Franciscan Influences: Gaining a Sense of the Worth of Human Life

John Wagenhofer Features

This essay is part of a series by the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last installment, written by a former missioner and staff member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J., appeared in the May 8 issue of HNP Today. Below, a former friar describes his experience with the Province and why he believes he will “always have a friar’s heart rejoicing in the spirit of St. Francis.”    

I entered my life with the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province at 17 years of age — after high school. The years leading up to my ordination were filled with many memories of good times and of bad times. The two years of college that I spent at St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., from 1962 to 64 were not easy.  At times, I felt that I was in college and, other times, I felt that it was high school all over again.

St. Raphael Novitiate, Lafayette, N.J., was also not a good year for me. I felt locked up and I had insomnia for most of the year. I knew that if St. Francis College, Rye Beach, N.H. — the last two years of college — was anything like the novitiate, I would not make it. I remember when arriving at St. Francis College, Rye Beach, on a bus in the summer of 1965 students were coming back from the beach. I was pale and lacking sun. I could not believe my eyes. I remember one priest saying to all of us on the bus, “Welcome to Rye Beach.” People had their bathing trunks on and their towels. We on the bus were in our blacks.

Learning to Be a Human Being
The next evening, Reginald Redlon, OFM, welcomed us to Rye Beach. I will never forget the remarks he made; they were not only welcoming but so insightful. He told us that we are here for two years and in that time we are to learn what it means to be a human being, a Christian, a friar and perhaps an ordained friar. He said: “Gentlemen, in that order.” Reginald was a role model for me as was Hugh Eller, OFM, and Boniface Hanley, OFM. I loved my stay in Rye Beach. The studies were challenging but beneficial.

Rye Beach gave me the strength to look forward to the studies and the life at Holy Name College, Washington. And strength we needed. These were tumultuous times in the midst of Washington. It was the 1960’s and the era of the Vietnam War. I remember going to Fort Meade and seeing veterans with arms and legs blown off. I remember marching when Martin Luther King gave his famous speech. I remember spending three years in the Juvenile Detention Facility in the heart of Washington, spending time ministering to teenagers who were incarcerated.

Somehow all of this prepared me for my ordination. It gave me a sense of the worth of a human life and how precious life is, freely given by God. I became an ordained friar and ministered at Holy Name Parish, Garfield, N.J., from 1971 to 1979. The people at Holy Name taught me so many lessons, including what it means to minister to their needs not mine. They taught me what it means to be a friar in the Spirit of St. Francis — what is most important is to be there for the people. They taught me what it means to be humble and caring and loving. The longer I was there, the more the people in the parish came to mean to me.

When I decided to go on for my doctorate at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Mass., I was torn because this parish became my home and I loved the people there. In the end, I decided to pursue my degree. I told the people who gathered for the Mass that they pampered me, cared for me and loved me.

I spent three years pursuing my degree at the novitiate in Brookline, Mass., where I met some wonderful friars, especially Joseph Doino, OFM, the novice master. I will never forget him. I was then sent to Holy Name College, Washington (which was later moved). In a few years, the new Holy Name College would be built in Silver Spring, Md. I resided there for nine years, where I worked with John O’Connor, OFM, and Dominic Monti, OFM.

Moving Beyond and Rejoicing
As time went on, I realized that I was at a crossroads of my life. After much reflection and spiritual direction from a wonderful nun, Sr. Rose Clarisse Gaduory, SSA, I realized that I had to move beyond the friars and perhaps ordination to enter into the possibility of a marriage relationship. I sought a dispensation from my vows, which was granted. In 1997, I married a wonderful woman, Ronnie Sunstrom.

Since then, I have become a hospice chaplain. The friars and the life that I have led up to this point have given me a wonderful perspective on the reality of life and that of dying. Just the other day, I heard a person say that “whatever God is asking of me, I accept.” I could hear St. Francis saying: Welcome Sister Death. I often marvel at the faith of those to whom I minister. I minister to all people — those who have faith, those who do not. I also often reflect on my life; will I be so accepting when it is my turn to die.

My years as a friar — nine years in formation and 25 years as an ordained brother — taught me about life. They taught me about the grace of God and the need constantly to be appreciative of God’s good gifts; that life is good and that we are blessed. I have been graced to be a friar. I have a couple of wonderful friends who remain friars and it is always a joy to get together with them.

My new life is truly blessed; I love the woman I married. I will always have a friar’s heart rejoicing in the spirit of St. Francis. My prayer is that more and more I will grow into who God wants me to be in the spirit of St. Francis.

 John Wagenhofer, a resident of New Jersey, is a chaplain at Hackensack, N.J., Hospice, an Amedisys company. The above photo was taken when he, Dominic and John O’Connor were moving into the ‘new’ Holy Name College in June 1985.