The man was a giant. Middle-aged and graying, yet vibrant. Dressed in black, he seemed to appear out of nowhere. He looked at the 11-year- old boy in the Albany County Jail cell and said, “You don’t belong here. I’m going to get you out.”
A few weeks later, Fr. Peter Francis welcomed Paul Winton to Camelot, a residential facility for boys founded by Saint Francis in Lake Placid, New York. Modeled after the Saint Francis Boys’ Homes in Ellsworth and Salina, Kansas, Camelot opened in 1965.
Fr. Pete, who had served as director of both homes, left Kansas to run Camelot. Paul Winton says Fr. Pete and Saint Francis saved his life.
“I lived in the ghetto of the south end of Albany, with six brothers and sisters and an abusive, alcoholic father,” says Paul. “He battered everyone in the house, but I was his favorite target. At some point, I realized that if I stayed, he would kill me. So, I left home to live on the streets.”
Police found him living in the abandoned Albany train station and arrested him for trespassing. They called his parents, but they said they didn’t want him. So, police stuck him in a cell. He was 11 years old.
“In those days, they kept the kids in the same jail as the adults, but in a separate wing,” says Paul. “I know it sounds terrible, but it wasn’t bad. I had a cell to myself, my own bed, and three meals a day. Nobody bothered me, I was safe. It was as good as my life had ever been.”
He arrived at Camelot, terrified. He didn’t know what to expect and wondered if he’d be beaten if he messed up and he did mess up. Often. But he was never beaten. He was disciplined, though. Angry and hostile, he chafed under the structure at Saint Francis, especially the bells. At Camelot, “first bell, second bell” ruled the day.
“First bell of the morning was foot on the floor, second bell was you’d better be in the bathroom getting ready for the day,” he says. “First bell, bed made. Second bell, breakfast. First bell, head to chapel, second bell, you should be in chapel. It was like that all day. In the evenings, we had free time – if you weren’t sitting scribe, working off demerits.”
Boys at Saint Francis in both Kansas and New York worked off demerits by copying first, the Boys’ Home Handbook, then the Bible. After, they worked through the Bible, they copied “Father Bob and His Boys,” the story of Saint Francis founder, Fr. Bob Mize Jr., written by Emily Gardiner Neal. That’s how Paul learned the story of Saint Francis and where he first heard of places like Ellsworth and Salina.
“I was the worst-acting kid Saint Francis had ever encountered, so I sat scribe a lot,” says Paul. “But Fr. Pete was an absolute hardcore believer that there’s no such thing as a bad boy.”
Still, Paul did everything he could to test that conviction, piling up demerits, masterminding elaborate pranks, and selling beer to the other boys at a profit (he smuggled cans onto campus in his French horn case, until Fr. Pete caught him).
A corner turned
Then, in the summer of 1969, a convergence of sorts occurred that changed everything. First, Paul became a member of Saint Francis, an honor awarded to boys who have “turned a corner.” After six years – much longer than the typical stay of 18 months – he had begun to value the structure (and the bells) Camelot provided. Then one day, staff member Jim Huber pulled him aside and said, “You’re smart enough to do pretty much whatever you want to do. You just need to direct your energy to good things. We’ll give you room to do that, but you have to decide.”
“That was a watershed moment,” says Paul. “My life up to that point had been dedicated to tormenting the staff. But this was the first time anybody had told me I was smart.”
He had also grown to admire and deeply respect Fr. Pete and Phyllis Francis. As one of the few boys with no home but Camelot, Paul spent every Christmas with them. They were kind and treated him as one of their own.
“I was a chronic overeater because I’d been hungry my whole life; my father would beat us if we touched the refrigerator. One day, Fr. Pete put his arm around me and said, ‘Paul, I’m never going to let you be hungry. If you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re hungry, you come up to the house and I’ll fix you something to eat.’ I’d endured 11 years of brutality, but then I had six years of kindness from Fr. Pete and Saint Francis. They gave me countless days of kindness, and I learned another way to engage the world. In the Church, we call that ‘grace.’”
“Now, I get what he’s about”
Paul left Camelot after finishing high school in 1973. He paid his own way through college and graduate school, studying labor relations and healthcare administration.
He worked as a director of safety and personnel and then in labor relations for a couple companies before becoming CEO of a hospital in South Carolina. Then, at 37, he left his hospital post for the seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1996.
“I’d had some insignificant experiences with religion before Saint Francis,” he says. “But the first time I saw Fr. Pete saying Mass, it made perfect sense to me. I thought, ‘Now, I get what he’s about.’ I understood him.”
“Without Saint Francis, I would have died on the streets of Albany,” says Fr. Paul. “No question about it. But because someone intervened, I’ve had an amazing life, a blessed life. My priestly ministry has been profoundly informed by my Saint Francis experience. There is no such thing as a bad boy, there is no such thing as a bad person. There are just people who have had bad things happen to them. Fr. Pete taught me that.”
This story first appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Hi-Lites. You can view past HiLites here.