This is the second in a series of profiles about friars commemorating major anniversaries of profession this year. The 2014 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored by the Province later this year. The previous issue of HNP Today featured John Anglin, OFM.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — One of the more unusual specialties in the Province belongs to Brice Leavins, OFM, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary of profession this summer. Dedicated to being a parish priest for the first 20 years of his religious life, since the 1990s he has also been hearing annulment cases for the tribunals of two New England dioceses.
The administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish spends part of his week as a collegiate judge on the diocesan tribunals of Providence and Worcester, Mass., ruling on marriage annulment cases.
“I don’t have a degree in canon law, but I have a certificate in marriage law from Catholic University,” he said, describing himself as one of the few non-lawyers in the Province who does this type of work.
He first got involved with marriage law while serving at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, from 1990 to 2003. In this role, Brice saw one of his annulment cases amended and rejected. “The man came to see me and said it made no sense to be rejected.” Brice agreed and mentioned the case to a tribunal judge he knew, who said to him: “Would you like to be part of the solution? Why be an advocate? Be a judge.” So Brice spent several summers at The Catholic University of America studying marriage law and later joined the tribunal.
His interest in marriage has earlier roots — he wrote his master’s degree thesis on second marriages. “My first assignment after being ordained was with St. Mary Parish in Pompton Lakes, N.J.,” he said. “So many people were in second marriages. When I had to write a thesis for my master’s degree in theology, I chose to write about why the Church should allow second marriages.”
“First, I wrote that God would say, ‘yes.’ Second, not recognizing them wasn’t Church teaching from the beginning. Roman law had changed the Church’s thinking on second marriages.”
As someone close to the issue of annulment, Brice is hopeful that Pope Francis will begin to modify the process and encourage judges to take a more common sense approach.
Brice knew he wanted to join religious life from an early age – as an 8th grader. “I’m a lifer,” he said with a smile. He grew up around the friars, as a student attending St. Bonaventure Church and School in Paterson, N.J.
“We grew up seeing the friars all the time. We used to sneak under the wall after school and watch them play volleyball,” he said. “Watching them play ball with their habits on and the rosaries getting caught would make us laugh our heads off.”
In ninth grade, he headed for rural Sullivan County, N.Y., to St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon. He was received into the Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., in 1963 and professed his first vows there the following year.
He continued his education at the Province’s house of philosophy, St. Francis College, in Rye Beach, N.H., earning a B.A. degree from St. Bonaventure University in 1966. The friar obtained a master’s degree in theology from the former Augustinian College, which became part of the Washington Theological Union in 1970.
Following his ordination in 1969, he became assistant pastor to St. Mary’s, where he stayed until 1973. He served as the Province’s vocation director until 1976, working out of Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, N.Y., and then became pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Hewitt, N.J., serving from 1976 to 1982. From 1982 to 1985, he ministered at St. Anne Church in Fair Lawn, N.J., and afterwards served as pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Butler, N.J., until 1990, when he was assigned to Boston. He ministered as an associate at St. Francis Chapel in Providence until 2003. Since then, he’s been the administrator of Our Lady of Lourdes, where he helps run the Bread and Blessings breadline.
His weeks are quite busy. Tuesday is spent in Worcester on the tribunal, Wednesday he is with the Providence tribunal, Thursday he’s on the breadline, Friday back on the Providence tribunal, and on the weekends, Brice presides at liturgies in the parish. He usually rules on six to eight annulment cases a month. Since the parish is comprised mainly of older members, he often has hospital and nursing home visits to make.
One of his biggest joys is his work with Bread and Blessings, a three-morning-a-week food program managed by 60 volunteers in partnership with the local congregational church. On Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, from 6 to 7:30 a.m., the breadline serves as many as 250 guests a week. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays are prepping days, when the group assembles 500 sandwiches to go two-in-a-bag with raisins, pastries and other goodies. Brice makes the coffee and hot chocolate, beginning at 5 a.m.
Though the program is housed at the congregational church, the Province donated the refrigerators and much of the equipment. The program is well funded by parishioners and people who remember Brice from his time at the chapel, which allows him to buy large quantities of fresh cold cuts from a well-known Italian deli in the city.
A Busy Schedule
In his spare time, he likes to play golf and work out at a gym, and he calls himself a good cook. He gives credit for his cooking skill to John Felice, OFM, who taught him well while living at HNP’s house of studies at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., and to Matthew Pravetz, OFM, while at Queen of Peace. “If you can read a cookbook, you can cook,” he said, recalling his time in Boston when he did the cooking for all the friars. He also enjoys visiting his two siblings, who live in New Jersey, as well as his five nieces and nephews.
Brice said the best part of being in Holy Name Province is the work it does for those in need. “I’m impressed with the work we do, especially with the poor. I’m proud of that. That’s what Franciscans should be doing and what separates us from others … we stand with the poor.”
He would like to be remembered as “someone who tried to live as Francis asked me to: ‘to keep your words short and to be known mostly by your actions.’ I consider myself lucky to be a friar.”
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jubilarians who will be featured in upcoming installments of this series include Richard Mucowski, OFM, and Emeric Szlezak, OFM.