Unbearable Loss, Unyielding Faith

Mother of James Foley reflects on her family’s loss

A year ago the world awoke to a grim reality when the gruesome videoed execution of journalist James Foley suddenly made ISIS a household name. As the country reacted with shock and outrage, Jim’s family was left to face the horrific climax to an ordeal they had been suffering for years, and to absorb a profound and permanent loss made no easier by the swarm of international attention the story drew to their quiet home in Rochester, New Hampshire. As information and analysis poured forth from hundreds of media outlets, several reporters observed that the real untold story in these events was the extraordinary faith of the Foley family.

This is that story.

Months after the satellite trucks and cameras have pulled away, Diane Foley sits in her living room beneath a portrait of Jim and reflects on the heart-wrenching events of the past several years, the joys and challenges she and her husband John shared in raising Jim and his siblings, and the foundation of faith that has sustained them through it all.

“The last three years have been very difficult,” says Diane, “starting in the spring of 2011 when Jim was detained in Libya for 44 days. It has been the most frightening thing and without faith in God who was strengthening me I just couldn’t have gotten through it.”

That faith in Diane’s case was one that she chose as a young woman. Her Roman Catholic mother and Unitarian father agreed that their two daughters would be baptized when they were old enough to choose which faith to belong to. “My sister and I alternated church services on Sundays, though I tended to go more often with my mother to Saint Bernard Parish in Keene,” she recalls. “This pending choice of faith made me particularly interested in faith in God. I chose to become Roman Catholic when I was about 14. I attended Mass weekly, became active in CYO and was drawn to Mary. I remember stopping by the church after school to pray to her.”

During her years attending the University of New Hampshire, Diane grew closer to God through weekly folk Masses led by Father Vincent Lawless. Diane says she briefly considered entering a convent after college, but then she met and fell in love with John. They were married at Saint Thomas More Parish in Durham in 1971 and the family eventually settled in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and became active in Saint Cecilia Parish.

Father Marc Montminy first came to know the Foleys in the 1980s while working for the Diocesan Spiritual Renewal Services. He remembers fondly the summer renewal weekends he shared with them and other families at Singing Hills Campground. “The whole family used to come up for the weekend. Diane had such a hunger to experience Christ and she wanted to share that faith with the kids.”

Ann MacGregor grew up around the corner from the Foleys in Wolfeboro, babysitting the three older children and tutoring Jim in math. She belonged to the same parish as the Foleys and sang in the choir with Diane. “John and Diane were so important to me when I was young. I admired them greatly and still do. Every year they had a big party on the Feast of the Epiphany. The three older boys would dress up as the three kings and bring their gifts to baby Jesus. It was one of the highlights of my year.”

Recalling those years, Diane says, “Jim’s faith grew. He was a joy-filled young man. He served as altar boy, but was not particularly religious. He just had a big heart. When he went to Marquette University their emphasis on social justice really resonated with him and he started tutoring in the inner city schools around the university. He began to recognize that not everyone grew up with the advantages he had.” Volunteering with Teach for America after college, she says, was a natural for Jim. However, being accepted as a teacher within the barrio of Phoenix was not easy. “He found that what these kids needed was an adult who kept in touch and cared and encouraged them. Jim Skyped, emailed, and returned to visit his former students in Phoenix many times. Now, 15 years later, these same students that he used to think weren’t paying attention to him have formed their own non-profit in his honor called The Phoenix Foley Alliance.”

Jim’s pursuit of international journalism, Diane says, came from the same desire to serve the marginalized, to tell the stories of injustice in the world. This persistence was what led to Jim’s 2011 capture in Libya. “After a 44-day imprisonment James was found and miraculously freed due to the efforts of David Bradley, owner of the Atlantic Monthly. It was Holy Saturday and I was polishing silver candle sticks that he had brought me from Jerusalem. The phone rang, and it was Jim calling to say he’d be home for his sister’s graduation. It was an incredible answer to a prayer.”

Many have wondered why after such a harrowing experience Jim returned to the war-torn region from which he had narrowly escaped alive. “His captivity in Libya had been incredibly frightening to him,” Diane says. “The man in the next cell kept handing Jim and his fellow captives pieces of Scripture. Jim kept praying the rosary. Afterwards he spoke publicly about how praying the rosary had kept him close to his family.” He tried working in Boston, Diane recalls, “but he had seen a lot of suffering and his huge heart drew him to cover the conflict in the Middle East, stories he felt Americans needed to know.”

“‘I have to go back,’” Father Paul Gousse, pastor at Our Lady of Holy Rosary Parish in Rochester, recalls Jim telling him. “People need to know about the little people who are being walked on like grass.” Father Gousse describes Jim as someone with “a missionary heart, a light that went into dark places.”

Jim went back to Libya in 2011 with Human Rights Watch, and at Christmas that year he was home for his brother Mark’s wedding. Though they could not know it then, this would be the last Christmas the Foley family would share with Jim. Late that winter he returned to the Middle East, this time to Syria, where he began spending more time with Syrian rebels who were seeking freedom. “By the end of that summer,” Diane remembers, “things started getting more dangerous.”

A week before Thanksgiving, Diane’s 104 year-old aunt died and Jim called to console her. “That was the last time I ever heard his voice. On Thanksgiving Day we didn’t hear from him, which was really unusual because he always called on holidays, so John and I became concerned. Then we were notified by the government that Friday that Jim had been kidnapped. Our long nightmare began. We went back on our knees, and spent a lot of time praying, beseeching God to have mercy on him.”

The family’s worry increased each day. “We didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. Many people were trying to find out and there were a lot of rumors.” In January, against the advice of the FBI, the family went public with their plight. Among other things this opened the door to the spiritual support they needed. Diane recalls “the warm kindness and support of our pastor, Father Paul Gousse and Father Dan Sinibaldi; the support from Father Marc and Father Paul Montminy, and Father Joseph Khoueiry, a Maronite who had lost his father and his brother to violence in the Middle East; Jackie Morganti of Holy Rosary’s Charismatic Renewal prayer group, and Rita Pender, the parish’s pastoral minister; and of course Ann MacGregor and the students and whole school community of Saint Elizabeth Seton School. Everyone kept the prayers coming.”

Diane sought strength in daily Mass and prayer groups. That spring she reluctantly left her job as a nurse practitioner. “Someone in the family needed to work on this full time and so I took it on.” The family’s ordeal persisted through summer without any word of hope or relief. That fall, as a means of coping, Diane decided to engage in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola under the direction of a prayer guide in Kennebunk, Maine, a one-day-a-week commitment for 30 weeks.

“These exercises gave me strength to pray and to go on. I realized how much I needed to sit with God. During Advent, the exercises awakened me to the Incarnation, the incredible gift that Mary gave to the world. Then at Lent I felt like I could walk with Mary in her suffering and her generosity, that she was with me and with Jim, that I was understood. When you are going through something like this people want to understand, but they can’t. But I felt that Mary did. Mary understood me and understood Jim.”

By now Diane had traveled to Europe several times to meet with freed hostages who had been with Jim. That November they received ransom notes and proof of life as well as information that they knew could only have come from Jim. “So we went into 2014 hopeful, knowing more and more information. But we weren’t getting much response from the government and decided we needed to figure out a way to get him out on our own. And we kept praying.”

In her conversations with hostages who had been released Diane learned much more about her son. “They told me that he was acting as a loving mediator in a small, filthy space with 18 other men and little food. I knew from this that he was close to God. Some have said that he converted to the Muslim religion, but I was assured by one of his fellow captors that by praying in their way Jim was able to be left alone to pray. These conversations with people who spent time with Jim in his final years have given me as much strength as anything. That he was being a peacemaker when others were fighting over food; that he showed compassion for those who were suffering most tells me that God was powerfully present with him up until the end.”

That June one of Jim’s fellow captors, Daniel Rye, was released and the day after he came home he called to relay a letter from Jim that he had memorized. Daniel was the last hostage to get out. “In July, we received that horrible e-mail threatening Jim’s life.”

When Jim was executed in August, nearly 20 months after his initial capture, the Foleys heard nothing from the U.S. government. “I actually found out from a hysterical AP reporter,” Diane says, “It was all handled so poorly, in such a shocking way. I don’t think anyone had realized how serious this ISIS group was, how hateful. Everyone had underestimated them.”

After Jim’s death the family heard from many people to whom they had reached out unsuccessfully during their long ordeal, including the President and the Secretary of State. But one call went a long way towards helping the family begin to heal.

“Pope Francis called. It was such a gift. We were so moved by him. His own great nephews and his family had been in a tragic car accident, and here he was taking the time to call us, with such deep compassion for our suffering at that moment.” Father Marc Montminy was with the family when that call came. “I had spent three hours in the home that Wednesday, just listening to their pain. Presence is the only thing I could offer. Then the Holy Father called. What impressed me is that he was suffering his own loss and he spoke with them for a half hour. After they hung up there was a reverent silence in the house. That made a big impact on their healing that day.”

Healing, persistent hurt, unexpected tears, and occasional joys have all been part of the past year, says Diane. “Jim’s captivity, though horribly stressful for all of us, somehow drew us even closer. His horrific death has tested the faith of our entire family. Each of us has struggled in our individual ways to accept our kind and loving son and brother dying in such a brutal way. We have depended on each other to get through it all. My husband, John, has been a tremendous strength and support to me and to the whole family.”

John and Diane have taken practical steps to try to spare other families from the suffering they have experienced by establishing the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation to support the families of American hostages, and working to help bring about changes in U.S. policy, which were announced by the White House this past June. “Hatred is strong in this world,” Diane says, “but Jim loved and wanted to make a difference in the world. His legacy foundation is to ensure that his compassion, desire for freedom, and justice continue.”

This past May, the family gathered for the joyful occasions of the wedding of Jim’s sister Katie and the baptism of his newborn nephew, named in his honor. “The wedding was a beautiful experience of God,” Diane says, “together with the baptism of little James the night before. It was a time of joy and God’s peace and we all felt Jim’s presence.”

Since Jim’s death, Ann MacGregor says she has thought frequently about those Epiphany parties back in Wolfeboro, “how the Foley kids were taught from a young age to bring their gifts to Jesus. That’s what Jim did. That’s what all the Foley children do. I still look to John and Diane as a model for how to raise a Catholic Christian family. I see the ordeal they’ve suffered and know that they’ve endured because they are centered in Christ as their stronghold.”

“I never realized what an extraordinary man Jim had become,” Diane reflects. “He wanted to make a difference. The suffering of civilians, especially children, is something he felt the world should know about. He really became a man for others. He has inspired and challenged John and me in so many ways.”

As she turns to the future, Diane admits, “I have had to surrender it all to God. Some people think God is like a slot machine. You put in your coins and pull the levers and good fortune comes out, but that’s not the way life is. One piece of Scripture I keep close to my heart is 1 Peter 3:15: ‘Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.’

“There is no question where my hope and strength come from,” she says. “It’s from the Holy Spirit. And I will just keep surrendering.”

Editor’s note: This article and photography originally produced for Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, September/October 2015 issue. To read more Parable articles, visit www.catholicnh.org. To view photos of James Foley’s Memorial Mass, visit www.matthewlomanno.com/foley.

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Gary Bouchard is the Chair of the English Department at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, where he has been a professor of Early Modern and Shakespeare studies for 28 years. He and his wife, Donna, live in New Hampshire. They have two grown sons.

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