St. Anthony Friary with the new addition, at right. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

Butler Friary Unveils New Safety and Comfort Upgrades

Jocelyn Thomas Friar News

BUTLER, N.J. – The 116-year-old St. Anthony Friary in northern New Jersey – home to nearly 30 friars, most of them senior members of Holy Name Province – has received much-needed aesthetic and functional upgrades to enhance the safety and comfort of friars, including a modern elevator, fireproof staircase, and exterior observation decks on each of the five residential floors with spectacular vistas of the Ramapo Mountains.

The upgrades were completed on the building in March after months of planning and more than a year of construction that was delayed when several of the employees of the contracting firm were affected by COVID-19.

The new elevator, the centerpiece of the renovation upgrade, accommodates as many as 15 occupants at a time and, most important, it has the capacity for a full-size EMS stretcher in the event of medical emergencies among residents that require transport to a local hospital. The existing elevator car is so small that during the pandemic, when six feet of distance has been recommended by health officials, only one friar at a time could board.

“The most important benefits of the renovation are that the elevator and enclosed fire stairway contribute to the safety and well-being of the friars. These improvements will make life in the friary safer and better suited to the needs of senior friars,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM.

The state-of-the-art elevator, which was designed as a through-car (a lift with doors on both sides), and the fireproof stairway are enclosed in a newly constructed tower that was added to the right side of the building, near the parking lot and across from the former St. Anthony’s School. Each floor of the tower has three inside doorways – one leading to the elevator, another to the new stairway, and a third to the outdoor decks. The new elevator extends through the building’s entire six stories, from the basement to the first floor – which houses the friary’s common areas – and to the four residential floors.

The stained glass windows in the new addition of the building.

The stained glass windows in the new addition. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

Improved Safety Coupled with Creative Design
The tower addition contains other features that enhance the beauty and maintain the historic nature of the building, considered a landmark in the community, according to Fred Dilger, OFM, chair of the HNP Properties Committee, who was a professional interior designer before joining the Franciscans.

“The new section of the building was constructed first and foremost with safety in mind. The new elevator is wonderful because it can fit a gurney and has the very useful feature of opening on two sides,” said Fred, a team member of St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and who has been a member of the Provincial Council for nearly eight years.

“But the new addition was also designed to appear as if it is part of the original building. We worked to marry the design to the existing building by using stone,” added Fred, who kept the project moving with frequent visits to Butler for on-site meetings with the construction team.

“An elevator is a practical enhancement necessary for the safety and ease of the friars, but the new tower and balconies go beyond the merely practical by brightening up each floor and adding healthy outdoor space for the enjoyment of the friars, “said Brian Belanger, OFM, a member of the HNP Properties Committee.

Patrick Fereday prepares furniture for the skydeck section of the  addition. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

He noted that the addition of an elevator tower to an older building doesn’t usually conjure thoughts of an aesthetically pleasing result. “But this new tower addition, with its steeple, transforms the exterior of the friary by creating a new focus – an uplift which unifies the entire Butler complex into one integrated and attractive whole by presenting a balanced counterpoint to the beauty of the tower of St. Anthony of Padua Church, adjacent to the friary, on the opposite side. The stonework is impeccably blended, and the tower reaches delicately upward from its strong base, with outdoor decks wrapping along the back, giving the friary a friendly and inviting exterior,” said Brian, who visited from Loudonville, New York, where he is director of the center for international programs at Siena College.

The stairwell alongside the elevator, graced with stained-glass windows from the parish house chapel, leads to a top-level with beautifully exposed vaults. At the end of each floor is a spacious deck — with all but one covered to protect against inclement weather — that provides friars with an outdoor area for relaxing, reading and praying, and socializing with visitors. All of the decks have a protective fence and are furnished with patio-type chairs and tables.

“The large and airy landings at the end of each hallway brighten up the whole interior, and with the addition of the very spacious decks, friars now have easy access to the outdoors. The views from these decks are spectacular. As we approach summer, it is not hard to imagine comfortable outdoor seating and potted plants – perfect space for conversation, reading a good book, or just enjoying a warm breeze and maybe even a barbecue,” said Brian.

Other safety features of the addition have not gone unnoticed by the friary’s residents. “Because of its automatic doors, this new tower is going to be a big help to friars who use walkers,” said Bernie Creighton, OFM, who has lived at St. Anthony’s since 1994 and serves as a vicar.

Construction of the new addition. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

Team Effort for Overdue Upgrades
Both the current and former guardian, and a former provincial minister, weighed in on these long-time coming upgrades – which Fred said were a topic of discussion as far back as a decade ago, about the time that the recreation room was renovated into a larger space. Upgrades to the elevator and stairways never quite made the cut when friars’ rooms were renovated with private bathrooms.

“We had talked about the need for a new and larger elevator based on the age of the old elevator and, more importantly, because it couldn’t accommodate a standard stretcher,” said John O’Connor, OFM, who served as provincial from 2005 to 2014.

“When a friar had to be taken to a hospital, the ambulance folks had to use a smaller ‘stair stretcher’ – not ideal in the transport of a seriously ill person,” added John, now pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Virginia, where he has also been long-involved in emergency services as a certified firefighter and lead chaplain/battalion chief of the Prince William County Department of Fire & Rescue.

“I was always worried when we needed to transport an ill friar in a medical emergency. This new design is going to be wonderful for residents and staff members, said Robert Frazzetta, OFM, who served as guardian of St. Anthony Friary from 2014 until summer 2020, when he was assigned to the Interprovincial Post-Novitiate Formation House in Chicago, Illinois.

“Our friar residents are pleased with the renovations – especially the added safety and modernization that they bring this historic building. They are also looking forward to using the outdoor decks, a wonderful bonus of this project,” said Christopher Van Haight, OFM, the friary guardian who began his assignment last September in the middle of construction.

Many friars have had a hand in the project, including Patrick Fereday, OFM – director of maintenance at both the friary and St. Anthony Parish next door who has been the project manager overseeing the day-to-day work – and Peter Ahlheim, OFM, a resident known for his artistry and gardening skills around the complex who used his artistic talents to put an important finishing touch on the addition.

Peter incorporated large, easy-to-read numbers in the new stairway on each of the floors – with each number two-and-a-half feet high and painted in a deep, bold red color so that residents will immediately know their location when they exit the staircase.

Patrick said that while “the observation decks on each floor are great,” there is also comfort in knowing that “the building now has a fireproof stairway” to replace the one that had become unsafe with age.

The addition was designed by architect Tony Huggins, who designed the renovation of the kitchen at the Province’s retirement friary in St. Petersburg, Florida. KV Builders LLC, the contracting firm that implemented previous renovations at the Butler friary, performed all of the construction work.

The new addition as it neared completion. (Photo courtesy of Paul Chelus)

Friary’s Long History
St. Anthony Friary, which is less than a mile from the heavily-traveled Route 23, has a long history in the community. It began as a formation-educational house and evolved through the years to serve in other capacities.

“In 1878, friars began traveling from Paterson to Butler to minister on weekends to the Catholic community, which prompted construction of a small frame church,” said historian Dominic Monti, OFM.

“Richard Butler, who owned a factory along the Pequannock River – and who the town is named after – donated the Butler property to the friars in 1892,” added Dominic, who said that a young Holy Name Province started to attract more vocations and began thinking about building a residence that would eventually serve as a house of studies.

The plan for an educational institution for theological students in Butler was born in 1906, according to archivist Thomas Cole, OFM.

The late Francis Koch, OFM, was given the task of raising funds and building a new monastery, as it was then called. The building was designed by architect Thomas Duff of New York, who also designed St. Malachy’s Church in Manhattan.

The building opened in 1914 with only the first two floors completed because of a lack of funds, according to Dominic. In 1917, the church was enlarged with a new sanctuary and sacristy, connecting it to the friary. In the early 1920s, the rest of the interior was completed, enabling the Province to provide a home for young friars in formation during their second year of philosophy studies. Philosophy studies for second-year students continued there until 1953 when the program was moved to Rye Beach, New Hampshire. At that time, due to a large number of vocations, first-year theology students studied at Butler. But that program, too, was eventually moved in 1957. In the mid-to-late-1960s and until 1979, the Butler friary was headquarters to Friar magazine and home to friars associated with the publication. It also was a residence for friars engaged in the Ministry of the Word. It became a Province retirement house in the 1970s.

The friary’s addition includes a time capsule, where items related to the current era will be stored so that friars of the future will be able to get a sense of life today.

— Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.