NEW YORK — Benedict Taylor, OFM, 88, a professed Franciscan friar for 66 years and a priest for 60, died on Jan. 8 at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, New York.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated – and broadcast via live stream – at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 12 at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street in New York City. Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, presided, and Christopher Keenan, OFM, delivered the homily. Burial took place at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.
Benedict spent most of his religious life helping the marginalized in New York City, mainly through Create, Inc., an organization that he co-founded in the early 1970s.
“He was an authentic ‘friar minor,'” said Kevin. “St. Francis chose this designation for himself and his brothers because he wanted us always to be one with the ‘little ones’ in society – the people that live on the margins of ‘polite society.’ He challenged his brothers and himself to live with and advocate for those who have no power, no wealth, and no influence. Ben Taylor understood what St. Francis wanted and he lived his vocation as a ‘friar minor’ in a remarkable way.
“Ben loved Holy Name Province and he was loved by his brothers,” Kevin continued. “He showed us how to live the Gospel and he also helped us confront the systemic racism that was part of our Province and our Church. He never rejected us; rather, he loved us and encouraged us to change. Ben Taylor made each member of our Province a better friar for having known him.”
Benedict was born on Dec. 13, 1932 – the youngest of seven children of George and Evangeline (née Byrd) Taylor in Jersey City, New Jersey. He attended St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, at the time the school’s only Black student. In August 1953, he was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Bonaventure Church in Paterson, New Jersey. He professed his first vows there one year later, on Aug. 13, 1954.
Ben earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University and studied at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, as well as at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C. He professed his final vows as a Franciscan on Aug. 20, 1957 at Christ the King Seminary in Allegany, New York, before Provincial Minister Celsus Wheeler, OFM. On March 12, 1960, he was ordained to the priesthood at Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., by Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi. He held the distinction of being the 10th African American ordained to the priesthood in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.
After ordination, Ben was assigned to St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, where he completed a year of pastoral theology training.
From 1961 until 1967, Ben was stationed at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in New York, where he became familiar with the city’s culture and needs. During that time, while serving as a spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscan Order, he met Martin Luther King Jr. at an event where King was presented with the St. Francis Peace Medal. A conversation with King about civil rights strengthened Ben’s interest in helping and working with the Black community. Last year, at a commemoration of Martin Luther King Day at Holy Name of Jesus Church, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ben spoke about how King inspired his ministry.
In 1967, Ben moved to Harlem with several other friars to establish a Franciscan community to serve the poor and address justice and peace issues. Several years later, he and Ralph Perez, a former employee of St. Francis of Assisi Church, founded Project CREATE – now called Create, Inc. – the acronym for Chance to Re-Evolve a Total Environment. The ministry’s goal was to provide help to individuals and families at all stages in life – from young adults to seniors – who were facing addiction, homelessness, hunger and unemployment.
Create “promotes the physical, psychological, social and spiritual well-being of people through the provision of sensitive, caring services that empower the community,” according to its website. The program that began in a storefront in 1972 evolved over the next half century to offer vocational counseling, transitional housing for young adults, substance abuse treatment, supportive housing for families, and a food pantry supported in part by Holy Name Province’s Benevolence Fund.
“Ben saw the fractures in people’s lives caused by drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, and domestic violence,” said Kevin. “He did not select one of these issues to address; rather, he established multiple programs to address all these needs. He saw the real world that his sisters and brothers inhabited and he went out with all his strength to transform it relying on God’s grace and the support of others who shared his vision.”
This video, produced by Katherine Perez, an alumnus of the College of Mount St. Vincent, was completed the day before Ben died.
Throughout his life, Ben was honored by state, city and religious organizations for his work on behalf of the poor. In 1979, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of sacred theology from Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
The New York Times frequently featured Ben’s work at Create in its Neediest Cases series, including an article published in December 2017 titled “In Harlem, a Shelter That Gives Young Men the Tools to Succeed.”
In his later years, Ben served as a consultant for Create’s vast network of social service programs. After living for many years in Harlem, Ben moved in 2017 to the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx where he resided with friars from the Province and served as chaplain to the college.
Benedict is survived by a step-sister, Myrna Pinkney of Plainfield, New Jersey, a sister-in-law, Florence Taylor of California, and eight nieces and seven nephews.
Memorial donations may be sent to Franciscan Friars – Holy Name Province, 144 West 32nd Street, New York, NY 10001-3202.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
Editor’s note: Two long-time associates of Benedict contributed reflections to HNP Today’s Franciscan Influences series that describe their connection to and respect for Ben and the Franciscans – Ralph Perez in 2011 and Stephanie Ali in 2014.
- “Create Opens New Facility with Ribbon Cutting” – Oct. 17, 2018, HNP Today
- “CREATE Ministry Part of the Harlem Renaissance Story” – Feb. 6, 2018, HNP Today
- Franciscan Journey of Benedict Taylor – HNP.org website