ESC Update: California Friars Cope with Fires, Other News

Maria Hayes Franciscan World

A recent view of the novitiate cloister in Santa Barbara, Calif., and the nearby Thomas fire. (Image courtesy of the Franciscan Interprovincial Novitiate)

The following updates summarize news from the English-speaking Conference of the Order of Friars Minor, comprised of provinces and custodies from Canada, England, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, and the United States. Follow the ESC on Facebook and Twitter  for up-to-date information throughout the month.

The fires in southern California continue to burn, and it appears as though the novices may not return to the Santa Barbara novitiate in time for Christmas.

The Thomas Fire, which has been burning in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since Dec. 4 and is one of the largest fires in California’s history, has destroyed 272,000 acres. As of Dec. 20, it is 60 percent contained. The fire came within 10 miles of Old Mission Santa Barbara, prompting the evacuation of the novitiate community there – once on Dec. 7, and again on Dec. 10.

“The first time we were told to evacuate the mission, we spent two nights at San Lorenzo, the Capuchin novitiate in Santa Ynez, returning to the mission on Dec. 8,” said novitiate team member Michael Blastic, OFM. “We were forced to leave again two days later.”

The novitiate community would like everyone to know that the friars and novices are fine. They have been staying with the friars at St. Francis Retreat in San Juan Bautista, four hours north of Santa Barbara, and are grateful for their hospitality.

Much of the west side of Santa Barbara, which borders the mission, has been under mandatory evacuation. Smoke and ash are heavy in the air, creating hazardous breathing conditions and bringing air pollution levels to record highs.

“It looks like we just might be celebrating Christmas in Santa Ynez,” said Michael. “We are trying to deal with our displacement as best we can. We each left with only a suitcase of the essentials. I guess this is a blessing in disguise because we are actually experiencing in a small way what letting go and what itinerancy feel like.

“Advent has taken on a whole new feel for us,” he added. “We wait and listen, and hope in an unknown future, but with the assurance of God’s care manifested daily in the generosity, care and fraternal welcome of our brothers in St. Barbara Province. We feel the support of your prayers and wishes for us as well. For all of this, we are grateful.”

Some of the Old Mission Santa Barbara friars chose to don facemasks and join residents of the city who stayed in the area to wait out the Thomas Fire. Others went to stay with the Capuchins at the novitiate in Santa Ynez, roughly 30 miles from their home. Some of the Capuchin novices who are studying at the University of California, Santa Barbara sacrificed studying for finals in order to volunteer at the Red Cross shelter on campus.

Several of the St. Barbara friars in residence at the mission went to stay with the Capuchins at the novitiate in San Lorenzo.

Farther north, the Lilac Fire, which originated in San Diego County on Dec. 7, forced the friar community at Old Mission San Luis Rey to temporarily evacuate and spend a “chilly, noisy night” in the gymnasium at Oceanside High School with other evacuees, according to OFM FYI, St. Barbara Province’s newsletter.

“I was the first of the friars to arrive at the shelter,” reported Juan-José Jauregui, OFM. “They gave me a form, and at the top of the form, they ask you to put down your family name and then to list the names of your family members below. I looked at the form and said, ‘This is not big enough.’ The person handling things said, ‘Why not? How many family members do you have?’ ‘28,’ I answered.”

The friars were able to return to the mission the next day.

For more updates regarding the Franciscans in California, connect with the Interprovincial Novitiate and St. Barbara Province on Facebook.

In other news from the English-speaking Conference:

  • St. John the Baptist Province, which has served the homeless in Cincinnati for at least 170 years, opened St. Anthony Center, this month. The new space houses seven non-profits that care for the homeless. At the center, guests will be able to find — in one location — health care, meals, haircuts, access to social workers, and other basic necessities, as well as a 250-seat dining room for a soup kitchen. The space was previously used for shipping and inventory for Franciscan Media, which publishes St. Anthony Messenger magazine as well as books and other media.
  • is running a series on the history of St. Leonard Parish, staffed by Immaculate Conception Province, which was founded by the Franciscan friars in 1874. The rededication of the church, following an extensive renovation, took place on Dec. 17. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., archbishop of Boston, served as principal celebrant.
  • Michael Calabria, OFM, and Fr. Michael Cusato, OFM, were mentioned in a Catholic Courier article regarding the Franciscans’ involvement in the creation of “The Sultan and the Saint,” a documentary about the encounter in 1219 between St. Francis of Assisi and Malek al-Kamil, sultan of Egypt. The documentary will air nationally on Dec. 26 on PBS.
  • Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio, raised $14,700 in cash in 20 minutes during its annual Coin Wars competition for charity, reports Around the Province, the newsletter of Sacred Heart Province. High school students and staff members donated 100 percent of the proceeds to charities including Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, local food pantries, and other causes.

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.

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