This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message and charism that partners-in-ministry enjoy. The previous, by a former Franciscan Volunteer Ministry participant, reflected on how she has seen Franciscan values put into action by friars, volunteers, and guests of a soup kitchen. Below, a member of a parish in Georgia that the province has staffed since summer 2015 describes the meaningful way that the friars engage with her community.
I am a member of a medium-sized parish, St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, in Macon, Ga., where we have a church, a convent where the Daughters of Charity reside, a school, a parish office, and a residence for the friars on the campus. It is a diverse parish with a rich history and a named saint, St. Katherine Drexel. A little more than two years ago, it was announced that we would have friars for our parish who would take the place of our assigned administrator.
When I told a colleague of mine that friars were coming to our parish, her face immediately lit up and she said, “That’s great because those friars get things done!” Our three friars – William McIntyre, OFM, Frank Critch, OFM, and, until recently, Paul Santoro, OFM – have done just that. Fr. Bill is pastor of St. Peter Claver Church, Fr. Frank is the chaplain for Mount de Sales Academy and assists Fr. Bill in the parish, and until recently, Br. Paul worked at the Daybreak homeless ministry of DePaul USA. After almost two years, I would have to agree that my coworker was right, and I would like to share my observations about what I have learned during this time.
One of the first things that I noticed with having friars on campus is that they dress differently. Fr. Frank shared a story about a student who asked, “Why are you wearing a garbage bag?” The brown robes raise a certain curiosity and initiate conversations.
Another noticeable change was that the chairs that had lined the outer aisles of our church on Sundays were removed and the balcony was roped off. This was the center of conversation after Mass one morning, and it was said that Fr. Bill initiated this change. This small action forced us to sit closer to one another and fill up the pews. Eventually, the church was full for Mass and so was the balcony. Now if you arrive on time or a few minutes late, you may have to search for a seat or do the unthinkable and sit up front.
During one of the homilies, it was noted that friars live together in community on purpose as a part of the support for their ministry. The sense of community is strong and is working in our parish. Although we do have differences within our parish, we are working toward more inclusive worship. I am grateful for the changes, as they occurred during a time of uncertainty of what would happen to our parish without a priest from our diocese. The friars are engaged in the parish, school, and community, and that visibility is important for bringing people together and fostering community. The friars have expanded their fraternity by adding a curly-haired dog named Louie.
I have witnessed first-hand the engagement of the friars within my own family. My son attends preschool and the kids are so excited when the friars visit the classroom, especially Fr. Frank. It brings some continuity with seeing the friars at school and then receiving the same warm greeting before and after Mass each week.
Having a little one attend church can be trying. The parish has a nursery and we are transitioning our son from the nursery to attendance at Mass. The friars make an effort to help parents feel at ease by welcoming the noise in church and including the kids in the service. From participating in circle time in the preschool to sliding down the inflatable slide at the May Festival, to taking a group of high school students to serve the homeless, the friars are engaged with our youth in meaningful ways.
My husband is currently completing the diaconate program in our diocese and was in need of a spiritual director. It was Fr. Frank who he turned to and who accepted his request. This relationship has been a blessing to him through his discernment and his struggles with his imperfections. I have had the support of Fr. Bill through my volunteer work with youth and through my civic organization involvement. Whether it was using space on campus or other resources, our needs have been met to serve a greater purpose. Fr. Bill approached my mom about running for the parish council, where she has just attended her first meeting. The level of support and encouragement has been amazing and is much appreciated.
Getting Things Done
Our friars are on the front line at almost all events. They cook, sell tickets, attend meetings, lead small group discussions, dance, play, and pray. Friars put their ministry into action and have nurtured our parish. The results are evident in enrollment within the school and attendance at Mass.
As a southerner, we are known for frying just about any food item. I’m glad that we have been “friared” because the Franciscans have shown us how to build community, engage, and get things done.
— Kendra Russell, a member of St. Peter Claver Parish for more than 30 years, serves as a sacristan and Eucharistic Minister. She and her husband are members of the school’s alumni committee. She is a member of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Knights of Peter Claver and works as a professor and director of program innovation and evaluation for the Department of Nursing at Middle Georgia State University with campuses in Macon, Warner Robins, Cochran, Dublin, and Eastman.