When the Franciscan friars in San Juan, Puerto Rico, opened Niños de Nueva Esperanza (Children of New Hope) – a multi-faceted social service agency for children in the heart of a neighborhood faced with the urban challenges of poverty, illicit drugs, crime and food insecurity – they took over an abandoned chapel across the street and slowly grew the congregation drawn to the Franciscan presence.
“I could not help but think – how Francis-like are these brothers in Puerto Rico. When they opened the children’s center, they heard God calling them to rebuild His Church – and, just as Francis responded 800 years ago, the friars rebuilt and renovated this rundown and abandoned chapel that is now a presence of the Catholic Church. They are bringing hope and worship to this poor neighborhood,” said Kevin Mullen, OFM, Provincial Minister, who along with Lawrence Hayes, OFM, Provincial Vicar, and Joseph Cavoto, OFM, toured the children’s center and chapel during their first visit with the friars since the custodies of Puerto Rico and Cuba were transferred last summer to Holy Name Province from the Custody of the Caribbean.
The custody transfer remains in effect until October 2023, when the friars of Puerto Rico and Cuba, along with all friars of the US-6 provinces, will become part of the new United States province.
The March 1-4 visit was “purely fraternal,” according to Kevin, to meet the friars, see the fruits of their outreach and ministries, reinforce HNP’s support, and update them on the unification process and what the US-6 provinces are doing to shape the new singular province.
“After the time spent with the friars and witnessing their ministries – seeing how their sponsored ministry provides outreach to hundreds of families and children with basic services like reading and nutrition, and working with local health clinics and the public education system – I came away with one very important conclusion – that the brothers in Puerto Rico are fully Franciscan, animated by the spirit of St. Francis and St. Clare, and faithfully following their example of care and love for all brothers and sisters,” said Kevin.
He and Gerardo Antonio Vargas Cruz, OFM, who is serving as the fraternity’s provincial delegate for Puerto Rico, had originally planned the visit for some time in the spring, but it was moved up by several weeks to accommodate everyone’s schedules.
Lawrence, whose proficiency in Spanish made for easy two-way translation, shared the same enthusiastic assessment of the four-day visit. “The San Juan fraternity is an active, lively, joyful, prayerful and dedicated band of brothers. Their hospitality was outstanding and we are very grateful for the genuine welcome they extended to us. I think we achieved what we intended in this first visit – to launch a culture of fraternal encounter and support between the mainland and the brothers in the Caribbean,” he said.
On the first night of their arrival, the visitors were guests at a dinner hosted by Roberto Octavio González Nieves, OFM, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Juan and an HNP alumnus, and his secretary Alfonso Guzmán, OFM, an HNP friar who has been part of the San Juan fraternity for many years. Gerardo also works in the local archdiocese as vicar for clergy.
Earlier in the day, the visitors and their hosts celebrated Mass at St. Joseph the Worker Parish and, afterwards, gathered for a meeting during which Kevin updated the San Juan fraternity on HNP activities and progress of the unification process. But the trio of visitors also wanted to learn more about the brothers and their work in Puerto Rico, and how the Province and friars back on the mainland could assist them.
Kevin told the friars that their brothers in Holy Name Province would like to provide financial support to assist their pastoral projects. He also told them that he would encourage the brothers in ‘the North’ to consider visiting and possibly working alongside them to experience their realities. Equally, he invited the friars in Puerto Rico to help strengthen the Spanish-speaking skills of the HNP brothers on the mainland.
“When I asked them about their long-term planning, one friar responded: ‘I became a pastor and faced an earthquake. As we were recovering from the earthquake, we had to get through a hurricane, and then the pandemic and another hurricane. We go from crisis-to-crisis. We do the best we can in meeting the demands – and we do pretty good. Our long-term plan: just trying to make it through the day.’ It was a very honest and eye-opening assessment of what the friars in Puerto Rico have been up against in the last five or six years,” said Kevin.
Lawrence felt the sense that although the brothers in Puerto Rico are happily and gratefully tied to Holy Name Province, they are nonetheless lacking a lived experience of connectedness with the rest of the Province.
“They have a hunger for more connectedness with friars on the ‘mainland’ and would like to get to know all of the friars, and would like the friars to know them. Their attendance at the HNP Legacy Chapter and Chapter of Union later this year will be one step toward a greater integration,” explained Larry, who said the San Juan friars would also warmly welcome ‘mainland’ friars to visit, spend vacation time, and study Spanish with them – and to explore the possibility of serving in Puerto Rico.
There was a visit to St. Clare Friary, located across the street from the fraternity’s former high school that was forced to close permanently after the pandemic. But the friars continue to work in the church and maintain a presence in the community. In addition to sponsoring the children’s center and holding positions in the archdiocese, the friar fraternity in San Juan is engaged in parochial ministry in two metropolitan parishes, one in Sabana Seca and the other in Villa Fontana. They also minister to Poor Clares, and friars teach in a local seminary and hold jobs as social workers. One of the friars is a world-class baker who trained in Madrid as a chef. He delivers his handcrafted pastries, baked-goods and homemade ice cream, which he produces in a simple but professional kitchen, to local restaurants, with the revenue helping to support the fraternity.
Joe made the trip for the purpose of speaking to the San Juan fraternity about compliance issues and to understand where they were with compliance concerns, according to Kevin, who said Joe shared HNP’s policies ensuring the protection of minors and vulnerable adults. “We were pleased with the level of compliance training they possess. They will continue working with Joe to ensure that HNP standards are being met,” the provincial said.
Lawrence commented that it was deeply inspiring to see the desire of the friars to preserve the Franciscan charism in Puerto Rico. “Their dream and goal of an expanded Franciscan presence there makes promoting vocations one of their foremost priorities. They have already begun to work with the US-6 Vocation Office to establish links and discuss future joint ventures to develop new vocations in Puerto Rico,” he said.
In a March 4 letter to the provincial minister, Gerardo offered generous gratitude on behalf of the San Juan fraternity. “I am writing to you with deep appreciation for your recent visit to the friars of Puerto Rico. It was an honor for our fraternity to welcome and spend time with you as you gave us your support and guidance in this new time. Your presence among us was of great importance, and we feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to share our concerns and hopes with you. Your words of encouragement and your example of humility and service inspire and motivate us to continue our journey of authentic and incarnated spiritual growth among the little ones,” Gerardo said.
The letter from the provincial delegate continued, “In addition, we would like to express our appreciation to Larry and Joe for their support and dedication during your visit. We are very grateful for their presence and willingness to collaborate with our fraternity. We look forward to further communication and hope to receive your guidance and advice in the future.”
Kevin, in a March 8 letter to the friar delegation in Puerto Rico, said, “Thank you for your warm fraternal welcome to me, Larry and Joe when we had the opportunity to visit your fraternities. It was a blessed time for me as you shared your faith, our fraternal lives, and the ministries that you serve. I look forward to sharing your experience of Franciscan life with your brothers in Holy Name Province. I want them to know about the good Franciscan life that you are living and the pastoral care that you have extended to the people of God.”
The letter from the provincial continued, “I hope that [the] brothers can assist and support efforts to foster vocation recruitment in your area. I have spoken with Br. Basil Valente, OFM, the Director of Vocations for Holy Name Province and for our new province, about sending you all materials for vocation ministry that are available in Spanish. Please know that you are in my prayers. I pray with the words of St. Paul that ‘the God who has begun the good work in you may bring it to conclusion in Christ Jesus, our Lord.’ (Phil 1:6) God bless you, brothers. Thank you for all your goodness to me. Please pray for me and your brothers in Holy Name Province.”
The Provincial leadership is planning a visit with the new brothers in Cuba, who are also optimistic about a personal connection with the friars in the U.S. “While visa protocols may make this a bit more complicated than jumping on a plane to San Juan, it is certainly our goal to connect personally in the near future with the friars there,” said Lawrence.