Franciscan Influences: HNP Affiliate Reflects on Decades of Partnership, Service

Ralph Perez Around the Province

This is the fifth in a series of essays from the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last, written by Paul Cronin of North Carolina, appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of HNP Today.

In this reflection, Ralph Perez, director of Create, Inc., the nearly 30-year-old New York City social services agency, describes his involvement since high school with the friars. He was recognized on May 15 with an honorary degree from Siena College, Loudonville, N.Y. More than a dozen years earlier, Perez was affiliated to Holy Name Province.

My association with the Franciscan friars began in my early high school years.

I was the youngest member of a large family headed by a single mother, living in public housing (the projects) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I had lost an after-school job by which I was able to provide some support to my family. A youth counselor tried to help me by calling up a friar friend, Firmin Rankin, OFM, at St. Francis of Assisi Church. Fr. Firmin had been noticing that a newly ordained friar named Benedict Taylor, OFM, seemed a bit overwhelmed in taking care of the enormous amount of books, pamphlets, magazines and newspapers sold at the upper and lower church vestibules. He thought that I could greatly assist him. Finian Kerwin, OFM, and the friar community agreed and an interview with Fr. Ben was arranged and proved successful. In addition to working under the auspices of Fr. Ben in the pamphlet department, I also worked with John Bosco Rubino, OFM, in the laundry and candle departments.

While I spent the rest of my high school years working at St. Francis, I was able to work, study and do my homework in a joyous and peaceful atmosphere at St. Francis Friary, in the downstairs offices. I continued my music studies. I still marvel at how the friars exercised patience and tolerance with humor at the sounds of my Latin beats from my conga drums emanating from the pamphlet room below the counseling parlors. St. Francis became my second home and the friars my spiritual brothers.

Appreciation of Opportunity
Providentially, it seems to me, I graduated from high school just as my mentor, Fr. Ben, was leaving St. Francis with other friars to minister uptown in Harlem. Shortly after this, I began attending New York City community college. When I found that this did not suit me, due to the campus turmoil of the 1960s, I withdrew from college. In this time period, I was able to spend time volunteering with the friars in Harlem and helping to put together the beginnings of Create, Inc.

Fr. Ben learned of a new government funding for poor minority college applicants, the Higher Education Opportunity Program. Through this program, I was able to attend and graduate from the prestigious Bard College in Annandale-on-the-Hudson, N.Y.

By this time, 1973, Fr. Ben was working alone in his Harlem ministry and again needed help. Providentially again, Create had just been funded when I graduated from Bard College. I immediately offered my new skills and education again to the aid of Fr. Ben and his work for the community and Holy Name Province. I took up the responsibility of deputy director assisting Fr. Ben, the executive director. This meant my reviewing the performance of staff recruitment and treatment and support services development for drug addicted men and women.

As Create evolved as a multi-service provider, there was a need to develop new facilities to accommodate the needs of our expanding client base. During this period, I enrolled in the Pratt Institute master’s degree program in city and regional planning. This was a tremendous help in my role as Capital development project director for the development and renovation of facilities obtained from New York City-owned properties. During my studies at Pratt, I was able to work, as part of my curriculum practicum, with architects, contractors, and government and private funders. This developed the agency’s infrastructure from a humble corner storefront to the present seven state-of-the-art facilities. “Like St. Francis,” Fr. Ben would say that we had to “rebuild the house that was in ruins.” Now, Create provides services to recovering substance abusers (residential and ambulatory), transitional housing and support services to homeless young adults, permanent housing for single mothers with children, a day center for the elderly and a food pantry for the needy in the community.

Gratitude for Affiliation and Honorary Degree
Again, providentially I was there to keep the Franciscan vision alive, when Fr. Ben had to step down and assumed other duties due to vision impairment. Together, we are able to continue an effective Franciscan partnership in ministry. I am grateful to Holy Name Province and John Felice, OFM, Provincial Minister in 1998, who gave recognition to my partnership in the Franciscan ministry by affiliating me into the Province.

I am also grateful that earlier this week — on May 15 — the Siena College board of trustees, Kevin Mullen, OFM, and the Siena College community bestowed on me the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of a lifetime, more than 40, of dedication as a service provider of services to persons facing, poverty, addiction and homelessness.

I attribute the success of my labors to the friars who have worked with me, especially those formerly on Create’s board of directors: Mychal Judge, OFM, Patrick Fitzgerald, OFM, Christopher Keenan, OFM, and currently,Hugh Hines, OFM, and Neil O’Connell, OFM. I am also grateful to John O’Connor, OFM, Provincial Minister, and all the friars of the Province for their financial and spiritual support of the work of Create.

I am most blessed and joyous to help “rebuild the Lord’s house.”

— Ralph Perez lives in the Bronx, N.Y., with his wife. They have three adult chlidren.

Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office invites lay people interested in sharing their respect for Franciscan values to submit a reflection to Jocelyn Thomas. Those interested in submitting an essay for publication in this series are asked to contact the HNP Communications Office at 646-473-0265 ext. 321.