Francis Medal Presented to Three at Manhattan Parish

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

NEW YORK – On a day of significance in the Franciscan world, two longtime volunteers and a parish secretary at Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Church were honored with the HNP Francis Medal in recognition of their outstanding service to the Franciscans and selfless generosity of their time and talent to the parish community.

The friars at 96th Street with the recent Francis Medal recipients. (Photo courtesy of Larry Ford)

Larry Ford, OFM, guardian of the friary, presented a Francis Medal to parish secretary Jacqueline Espinal, and to volunteers Jack Gerrity and Mary Widhalm, at a Mass on July 15, the feast of St. Bonaventure. The Mass had even greater significance, as two individuals were baptized and three RCIA candidates were confirmed as well.

The Francis Medal was established in 1998 by then-Provincial Minister John Felice, OFM, to acknowledge those who exemplify the values and ideals of St. Francis of Assisi in their personal and professional lives.

“It was a nice way to experience God,” said Larry. “The feast of St. Bonaventure was a good time to present the medals and to administer the sacraments. It was a chance to focus on vocations, the way the simple profession anniversary of friars is our vocation in community to others.”

Roughly 25 people attended the Mass, observing pandemic protocols with masks and physical distancing.

Espinal has worked as the parish secretary since 1998, spanning the tenures of each of the five pastors and the many other friars who have lived and worked at the 96th Street community.

“Jackie has been the heart of this parish for many years,” said Larry. “She knows the parish and embodies the best of Holy Name. She welcomes new members, helps us serve the poor, and contributes common, yet deeply insightful wisdom to decisions that affect the community as a whole but relates them to individual parishioners.”

Larry said that Espinal’s easy-going style has been embraced by the three language groups of the parish, often providing a necessary back-channel to the friars and pastors in particular.

“She has been more than a parish secretary, almost a guardian to every friar who has lived here – a set of ears to listen to frustrations and successes, and a voice of affirmation and one that provides ideas to serve groups and individuals,” Larry said.

“Her big heart has embraced, affirmed, supported, and cared for every friar who has lived here, from affiliates to guardians – all the while caring for the community as well,” added Larry, noting that Espinal has photographs on the wall near her desk of the deceased friars who have lived at the parish, beginning with Jim Hynes, OFM, and ending with Gary Maciag, OFM.

Gherity, a probation officer, and Widhalm, a midwife, have been married for 46 years and are longtime members of the parish. They have been exceptionally supportive of the Franciscan mission and values ever since the friars arrived at the parish to provide pastoral and administrative services, according to Larry. Mary has been parish director of the RCIA for 20 years and has served on the Adult Faith Formation Committee. She is a member of HNP’s Franciscan Life in Mission Directorate, and the couple has been passionate supporters of the Franciscan Missionary of Mary Sisters. They have served in many other capacities, including lector, Eucharistic minister, counselor to the friars, and collection counter, and have worked with the friars on everything from liturgy to church décor.

“Jack and Mary’s generosity, patience, flexibility, and spirituality that has brought so many into the church is difficult to measure, yet impossible to miss,” Larry said.

Franciscan Roots
Several weeks after receiving their Francis Medal, each of the recipients is in a genuine “state of humble surprise,” according to the pastor.

Espinol said receiving the medal was “very special” after having worked for the Franciscans for 22 years.

“It was an honor. I still feel as if I am on cloud nine. I was shocked when Fr. Larry called my name at the Mass,” said Espinal, noting the surprise was extra special because her 18-year-old son, Gregory, and Dan Kenna, OFM, a former pastor of the parish, were there to celebrate the award with her.

Parish Secretary Jacqueline Espinal with friars John Heffernan, Dan Kenna — a former Holy Name of Jesus pastor, Larry Ford, and Barry Langley. (Photo courtesy of Larry Ford)

“It felt amazing to be honored because, to me, working with the friars has been a wonderful journey. I have learned so many things from the friars, especially about generosity and spirituality. They’ve not been just employers to me, they have been brothers,” Espinal said.

“It’s been a great experience working with and getting to know the Franciscans,” continued Espinal, who grew up near the church and graduated from Holy Name School. “It was wonderful to receive the recognition – although, to me, I was just doing my job. It has been a feeling of mutual appreciation. St. Francis has always been a part of my faith journey. I have always felt close to this saint.”

Like Espinal, Ghertity and Widhalm have longtime connections to the Franciscan friars – Gherity locally, and Widhalm from her early life in the Midwest. Widhalm said that her husband, as a young man in New York City, had a close friend in Finian Kerwin, OFM, who later became one of the provincial ministers of Holy Name Province.

“With this background, one can understand how happy we have been as part of a Franciscan parish here in Manhattan,” said Widhalm, noting that she and her husband have found their work with the friars to be satisfying and exhilarating.

“We have found that being partners-in-ministry is stimulating and motivating – and, at times, even frustrating, but always challenging intellectually and spiritually,” Widhalm said.

The exhilarating and rewarding part of their service can be found in a story that she recounted: “Jack taught English as a second language, so he responded to a referral by Fr. Jim Hynes to help at an overnight shelter for the homeless coordinated by a Jewish synagogue at a local Methodist church. One year, we celebrated my birthday with the homeless. We brought the cake and ice cream and turned a quiet evening into a big party!”

Beyond a doubt, says Widhalm, the most challenging, time-consuming, and satisfying ministry in which she has served has been coordinating the parish RCIA process and teaching adults who seek to become active members of the Catholic Church.

“Being able to bring a Franciscan approach to the process is indeed a blessing,” she said, adding, “To receive the Francis Medal is an incredibly special honor. It is one we will always cherish as a gift from our friar-pastors and brothers who are also our partners and friends.”

Last year, the friars of Holy Name of Jesus Friary presented the Francis Medal to the Franciscan Sisters of Mary and to Susan Ford, Larry’s mother.

Next month, the friars will be leaving the Upper West Side neighborhood as part of the Province’s Fraternal Ecology process.

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communication for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: In March 2013, an essay written by Mary Widhalm was published in HNP Today’s Franciscan Influences series.