Fr. Roderic Petrie, OFM
Being a priest or a religious did not ever, as far as I can recall, enter into my childhood choice of “possibles” when I was growing up on an upstate farm in Canastota, N.Y., a small community near Syracuse. In fact, my Catholic faith was not strongly ingrained in me.
It wasn’t until I was a junior in college at SUNY in Albany that the idea of doing something different with my life other than getting married first entered my mind. I don’t think it was a case of having a call and not paying any attention. Rather, it must have been that I was not yet ready to be called.
Again, I was not attracted to the diocesan priesthood. Why, I don’t know. I then, as a college student, had some knowledge that there were other options. The Franciscans had a college, Siena, just outside of Albany, and some of the friars used to help with Masses on the weekend at St. Vincent de Paul Church where I would attend Mass. They also heard confessions on Saturday evenings. They seemed to be more easy going, more humane and approachable.
As with everyone I knew at school in those days, hunger and the longing to satisfy it were a constant preoccupation. I had a job washing pots in the kitchen of a girls’ dormitory, which helped pay for my room and board in the dormitory where I was housed.
On one occasion the presence of the three-decker chocolate cakes being served to the girls in their dining room became too much for me to resist. I hid one when the head cook was not looking. And later, when I had walloped the last pot, I accompanied the cake to my own dorm to share with my fellow sufferers.
But the theft weighed on my conscience, so I unburdened myself to one of the Franciscans hearing confessions that Saturday. He gave me a penance; he absolved me; but he also chuckled. That gave me an insight into a spirituality honoring the humanity of Christ, and a way of life where I have found a home.
One afternoon in my senior year, I took a bus out to Loudonville and got off at Siena College. It was a warm spring day, and as I walked up the drive, I saw a man sitting on the front steps of the chapel. He was smoking a cigarette and reading a book. I interrupted his reading to tell him what I had come for — I would like to make inquiries about becoming a Franciscan. His name was Fr. Ambrose Haran, OFM, and he gave me directions to the classroom building, pointing it out with his cigarette, where I was to ask for one Fr. Benjamin Kuhn, OFM.
As he gave me the directions, I was able to read the title of the book he was reading: “How to Stop Smoking” – another indication that I might be able to fit my own humanity into that of these friars.
Fr. Ben, impressive in his girth and warmth, gave me the address of the seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., where I might apply and pressed on me a copy of “The Little Flowers of St. Francis.” Somehow the book did not scare me off, although I probably absorbed some impressions of St. Francis that required some realignment later on; and I applied to the seminary for admission. After an interminable wait, it seemed to me, Fr. Cassian Kirk, OFM, sent me a letter of acceptance and I was on my way, in September of 1951, to an interesting and enjoyable life, as a Friar Minor.
The aloneness (different from loneliness) that is often part of farm life, the enjoyment found in open fields and cloistered woods, fitted me for the quiet and contemplative side of St. Francis which has attracted me and so many others to become friars. The training that I received at a teachers college prepared me for the ministry of teaching which the province gave me after my ordination on the Feast of St. Mark, 1959.
The first assignment was to Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, to teach Spanish. Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean, N.Y., was getting started. I spent eight years there teaching Spanish before being sent on to teach Spanish, French and German at the Callicoon seminary where I had started out. After three years there, the Province asked me to be the director of novices at a new novitiate in Brookline, Mass. That was an experience that required a continual examination of the spirit of St. Francis and an examination of the validity of one’s own vocation as a friar in the present society.
That led to some years of living among the poor and the homeless, to soup kitchen work, in Philadelphia and New York City, to a year in a hermitage in Italy, and then to a realization that evangelization, the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus, is the important task for these days.
At present I am living in Hialeah, Fla., working in a diocesan parish, with Fr. Marty Bednar, OFM, another friar, and two diocesan priests. Our ministry is principally in Spanish. My own ministry, other than that of the parish, is to evangelize among the Spanish-speaking.
To do that, there is a Wednesday night meeting of preaching and music to appeal to the unchurched and those alienated from the sacramental life of the church. There is also an effort to reach these same people by radio and television.
The hope is that the province will also open a house in Miami or in Hialeah, that we will develop a media ministry, and that we will attract vocations to the province. I am sure there are still people who will be attracted, as I was, each one in a different and perhaps unique way, to the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi.
— This essay was written in 2001 when Fr. Rod was ministering to spanish-speaking community in Hialeah, Florida. It later appeared in the December 2001 issue of The Anthonian magazine.