Fr. John Felice, OFM

Fr. John Felice, OFMA Long Island native of Patchogue, N.Y., Fr. John M. Felice, OFM, was received into the Order in 1962 and ordained six years later. Elected provincial minister in 1996, he still continues hands-on work for the poor with mental illness at three St. Francis Residences he helped establish in New York City.

My family was in the restaurant business, but I decided I was going to be a corporate lawyer. At the age of 17, I went to St. Bonaventure University run by the Franciscans because my brother had gone there. It was kind of a great adventure.

Then somehow I got it into my head that maybe… what about the priesthood? My first thoughts were of diocesan priests. But as I started to think about it more, I began to look around at the friars. The two things that attracted me were their simplicity and their genuine affection for one another.

I decided that’s for me. St. Francis had claimed another son. The years of training in Franciscan life passed quickly. During theology, I went to Catholic University for five hot summers, and needed just one more year to finish my master’s in sociology. But I was forced to drop it. I was asked to join the vocation team in the province.

It was the late ‘60s. The issue was, are there vocations? What are young men looking for?

Using my sociology background, I took years of files and did an analysis. I think in life, if you keep running against a wall because you think that’s the way it’s done and you can’t imagine it otherwise, it’s critical to ask:

Are we asking the right questions? What are you seeking? Vocations?

Start with just that word, and ask where are they today, who are they, what are our shared values, and go from there.

The ministry really challenged me, and I grew in my own vocation from association with the candidates I interviewed. I was ready to launch new directions in cultivating vocations, when I received a call informing me that I had been elected pastor of our busy service church in midtown Manhattan, St. Francis of Assisi. This leadership now opened a new challenge to me.

I read something that expressed the challenge in a meaningful way: “We pick leadership out of the community to wash our feet and to point out our gifts.”

I think that’s a terrific definition. And if it’s at all possible to live up to, that would be a great model for me.

In my latest opportunity for service as provincial minister, I’m getting a chance to go around the province, meet people, which is really my first priority. I see people’s gratitude and respect and admiration for the work of the friars and it’s overwhelming  — which means basically friars are doing their job.

I have a job as well to remind people to take care of the least of their brothers and sisters in their midst— that’s my little homily. I remember when I was elected and got up to speak, I was so nervous. I said I wanted us to go into the 21st century together and in one piece. And I believe that. But I think we have to work at that.

It won’t happen automatically. I think my job is easy. We have a province that is well-known, well-respected in the Order. Hospitable, generous, talented, known for its leadership.

I was just not expecting this job. I recall when I was first named as a candidate for provincial in 1987, I begged off because I really love my hands-on work with the poor and just couldn’t give that up. But then two years ago, I realized I couldn’t say no to what I perceived was the Holy Spirit calling me to another challenge. Maybe I could do both: serve as provincial as well as spend time with the people at the St. Francis Residences.

The friars have been enormously supportive and kind, sympathetic and encouraging. I’m deeply grateful for that. They have been real brothers. And I believe we all have to embrace the same challenge. I remind the friars: before anyone is our “client” or “patient” or “parishioner” or “student,” they are, first of all, our brothers and sisters.

— This essay was written in 1998 when Fr. John was serving as Provincial Minister for Holy Name Province as well as hands-on work for the poor with mental illness at three St. Francis Residences he helped establish in New York City. It appeared in the June 1998 issue of The Anthonian magazine.