Br. Tom Cole, OFM
I spin an extensive web of relationships as I try to trace my vocation as a Franciscan brother. The influential range of contacts started when I was very young with my devoted parents, with my brother Jerry and sister Helen, with the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Xaverian Brothers, who were my teachers at Holy Name of Jesus Parochial School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who had a home for the aged poor across the street from my home. And then there was Aunt Sis, my godmother, who lived in our house with my grandfather.
At least once a month she would take one of my friends, or a cousin, and me on a “walkathon.” We would walk from our home on 8th Avenue in Park Slope, through Brooklyn Heights, across the Brooklyn Bridge to Lower Manhattan, have lunch in Little Italy or Chinatown, visit Gimbels, Korvettes, Macy’s, or one of the other department stores and end up at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street. That’s where we would go to confession to one of the Franciscan friars. Finally, we would rest our tired feet by heading home on the subway.
On one of those stops at St. Francis, brown-robed friar Br. John Bosco Rubino, OFM, talked me into making a live-in weekend retreat at St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary, the Franciscan high-school seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., on the Delaware River in Sullivan County. The experience of that weekend nudged aside my initial plan of becoming a Xaverian Brother in favor of becoming a Franciscan.
The web of relationships of my youth carried into my career and expanded during my life following in the footsteps of St. Francis. I was also inspired by the followers of St. Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Jeanne and Francis had a lot in common — their simple lifestyle, their love of the poor, even referring to their followers as “little brothers” and “little sisters.” Early on, I did various chores at the Little Sisters’ Holy Family Home, including helping in the kitchen — so much so that when I was in high school, they gave me my first regular pay check for washing pots and pans and assisting them. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was even cooking. I liked it so much that I envisioned a career of doing so as a Franciscan brother.
As I look back over my 30-plus years as a Franciscan, I can say, “I’ve done it all, or almost all, even a little cooking.”
If variety is the spice of life, the following list will show that I’ve had a lot of spice: grammar and high school teacher, pastoral associate, secretary to the provincial, member of the founding staff and associate director of the Franciscan Mission Service, staff member of The Franciscan Institute, university campus minister, bookstore manager, vicar of the provincial house, assistant director of development for St. Anthony’s Guild and staff member of the Franciscan Missionary Union. I even took time to discern a monastic vocation with the Fraternite Monastique de Jerusalem in Paris.
Today, I have three responsibilities. I am guardian of Sacred Heart Friary in East Rutherford, N.J., director of the Franciscan Missionary Union, and — you guessed it — I’m primary cook for our fraternity of six friars. In addition, I continue to be involved with the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor at St. Joseph’s Home in Totowa, N.J., and Queen of Peace Residence, in Queens Village, N.Y.
You can imagine how huge my web of relationships has grown during all my assignments. In all those jobs, what I enjoyed most (and what still gives me great joy) are the people I have lived with, worked with and served.
My father was a regular guy, outgoing and generous, who talked to everyone he met on the street; my mother, more reserved, was a great listener to people who shared their joys and sorrows with her. I am grateful to the spirit of compassion and service I inherited from my parents. In all my ministries, in addition to the day-to-day responsibilities, I have always had an affinity for people “on the margins.” As a teacher, it was the leisurely learners or students with disciplinary problems; in the parish, the elderly, lonely and eccentrics; and at St. Francis on 31st Street, the network of people I met through the ministry of the Breadline.
All people know Francis as the universal brother — the little brother who embraced all people, especially the poor, his brother friars and all creation. One of his sayings to which I ascribe is: “We are called to heal wounds, unite what has fallen apart and bring home those who have lost their way.”
Whatever my ministry, I try to imitate my two heroes, Francis of Assisi and Jeanne Jugan. They did not come at people from a position of authority but as servants, companions, friends, as little brother and little sister to all.
— This essay was written in 2010 when Br. Tom was living at Sacred Heart Friary in East Rutherford, N.J. It appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of The Anthonian magazine.