Angel Vazquez Completes Internship Year at SBU in Preparation for Solemn Profession

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This article profiles one of two Holy Name Province members scheduled to profess their solemn vows in August. Angel Vazquez, OFM, and Jay Woods, OFM, are spending the month of July on retreat at Mt. Irenaeus in Western New York.

Angel Vasquez, OFM (Photo from Provincial archives)

ALLEGANY, N.Y. – When he arrived at Siena College to begin his undergraduate studies, Angel Vazquez, OFM, had a one-size-fits-all view of professed religious – the stern image of the Sisters of Mercy, who taught at his Catholic grammar school, and the Christian Brothers at Monsignor Farrell High School, both on his native Staten Island. As if coming from big-city New York to upstate suburban Loudonville wasn’t enough culture shock, it took all of five minutes on the Siena campus to shatter this notion.

“I thought all religious were like the ones I grew up with – disciplinarians, by the book, here’s the work, get it done. Then I see this friar rollerblading around campus, greeting students, and waving to everyone. It was mind-blowing,” Angel recalled during a phone interview from St. Bonaventure University, where he recently completed the one-year internship traditionally done by in preparation of their solemn profession. “It turned out he wasn’t just any friar – he was the college president! The young-me-image of what I thought religious looked like, and what they were supposed to be, was gone in a moment. It was eye-opening and refreshing, to say the least.”

Angel Vasquez renews his simple vows at a ceremony in April at St. Bonaventure. (Photo courtesy of Ross Chamberland)

Although he didn’t know it at the time, his introduction to the Franciscans – from the rollerblading antics of Kevin Mackin, OFM, to the welcoming and inclusive teaching style of academic friars who showed that learning wasn’t just about knowledge, but applying it to real-life – triggered his interest in the religious vocation that would be 14 years in the making.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science with a minor in philosophy, Angel stayed at Siena for five years as a recruiter in the college admissions office. Upon receiving a master’s degree in counseling from Sage University, he carved a career path as a student counselor in public schools in Florida – where his mother, a visiting nurse, and father, a retired IT professional, had relocated.

It was his work as a volunteer with youth ministry programs at local churches that resurrected Angel’s thoughts about a religious vocation. The possibility of joining Holy Name Province crossed his mind, although he had lost all contact with friars after leaving the Siena job. He contacted his former philosophy professor, Julian Davies, OFM, who 10 years earlier told Angel that he believed he had a calling to a religious vocation, but that he wasn’t ready for it straight out of college.

“Julian was right. Had I entered novitiate after graduation, I probably wouldn’t have made it,” said Angel, who is expected to profess his final vows as a Franciscan friar next month at a special Mass at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church in Hartford, Connecticut.

Clippers, Scissors & Sculpting Gel
Ironically, Angel’s ministry during three years in post-novitiate formation – and his yearlong internship at St. Bonaventure University in preparation of solemn profession – has been much like the unconventional nature of friars that changed his perception of religious life and eventually pulled him toward his Franciscan vocation.

Angel is a licensed barber. The tools of his ministry are electric clippers, scissors, combs, shears, and sculpting gel – along with scripture and sage advice.

“When someone is in the barber’s chair, it’s an opportunity for relationship building, conversation, and counseling,” said Angel, who entered the postulancy in 2014 at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Angel Vasquez at his barbershop at SBU. (Photo courtesy of Danny Bush)

A year later, he went to the Franciscan Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wisconsin, where on Aug. 2, 2016, he professed his first vows as a friar. That same year, he entered the interprovincial post-novitiate program at St. Joseph Friary in Chicago.

“Although I loved the cows and cornfields of Wisconsin, it was nice to be back in a big-city environment with language diversity, public transportation, and endless culinary options,” Angel said.

He also found diversity at the post-novitiate friary life-giving and encouraging. “Being with novices from other provinces provided a real sense of what it means to be Franciscan. It was a wonderful experience not only growing in Franciscan identity but also providing a glimpse into what it will be like when the provinces are united,” said Angel.

“In each phase of formation, I thought one of the coolest things was the vastly different environments and diversity of the brothers – all of which helped me develop as an individual and as a friar. Being around friars who come from all walks of life and different places around the world has helped me see things differently. It has been a blessing to experience distinct styles of leadership and approaches to ministries,” he continued.

“As a counselor, the more tools you have, the better counseling you can offer. As a friar, the more you are surrounded by diversity, the better prepared you are to respond to the diversity of our environments and the people we serve,” he added.

Ministering to Young People and the Poor
Since he chose not to follow the ordination track, Angel earned a certificate in pastoral ministry from Catholic Theological Union. During his academic year, he worked with Joseph Rozansky, OFM, co-director of OFM interprovincial post-novitiate formation and president of the International Board of Directors of Franciscans International. When it came time to discern a potential ministerial path, he knew exactly the direction he wanted to go.

“Working with young people and the poor, that was my passion,” said Angel. But he didn’t go about it in a conventional way. He wanted to be a Franciscan barber. “I likened it to Jesus in service to his apostles, particularly when he became their servant and washed their feet,” he said.

Already in his mid-30s, Angel began attending barber’s training school part-time because he still had his ministerial responsibilities at the friary. His classmates were all younger, mostly freshly-minted college graduates or in their mid-to-late-20s. He was always transparent about his religious vocation – “but not in a preaching sort of way,” he says. His fellow students would always ask him why a friar – and a person with his education and background – would want to cut hair. The real question was, why not?

Angel Vasquez cutting hair in his barbershop at SBU. (Photo courtesy of Danny Bush)

His education, experience as a student counselor, and ministerial pursuits are precisely what inspired Angel to think outside the box. The connection between pastoral ministry and barbering couldn’t be more apparent. While he was in the barber training school, he would make arrangements to provide haircuts to children and the elderly in poor local neighborhoods – often asking his classmates to volunteer with him. Although he didn’t push religion on them, his subtle evangelization of Franciscan values rubbed off on them.

“I was always amazed at their willingness to share their time and talent without being compensated. They always answered my call,” he said.

After obtaining his barber’s license in early 2019, he landed a job at a barbershop on the north side of Chicago. While other friar novices were spending summers at soup kitchens and outreach services around the country, he continued working at the barbershop, becoming the first brother in formation to generate income for the friary. “It showed me another aspect of community and fraternity – how we, as friars, take care of one another and work for each other,” he said.

Inner Goodness
For Angel, barbering isn’t only about people looking good on the outside and feeling good about themselves aesthetically, it’s also about the opportunity to help people find their inner goodness, personal growth, and – if you’re a friar who’s giving the haircut – a closer relationship with God.

“It’s an awesome responsibility when someone has that much trust and respect to place their personal grooming in your hands. But it’s also an opportunity to use the connection to help young people develop into better adults,” said Angel.

“It’s a very one-to-one experience – just the barber and the person sitting in the chair. The recipient of the cut has several options – they can just sit and reflect, engage in conversation, or simply vent and use the barber as a sounding board. You have to take their lead,” he added

The US-6 OFM friars making their solemn vows this year during their month-long stay at Mt. Irenaeus are (l-r) Angel Vasquez; Eric Seguin, of  St. John the Baptist Province; John Boissy, of SJB Province; Mark MacPherson of St. Barbara Province; and Jay Woods.  (Photo courtesy of Kevin Kriso)

This is a similar approach he used as a high school counselor, helping students reach their potential and watching them transform from insecure freshmen to confident seniors walking across the stage with bravado at graduation. As a youth minister, he helped young people increase faith awareness and what it means to be a responsible Catholic in a world of social media and high-speed Internet – empowering teenagers to develop the tools to make responsible choices.

During Angel’s formation years, he admittedly missed working with young people in an academic setting – which made his internship assignment at St. Bonaventure University all the more intriguing. Since this internship was radically different, there was no Province handbook on how to open a campus barbershop ministry.

When he arrived on the SBU campus in August 2019, Angel was on his own. His barbershop ministry was a blank canvas. He had to craft a description, devise a schedule, integrate the ministry with the campus community, find a location, and set up the entire operation.

“I learned a lot about myself – that I was self-motivated and self-sufficient. I had to be resourceful and creative,” he said. A little luck was involved, too, when he stumbled upon an unused closet during his campus search. It was the perfect setting for conversion into a one-chair barbershop. Angel was open for business.

Looking in the Mirror for God’s Love
During the 2019-20 school year, Angel provided haircuts, counseling, and advice – all free of charge, which he says was “right up the alley of cash-strapped, budget-conscious college students.” He gave 11 to 13 haircuts a day during typical barbershop hours from Tuesday to Saturday. His regulars were mostly SBU students, but they also included a number of staff members and campus employees.

Respecting the time-honored unwritten code of the trade – what’s discussed in the barber’s chair stays in the barbershop – Angel said conversations ranged from incompatible roommates, unfair professors and relationship break-ups, to exam overload, dorm cooking, first dates and keg parties.

An unused closed at SBU was converted into a one-chair barbershop by campus resident barber Angel  Vasquez. (Photo courtesy of Danny Bush)

Although space was tight, students would drop by just to shoot the breeze about a movie or sporting event, or a family issue or academic dilemma – validating Angel’s contention that his barber’s chair serves as more than just a vehicle for haircuts. Like the friars that influenced his life, he was showing young people that a friar doesn’t have to be a priest preaching from the pulpit or filling their pre-conceived mold.

“I use the simple act of a haircut to build relationships and mirror God’s love – helping people to see God and goodness in themselves while they are looking at their reflections in a mirror for 20 or 30 minutes,” he said.

When the coronavirus outbreak shut down St. Bonaventure in March, it put Angel and his barbershop out of business. He quickly switched gears, volunteering at The Warming House – the soup kitchen run by SBU students in the nearby town of Olean.

“They converted from restaurant-style service to grab-and-go meals for 60 people a day, up from the normal 15 to 20,” said Angel, who washed pots, pans, dishes, and utensils used in the cooking, preparation and packaging process.

Internship Year Seals the Deal
Fraternity and communal life have been extremely important in the friary during the pandemic, says Angel, because “we can’t get through this without each other’s support. It has made me realize that’s what being a Franciscan is about, sharing life together – the complaints, difficulties, and joys.”

Angel Vasquez used his barbershop ministry to provide advice , counsel and a listening ear to his clients.(Photo courtesy of Danny Bush)

Despite the health crisis, Angel says the experiences of his internship year have solidified that his calling unequivocally is a religious vocation with Holy Name Province.

“It has been very reassuring and reaffirming. Even when everyone scattered and left the campus eerily silent, I knew this is where I needed to be because of the bonds developed with my brothers in the friary,” said Angel, who was attracted to the Province because of the strong sense of fraternal community. “Being cooped up in the house for four months and still enjoying life with my brothers has shown me that I am ready to say ‘yes’ to this fraternity.”

When Angel professes his final vows, his parents and other family members and friends will attend the Mass to witness and celebrate the special moment. After solemn profession, Angel plans to remain at SBU as a resident minister and campus barber, giving him the opportunity to continue what was abruptly cut short by the pandemic.

The way people react when they find out you are a Franciscan, says Angel, is very nourishing and life-giving. “It’s encouraging to see how people, whether or not they are Catholic, are open to embracing friars. It tells me this is needed – what we do as Franciscans, spreading God’s glory and bringing people back to God,” said Angel.

“Whether it’s a student hitting a rough patch, or someone on the street in a dark place, people embrace the notion that someone is doing this for them to help strengthen their relationship with God,” he added.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.