Franciscan Influences: Journey to a Franciscan Heart

Don Watkins Features

Don Watkins, third from right, and Louis McCormick with Secular Franciscans at Mt. Irenaeus in September 2016. (Photo courtesy of the author)

This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message and the charism that partners-in-ministry appreciate. The previous, by a member of St. Peter Claver Parish in Macon, Ga., described the meaningful way that the friars engage with her community. Below, a Western New York native reflects on how 60 years ago the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany began forming a Franciscan heart.

As we approach the Feast of St. Francis, I have been thinking about the Franciscan influences in my life. They began 60 years ago when I started school in September 1957, just shy of my fifth birthday. My parents had enrolled me at St. Pius X School which was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. The sisters provided a welcoming environment and went out of their way to make sure that all of us felt ‘taken in’ at the school. They nurtured us spiritually and academically. St. Pius X didn’t have all the resources that the nearby public schools did, but the Franciscan Sisters saw to it that we received a top-notch education.

One of our classmates, who was poor, was caught stealing classmates’ lunches and rather than punishing him the sisters made sure that he got fed when he came to school and had a good lunch too.

That early experience with empathy and compassion invited us to take care of those less fortunate among us. The sisters lived the Franciscan rule of life and – though I did not realize it at the time – they were forming a Franciscan heart within me.

Upon graduating from eighth grade, my parents enrolled me in Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean, N.Y. It was there that I met the friars of Holy Name Province for the first time and learned of the Secular Franciscans. I felt called to the Third Order and inquired about the life but could not work out the logistics of staying after school, as I lived 40 miles away.

I left Walsh after a couple of years and transferred to the public school that was near my home but I never forgot about the friars and the sisters who had been so integral to my education. Over the years, from adolescence to adulthood, I would occasionally see a friar and would feel a kinship with them. Following stints in college and the United States Navy, I found myself living within 20 miles of St. Bonaventure University. During that time, I met a young lady where I worked and invited her to a St. Bonaventure basketball game. She had recently finished her master’s degree at the university. We found out that in addition to a common love of Bonnies basketball, we shared much more and within 18 months we were married.

In the late 1990s, I became involved with campus ministry at the local public school where I worked. Around that same time, a fellow educator suggested that I visit Mt. Irenaeus. He said, “You should go there. You’d love it.”

In February of 2000, I went to the mountain on a Sunday morning with my wife and I’ve been going ever since. I was ripe for conversion and the Mountain ministry was the spiritual food I was hungering for. It was there that I met Dan Riley, OFM, the late Daniel Hurley, OFM,  Joseph Kotula, OFM, Louis McCormick, OFM, and later Bob Struyzinski, OFM, and Kevin Kriso.

Don, Joseph Kotula, Jason Damon, Kevin Kriso and Franciscan Volunteer Ministers prepare dinner at the Mountain in February 2014. (Photo courtesy of Don Watkins)

A logo there proclaims, “If you’re hungry for God and good food,” then you’ll find that at Mt. Irenaeus. I don’t think I missed a Sunday for almost four years. Though I had plenty of catechetical instruction as a young boy, it was the Friars who talked openly of the Incarnation and its significance in Franciscan spirituality. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more.

Through the friars’ unique form of ministry, I became involved as a partner-in-ministry and soon became a professed Secular Franciscan in April 2002. Since our Secular Fraternity meets regularly with Lou and Michael, I have become more informed on topics as diverse as climate change, interfaith dialogue, and immigration. Through the example of the friars, I have volunteered at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia and at The Warming House in Olean. All of these ministry opportunities have presented opportunities for growth.

I traveled with the friars to the “Franciscan Conference on Globalization” at Siena College in 2005. The following year, Joe invited me to attend the Holy Name Province JPIC Retreat at St. Francis Springs Retreat Center in North Carolina. Since that first JPIC retreat, I have attended several others. In the process of all these encounters, I came to believe in the beauty of life and the theology of the incarnation. This uncommon view of Christ who came not so much to save us but because of love began to infuse my thoughts and being.

I retired from public education in August 2013. Initially, I was concerned that I would not have anything to do. Kevin suggested that I volunteer at The Warming House and this led into more of the Franciscan mission of bringing the gospel to the marketplace.

A sign in The Warming House proclaims, “one eats in holiness and the table becomes an altar.” And so it has. I came to see that I had not retired, but I had been repurposed by my Franciscan brothers and sisters.

Joy is central to Franciscan life and gradually, along with gratitude, it replaced anxiety over my new mission.

Throughout my life from early childhood until now, the Franciscans have shown me how to live a simple life that embraces my uniqueness and those around me. These men and women who live simply so that others can simply live have shown me how to embrace the world with love. They have demonstrated by their quiet witness that love is the essence of life and that the measure of God is found in the fountain fullness of life. They have shown me that holiness is best lived by being wholly myself and helping others to see themselves as expressions of God’s love. They have demonstrated with their lives that holiness lies in our collective contribution to the common good.

Don Watkins grew up in Arcade, N.Y. He and his wife Diane and have two children and two grandchildren. Prior to retiring from public education, he served at the Franklinville Central School District as digital literacy teacher and school district technology director for 26 years. Both Don and Diane earned master’s degrees in education from St. Bonaventure University. He professed vows as a Secular Franciscan in April 2002.

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