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Butler Friary’s New Residents Adapt to Life in North Jersey

BUTLER. N.J. — St. Anthony Friary welcomed two new residents earlier this year — friars whose religious lives were spent far from the northern New Jersey suburbs. Bede Fitzpatrick, OFM, retired after 55 years as a missionary in Japan, and Robert Struzynski, OFM, retired after more than 50 years of ministry — including teaching, prison outreach, and retreat work — in places such as Jamaica, Philadelphia, and Western New York.

Both men chose to retire to Butler last summer, although neither seems particularly “retired.” At 91, Bede said he plans to live the contemplative life, and Bob, 78, said he gears his life toward prayer, study and writing.

Bede, who is living in the United States for the first time in half a century, said he is transitioning well, though he is frustrated by having to go to five different doctors rather than the one Franciscan health clinic that cared for him in Japan. He said he chose the Province’s northern retirement house, rather than moving to St. Petersburg, because his brother in Upstate New York said Florida was “too far away to see each other often.”

Bob is also making a smooth transition, but misses the vast outdoors of his former residence at the scenic Mt. Irenaeus, the Franciscan Mountain Retreat in rural West Clarksville, N.Y. He said he is finding new things to do in his retirement. He takes a daily walk on a local track or nature trail, but he finds the surroundings are different from the walks in the woods he took at Mt. Irenaeus.

Finding Joy in Contemplation
Bede, too, finds time for an afternoon stroll, mostly on the sidewalks around the friary, using a hiking stick because of arthritis.

“The best thing about moving to Butler,” Bede said, “was that it was time for me to give up the active life.” The physical demands of his ministry in Tokyo had become difficult. “Here, I’m flexible and have time for prayer and can do what I like.” Bede said he took his cue to retire from Pope Benedict XVI, who left the Vatican earlier this year. “He said, ‘I can no longer be active, but I can be contemplative.’”

The Ellicottville, N.Y., native, one of seven children, spends his days reading, attending Mass, and praying in his new friary. He also enjoys getting to know the friars, many of whom he had not seen in years.

The Notre Dame University graduate grew up knowing the friars at school and church. After leaving college, he served overseas in World War II. He came home from the Navy to work in his father’s shoe last business, creating a mechanical form that has a shape similar to that of a human foot. In the late 1940s, he said he felt called by God to religious life and applied to the Franciscans. He was solemnly professed in 1954 and ordained one year later at the age of 32. “I was a new priest, but not so young,” he said, reminiscing about what he calls his “late vocation.”

A Desire for Missionary Work
After brief assignments as a parish priest and assistant pastor in Winsted, Conn., and Little Falls, N.J., Bede began studying Japanese because he wanted to be a missionary. He said he became a Franciscan to follow in St. Francis’s footsteps with missionary work.

“At the time, there were three choices for missionaries: Brazil, Bolivia and Japan. After I spent years at sea fighting the Japanese and being in the Pacific, I thought I would go to Japan,” he said.

Missionaries who had been thrown out of China by the Communists started the mission in Japan in the early 1950s, according to Bede. In September 1958 he went to Japan, with his friend, Donnon Murray, OFM, who is still there.

He described a long and rich ministry during a time when Catholicism was growing. His work included serving as a mission superior, ministering as a priest at several parishes, serving as pastor of the foreign community cared for by the friars in Tokyo, when the Franciscan Chapel Center was built in 1967, and much more. His first assignment was an assistant to Ambrose Donehue, OFM, now at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

“The time went fast,” he recalled. Since 2008, Bede had mostly been hearing confessions and saying Sunday Mass in English. He also ministered to the Filipino Catholic community and attended their prayer meetings.

While Catholics today number 450,000 in Japan, Bede said it was hard to be a Catholic in a non-Christian country, mostly because people were very materialistic. Still, he said, he misses the people and hated to say goodbye.

“During my life in Japan, I was planting a seed in the hearts of the Japanese people,” he said.

One of the biggest transitions to Butler, he said, was getting used to heavier cuisine. In Japan, his diet consisted of fish, vegetables and rice. Now he goes for sushi with friary-mates Cassian Miles, OFM, and John Quinn, OFM.

He looks back on his life and thanks God for the many blessings. “The best thing about being a Franciscan is that they gave me my education and sent me to Japan. I’m thankful to God for giving me the vocation and letting me get to know the Japanese people. But it was time to retire.”

“Megumi de aru sei Maria,” he added, which means, “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

An Active Contemplative
Bob is also leading a contemplative life, while teaching and pursuing prison ministry, an area synonymous with his name. He recently submitted a course proposal to St. Francis of Assisi Parish on West 31st Street in New York City to teach adult education on the theology of prayer.

“I like to teach,” said the Notre Dame University graduate, who spent many years in theology classrooms at SBU. He also participated in the Cephas program and has ministered to prison inmates for more than 20 years. He is a founder of the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia, too.

Now, he said, he is pursuing a similar prison ministry program at a state penitentiary in northern New Jersey, where he will go once a month and participate in a yearly retreat.

“I’m not the main facilitator, but we sing hymns, have prayer and break into groups, and I’ll be part of these groups,” said Bob, adding that he’s ready for the challenge, after his 20 years with Cephas. He will explore questions with the inmates such as, “How have you seen Christ today?” and “How have you responded to Christ?”

One of his biggest transitions was going from living at Mt. Irenaeus with six friars, to the large Butler friary with more than 25 residents. “I’ve always lived in a small community, so that’s a big change. It’s a different lifestyle but the guys have been very friendly.

“Living out in the woods is one thing, and here is another, with the rapid traffic and highways,” he continued. “It’s quite a change. Living in a town is different than living in the woods.”

But, Bob said that his brothers have helped him find parks to take his daily walk and places to enjoy nature.

Living in the Moment
He uses this time of transition to be more prayerful and to “try to stay with a life, where you’re living out of the present moment as best as you can with an awareness of God in your life and God in all things.”

Bob added: “It’s not really that different from what St. Francis talked about. Desire above all things to have the spirit of the Lord and his holy activity and to pray always with a pure heart.”

He does silent prayer in the morning and evening, attends Mass, and reads theology books that he previously did not have time to read. He joined with a contemplative community at St. Mary’s Parish in nearby Pompton Lakes, N.J., and is enjoying spending one day a month with them. He is also managing his website, Meditate and Pray, which includes videos of Bob speaking about prayer and meditation, and articles about what prayer is and the Franciscan expression of silent prayer. Octavio Duran, OFM, designed the site.

A priest for more than 50 years, Bob said it has been a rewarding life, “a wonderful journey, first teaching at Bona’s, then starting the St. Francis Inn and soup kitchen with two other friars in Philadelphia.” He has also ministered in Jamaica, where he spent 10 years as pastor while serving the poor.

“It’s been a great journey and every time I think it’s coming to an end, something new comes up,” he said.

His hobbies include walking, reading, and seeing movies and plays, and he has been known to catch a fish or two. People know him as a friendly friar who is open to new relationships and opportunities.

Bob said he is grateful to Holy Name Province, mostly for its openness to new ministry and new lifestyles. “They allowed us to go to Philly and live out the original charism independently. We were allowed to be creative.”

He remains active liturgically, offering to hear confessions and say Mass at churches that need a helping hand.

“I still like to do this, but now, in a smaller way,” he said.

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today. The above image was provided by Octavio Duran, OFM.