As the family of released Beirut hostage Lawrence M. Jenco flew from Washington to West Germany on Sunday for a reunion, two of Jenco's oldest friends at the Buena Park headquarters of the Order of Servants of Mary quietly gave thanks for the priest's safe release.
Father Jenco, 51, was kidnaped by Muslim extremists in Beirut on Jan. 8, 1985. As a member of the Roman Catholic order, based in a sprawling Buena Park ranch house, Jenco had been dispatched to the Middle East as project director of Catholic Relief Services.
"I had dinner with him (in Buena Park) the night before he left for Lebanon in August, 1984," said Brother Gregory Atherton, the order's provincial secretary. "He was in great shape. . . . I promised him the next time I went to Rome, I would go on to Lebanon to see him.
"That promise was not able to be fulfilled," Atherton said. "When I went to Rome this past April, he was in captivity."
Just two days after Jenco was kidnaped, Atherton received his last letter from the priest.
Jenco wrote of the midnight Mass he had celebrated the previous Christmas Eve and the relief agency's efforts to assist victims in the war-ravaged country.
"The situation in Lebanon remains constant: car bombings (525 to date), shelling, kidnaping," Jenco wrote. "Soon there will be only ruins if this 10-year war does not end.
"Last night my neighbor, a Swiss diplomat, was kidnaped," continued the letter, penned just days before his own kidnaping. "Five Americans are still held captive. I do not think I could cope with a kidnap attempt. Once in a while, remember me to the Lord. In Lebanon, one thinks about death frequently. Pray for us."
Knowing that his friend of 25 years was in captivity, Atherton said, he answered the letter anyway. "I was sending it anyhow, with the faith that he would be released, but it was returned after a few months."
At 1:35 a.m. Saturday, a phone call informed Atherton that Jenco's release was "pending." Confirmation came at 5 a.m. Later that day, Father Bruce Klikunas, head of the order's Western region, flew from Orange County to Washington. Klikunas and 10 members of Jenco's family left Washington on Sunday aboard an Air Force C-141 for Wiesbaden, West Germany, where Jenco was spending the night in a U.S. military hospital.
"All I could think of when they said he was released was . . . 'In what condition?' " Atherton recalled. "When they said he was released because of health reasons, I got a knot in my stomach. Then I saw him (on television), and he smiled. He looked haggard, but I knew he was OK."
Father Jude Herlihy, another of Jenco's longtime friends and colleagues, said Jenco's release "has been the answer to prayers."
"I was at the funeral of one of the hostages (Peter Kilburn, librarian of the American University of Beirut) in San Francisco, and my heart went out to his family," Herlihy said. "I'm certainly happy that Marty has been returned."
Kilburn, 62, was killed last April 17 along with two British teachers by terrorists who said they were retaliating for Britain's support for the U.S. air raid on Libya. The Berkeley native, who had spent more than 20 years in the Middle East, was buried April 29.
According to Herlihy and Atherton, the Order of Servants of Mary will hold a Thanksgiving celebration for Jenco's return, but such services have not yet been planned. The first goal is for Jenco to spend time in seclusion with his family in Joliet, Ill., they said.
"I hope he's getting a good rest," Atherton said, "but I doubt it."