Franciscan Influences: Growing in Spirituality, Parish Role

Mary Widhalm Features

This is the 21st in a series of essays by the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last installment, by a staff member of Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y., appeared in the Feb. 27, 2013 issue of HNP Today. Here, a parishioner of Holy Name of Jesus Church in New York City describes how her long connection to the Franciscans has enriched her.

I feel as if I could title this essay “my life as a Franciscan.”                                                        

It probably all started in the 1870s and ‘80s when the Union Pacific Railroad pushed west into the Nebraska prairie and the pioneers from Germany, Austria, Poland and Ireland followed to build their new homes, farms and lives. Franciscan friars and sisters from Germany answered these immigrants’ requests to minister in their new churches and schools, including my hometown.

My ancestors arrived from Austria and Germany and settled in the Humphrey area of northeast Nebraska. They helped to build as well as to fund their parish buildings and St. Francis of Assisi, of course, was chosen as the parish’s patron saint. My parents were born and reared in this Franciscan parish. They became Secular Franciscans and, like my grandparents and great-grandparents, understood parish involvement as a given. For example, my dad was the choir director was many years.

On the day I was born, my uncle Fr. Christian, a new Franciscan friar, baptized me, putting an indelible Franciscan stamp on me besides the waters of Baptism. Thus, I was reared in this small rural “Franciscan Catholic” town and educated by Franciscan friars of the Sacred Heart Province and Franciscan Sisters from Colorado. My roots went deep into both Nebraska soil and Franciscan ways.

I came to the Upper West Side of New York City in 1968 to study for my master’s degree and to become a midwife. Holy Name of Jesus Parish was my off-and-on church, not parish. Considering my roots, you can get an idea then how pleased I was when the friars of the Holy Name “branch” of the OFM’s moved into Holy Name of Jesus Parish in 1990. The brown habits and friendly faces brought back many happy memories of “home” for me, and I willingly stepped up to be a lector and a Eucharist Minister. I, like many, many others, was attracted to the friendliness and openness of the friars, their approachability, and their belief that “All are Welcome in This Place!”

In the year 2000, I retired from midwifery and carried the biggest of three retirement party cakes to our Franciscan Community Center for the seniors’ lunch. Holy Name’s pastor Jerome Massimino, OFM, smiled and welcomed me with the key to the friary, swirling me into the current of volunteer lay ministry. I became the coordinator of the RCIA process and a member of the Adult Faith Formation Committee. Along came the Liturgy Committee, a little decorating and sewing, counting money, various odd jobs … and more keys!

The friars’ commitment to lay ministry truly seeks not only to share the work, joys and challenges of ministry, but also to encourage the development and use of the talents of lay ministers. For me this meant taking on the challenge of occasional public speaking. Under Dan Kenna, OFM, I have moved from delivering babies to delivering talks. It was a brand new experience to speak at all the Sunday Masses about what stewardship means to me. I’ve also had the privilege of giving reflections on Scripture at our Lenten Vespers services.

All of the above have certainly benefited my spiritual life. The Franciscan approach to prayer, to liturgy, to caring for people, to ecology have broadened and deepened my prayer life, my study of Scripture, and my ability and desire to share all this with others. The friars, and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who live just down the street from me (and yes, I have their key too!) have influenced me beyond measure.

As we conclude the days of Lent and approach the Sacred Triduum culminating in the glories of Easter, I look forward to our Franciscan way of including so many parishioners in the preparation and celebration of these wonderful liturgies. We have a multi-cultural parish and all are included and welcomed—all ages, sexes, color, and language preference. The friars’ ideal of drawing all in makes our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus an event not to be missed. In addition, our Easter delight is increased with our new pope taking the name of Francis!

Being a part of Franciscan parish life and work means for me a plenitude of ongoing challenges and blessings, surprises and discoveries. Who knows what will happen next! St. Francis told his brothers they must find what is theirs to do…and, oh my, how they help us find what is ours to do!

— Mary Widhalm, a Holy Name Church parishioner for more than 40 years, is a member of Holy Name Province’s lay advisory board.  The photo above shows  Widhalm with Dan Kenna, OFM, and Lawrence Ford, OFM.