift, and once others learned of it, he had little time to himself as people came for help and guidance.

One of the most difficult times for Fr. Coly was in 2004 when he was on a retreat with young people and one of the retreatants had what Fr. Coly described as a “legion of demons” in him. The priest and the other retreatants prayed from 10 p.m. until 9 a.m. and the person was healed.

Fr. Coly, however, recalled how mentally and spiritually difficult that was, and he joked, “I told Jesus if this is the work, I don’t want this. It is too tiring.”

Fr. Coly first came to the Milwaukee area in 2012. He did prayer services because, as he said, “When we pray, the Lord gives life.” Reine Assana, a member of the St. Christophe Senegalese community in Milwaukee, met Fr. Coly that year.

Reine was going through what she called a “storm” in her life. Her husband, Abraham Assana, was murdered in June 2012 during an apparent robbery, and she was grieving. Fr. Coly had heard of her husband’s death when he was doing ministry in Maryland and prayed for Reine, her husband and her family even before meeting her. When he arrived in Milwaukee, Reine said, Fr. Coly prayed with her and showed her what to do.

“He brought me back,” she said. “Mass, adoration, confession and your rosary, that’s what he left me with and that’s what I’ve been living ever since.”

In early 2013, Reine suffered a different kind of pain as she experienced a bad case of tendonitis in her shoulders. Fr. Coly met with her, prayed and laid his hands on her, and the pain quickly faded. In May 2013, the pain returned to Reine, but she called Fr. Coly immediately. The two of them prayed together and the pain has been gone ever since.

Paulette Bangura met Fr. Coly three years ago when she was going through serious medical problems. In 2006, she had a double lung transplant and was diagnosed as terminal. In 2010 she got a bad case of pneumonia.

Throughout her illness, the Senegalese community prayed for her, said an appreciative Bangura, a Muslim. “There is only one God, and religion is the way to praise God,” she added.

Meeting and praying with Fr. Coly drastically changed Bangura’s life. In 2015 she was called in for a kidney transplant after meeting with Fr. Coly during his visit to Milwaukee. When she lost the kidney in June, Fr. Coly came to her house and prayed with her, and in November of that same year, she received a transplant that has since been functioning.

“Every time that I’m in contact with (Fr. Coly), I get blessings,” she said. “We are blessed to have him in our presence. He’s a very humble man.”

Fr. Coly’s humility is what many spoke of when describing the young priest. Bangura said he taught her to value the gift of humility, which she prayed for during June for the celebration and reflection of Ramadan.

Jean Pierre Biagui, a Senegal-native and member of the St. Christophe Senegalese group, said, “We always relish the moments we have a priest from our own country coming.”

It wasn’t until 2014, however, that Biagui experienced Fr. Coly’s healing gifts. On a trip to Senegal, Biagui had a bad fall that required surgery and a long stay in the hospital. Biagui’s family was worried he might not make it out of the hospital.

Someone reached out to Fr. Coly, who who went to the hospital and said to Biagui, “Let’s just pray.” Before leaving the hospital, Fr. Coly said, “Have a safe trip back.” Within two weeks the serious symptoms had disappeared and Biagui returned to Milwaukee for a full recovery.

Evelyn, also from the St. Christophe Senegalese community, called herself St. Thomas, because “I’d have to see it before I believe it.”

She met Fr. Coly more out of curiosity than a belief he possessed a God-given gift. It wasn’t until she experienced health problems of her own that she began to think differently.

When she was in Senegal for a wedding, her feet severely swelled and she did not know what to do. Fr. Coly came to her, prayed over a bucket of water and told her to put her feet into the water.

“That was it,” she said. Her feet stopped swelling.

Fr. Coly’s quiet demeanor made it difficult for Evelyn to believe he had this gift before her experience with him in Senegal.

“He doesn’t make noise,” she said. “Jesus didn’t make noise either.”

Despite stories shared with the Milwaukee Senegalese community, as well as stories in Senegal of babies being born from infertile women, people being cured of diseases and people’s hearts being uplifted by Fr. Coly’s work, the priest remains quiet and humble in his work, a gentle spirit as Biagui said.

Fr. Coly said while he may interact with more people now that his gift is becoming more public, his relationship with individuals has not changed. What has changed is his relationship with God.

“The gift hasn’t changed my relationship with people because I’m the same person,” he said. “It definitely changed my relationship with God because it has become more intense.”

What Fr. Coly hopes more than anything is for the world to grow closer to God.

“If we want to be at peace,” he said, “we must get close to God.”