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Franciscan Influences: Foundation Built in Western New York

Michael Fenn

Author Michael Fenn (fourth from right) with a group of visitors at Mt. Irenaeus. Included in this photo are the late Dan Hurley (seated, on left), Daniel Riley (seated, on right) and Joseph Kotula (standing, fourth from left).

This reflection is part of a series by Holy Name Province’s partners-in-ministry. The previous, written by a parishioner from St. Paul Parish in Wilmington, Del., was published in December. Here, a graduate of St. Bonaventure University describes the impact that the friars of the university and of Mt. Irenaeus have had on him.

When I look back at the 30 years that make up my time from adolescence to a middle-aged adult, it’s remarkable to consider the presence that men of Holy Name Province have had on my life’s journey.

It starts as a freshman at St Bonaventure University, as the third child from an Irish Catholic family of Rockland County to make the six-hour trip up to New York’s southern tier. I remember those early days at Bona’s being full of anxiety and excitement, trying to find my way on a college campus. I also recall the smiling faces of the men in brown robes welcoming me in a unique way. It was evident that they were going to make my four years an experience much different from what I would have at other colleges.

All these years later, I can still remember their engaging warm smiles that greeted us and continued to build relationships with us all, to care about who we are and how we were adapting to college life.

One friar who had the greatest impact on me, as well as hundreds if not thousands of other Bona students, is Daniel Riley, OFM. From the first exchange with Fr. Dan, it was clear that this wasn’t just idle conversation taking place. He truly wanted to know who I was, what was important in my life and how he might be able to help. The relationship we built over these few decades has grown immeasurably.

Dan introduced me to Mt. Irenaeus, a retreat independent of St. Bonaventure that primarily serves the students from Bona’s. I quickly grew to love the place and often would utilize the Mountain as a place of refuge and solitude from the day-to-day craziness of being a college student. I grew to like it so much I wound up spending two summers living in community with the friars, where I built other strong relationships with the late Daniel Hurley, OFM, Joe Kotula, OFM, and Louis McCormick, OFM.

Through my involvement with university ministries, I began to learn of outlets to serve the poor, as St. Francis so humbly leads us to do. I also learned of the incredible place in Philadelphia known as St. Francis Inn, the soup kitchen along with many other services that focused on the poorest in the area. There, I met other exceptional friars and sisters, along with incredibly committed lay volunteers. After two visits, I decided to join the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, and spent nine wonderful months living in the most incredible community. Michael Duffy, OFM, was our site supervisor, yet so much more — another incredible influence on my life in these formative years.

After marrying my college sweetheart, we transitioned to the next phase of our lives. We also continued to seek friars in our lives. On the weekends, we would drive quite far to the east side of Buffalo to worship in a Franciscan parish, with Ron Pecci, OFM. It was wonderful continuing to work with Franciscans, as we helped with a young adult group for a period of time.

Fr. Dan and Mt. Irenaeus, which commemorated its 30th anniversary last year, continued to be a part of my young family’s life. Living in Buffalo allowed Julie and me to bring our three daughters down for Mass and visits every once in a while. Approximately nine years ago, I was able to begin giving back to the Mountain by joining the board of trustees, and I became chair a couple of years ago. I often say there is no one who has gotten more from the Mountain than me over these past 30 years, and now I have a passion to ensure that the Mountain continues for years to come.

As my daughters grow up and Julie and I move into the next phase of lives, we will continue to seek out ways to be involved with those who live by the spirit of Francis. The foundation that was set in those young days has stayed with us and will continue to be a rich part of lives.

Michael Fenn is a member of the Mt. Irenaeus board of trustees. He lives in Buffalo, N.Y., with his wife and three daughters. 

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