This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that partners-in-ministry appreciate. The previous was written by a volunteer at Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa, Fla. Below, a former member of a Franciscan parish in northern New Jersey describes seven decades of friendship with varied friars and how they shaped his faith and life. On April 4, he and his wife will be returning to the United States from Assisi, Italy, where they live for several months each year, not far from where St. Francis lived and preached.
The brown robes have always been a part of my life. I was baptized at St. Joseph’s Church in East Rutherford, N.J., in 1947 and grew up in that parish, staffed by the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province. As a young boy, I was nurtured, taught and influenced by friars Edward, Fabian, Owen, Brian, Declan, Justin and many others who resided in our parish. I studied and learned about the life of the humble St. Francis, and I realized that his spirit permeated all the events and life of the parish: being mindful of the poor, service to others, kindness and mercy, forgiveness, and love – always love exemplified by the joy of the Franciscan friars.
Serving as an altar boy, I was able to witness up close the holiness and joy these friars shared in their celebration of the Mass. I read and reread “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” and was fascinated by the extraordinary human being who gave up his life of wealth and privilege to follow Christ in humility and poverty. I dreamed often of visiting Assisi and walking on the streets where St. Francis lived and prayed.
When the 1960s dawned with Fr. Edward as pastor and we moved through the decade and into the 1970s, a new wave of Franciscan friars arrived to serve in St. Joseph’s. Fathers Michael Judge, OFM – who later changed the spelling of his name to Mychal – Michael Duffy, OFM, Christopher Keenan, OFM, Donan McGovern, OFM, Michael Tyson, OFM, Br. Douglas Smith, OFM, and others brought youthful energy, idealism and unbridled joy. In particular, Fathers Mychal Judge, Father Michael Duffy and Chris would become lifelong friends of my family. Their ministry would shape my faith and life in ways that made me who I am today.
Guiding Along Every Step
As life moved on, I married my wife Sharon at St. Joseph’s Church, and Fr. Mychal surprised us with the gift of an antique high chair from 1890 which still has a place in our home today. New assignments meant transfers for the friars, and new job opportunities took me from the parish. Through the years, we remained in touch with the friars, and my children grew to know them as well.
Mychal Judge eventually was stationed at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street in New York City, where he first became enamored with the brown robes as a young boy. We remained in touch through frequent phone calls and our visits to New York City.
When our first grandchild was born, doctors informed us that Shannon had a life-threatening liver disease called biliary atresia. Without surgical intervention, she was not be expected to live past two years. Mychal was there for us with prayer, hope and encouragement. Unfortunately, the first surgery was not successful, and Shannon’s health worsened.
It was then that we discovered that experimental surgery for this disease was being scheduled in Chicago. Shannon was accepted for this surgery as the 17th patient in a trial of 20 procedures. Fr. Mychal drove to our home in northwestern New Jersey to pray with us and to bless Shannon. He told us that God would not carry us this far only to drop us now. He assured us that God would be with us every step of the way and that so would he. As he left us that day, in true Fr. Mychal character, he told me to have fun explaining to neighbors why I was hanging out with a guy in a brown dress.
We traveled to Chicago and, thanks be to God, the surgery was successful. Through that new procedure, a portion of our daughter Kelly’s liver was removed and transplanted into Shannon to be her new liver. While our daughter and granddaughter recovered over the next three months in Chicago, Fr. Mychal called from New York every day, sometimes late at night, to stay informed of Shannon’s progress and to pray with us over the phone, sharing his hope, his encouragement and his love.
Shortly after returning home, we met with Fr. Mychal to share in the joy and wonder of Shannon’s life which God had restored to health. There was much laughter this time, and Fr. Mychal once again blessed Shannon, thanking God for His love and compassion toward this young child.
In 1997, my family and I had moved to Bethlehem, Pa., and became members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church. I sang in the choir and was blessed to be a member of a group that was invited to embark on a two-week tour to sing for Masses at several of the great churches of Italy, including St. Francis Basilica in Assisi. My boyhood dream of walking the streets of St. Francis’ hometown became a reality. I was enthralled to visit this ancient town just to be where the great St. Francis had lived his life. It was a prayerful and holy experience and I remember remarking that it felt like God was in the very air that I breathed. My wife and I were changed and spiritually charged from this visit and hoped to one day return to spend more time there in the very epicenter of the Franciscan order.
Honoring Friar with Service
Life continued, and Shannon grew to be a healthy child of 11 years old. Fr. Mychal’s work in New York City kept him very busy with his ministry, especially his work with the poor and the AIDs patients. He also served as the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department.
On Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy struck, and Fr. Mychal was taken from us. Our family was devastated. We thought that our friendship of 40 years had abruptly ended. In fact, it would continue uninterrupted for the remainder of our lives, for in January 2002, Shannon decided that for the anniversary of her liver transplant, she wanted to collect socks and hand them out on the St. Francis Breadline to the poor in honor of Mychal.
After collecting 1,500 pair of new socks, Shannon and our family distributed them to the poor on St. Francis Breadline with the friars’ blessing. It was there that a homeless man asked my wife if we had any underwear. Because of that humble inquiry, our family returned home and decided that we had to do more. Through the need of that poor man and the vision and dream of an 11-year-old child, our family ministry named Mychal’s Message was formed. We endeavored to serve the poor and homeless with love and dignity in the name of Fr. Mychal. Seventeen years later, we have continued our friendship with Fr. Mychal by serving the people he loved with more than 500,000 new items of clothing, food and gifts under the creative titles of “Blessed Bloomers” (underwear), “Soles for Souls” (shoes), and many others. We have distributed these items personally and joyfully to people in need, always in cooperation with the brown-robed friars.
While working on the Breadline one cold morning we met Cassian Miles, OFM, who invited us in for coffee and donuts. As a seminary classmate of Mychal, Fr. Cassian had much to share with us, and a lifetime friendship was formed. He became a mentor to our family concerning our ministry and our faith and a loving uncle to our grandchildren. Though he died a few years ago, Cassian remains listed on the Mychal’s Message board as a spiritual director, posthumously. He visited often, and we shared many family adventures with this kind and loving man.
In Philadelphia, we reconnected with Fr. Mike Duffy who has served the poor of the Kensington area with a soup kitchen that provides meals every day and operates several outreach programs in the neighborhood. We are happy to contribute to his ministry by “Stocking the Inn” with food and supplies needed by his local guests.
In Harlem, New York, we contacted another St. Joseph’s alumnus, Fr. Chris, who works with Benedict Taylor, OFM, at CREATE, Inc., an organization that educates and trains young homeless men to obtain gainful employment and private housing. We have been pleased to assist them with new clothing and necessary items for the young men through the ministry of Mychal’s Message. Fr. Chris, a dear friend, has enabled us to partner with him on several projects, most recently “The Steven McDonald Project” (solar mats for the homeless). In May 2016, Fr. Chris took a train to Lancaster, Pa., to celebrate the wedding of our granddaughter Shannon, a very special day for our family. Saved by God through the prayers of Fr. Mychal, she was now wed by God through the prayers of Fr. Chris. It seems that the brown robes are always front and center in our lives.
Assisi a Second Home
In retirement, my wife Sharon and I began traveling south to the beaches of Florida and South Carolina in the winter. It was good, and we had fun, but something was missing. Assisi was calling us, and finally we answered Francis’s call. We visited Assisi and rented an apartment on the Piazza San Rufino. It was here that we found everything that we were looking for.
San Rufino is the ancient church where St. Francis would preach on Sundays. Below the church is the prayer room where Francis would spend Saturday night in prayer. Next to the church is where St. Clare lived and heard the preaching of Francis. That building has been modernized and now houses the Franciscan Sisters of the Immacolatine. In the Church of San Rufino stands the baptismal font at which Saints Francis and Clare were baptized. This church also houses the altar stone upon which St. Francis opened the bible three times to uncover God’s plan for his life. This church became our parish church when we visited the town, and the priests, nuns and parishioners embraced us as family. We had found what we were looking for.
Assisi has become our second home, and we now spend four months of the year in the apartment overlooking the Piazza San Rufino. The nuns and priests of this beautiful cathedral are our dear friends, and we share in the daily prayer life of the community. We have renewed our baptisms at the font where Saints Francis and Clare were baptized, and in 2016, we renewed our wedding vows on our 50th anniversary just steps away from the prayer room where St. Francis spent his Saturday evenings in preparation for his Sunday preaching.
We have visited the places that were meaningful in the life of St. Francis and have prayed there and listened there for the voice and solitude of God. We have heard it in his birthplace, Chiesa Nuova, San Damiano, Rivotorto, Narni, Grecchio, La Verna, the Porziuncola, Eremo di Carceri, and at his tomb. Each visit brings us closer to the God of Francis, our God, through His Son, Jesus.
Assisi is known as the Citta di Pace, the city of peace, and it truly is that for us. Of course, the brown robes are everywhere in Assisi, and it is such a comfort zone for me that connects me to my childhood and the wonderful influence and examples of the friars throughout my life that continues to this very day.
God called St. Francis of Assisi who, in turn, called us. The friars pointed the way. And the journey continues. Pace e bene.
— Robert Hickey – who worked for the pharmaceutical industry before retiring – lives with his wife Sharon in Pennsylvania, where they work on Mychal’s Message projects and spend time with their grandchildren. They will be returning from Assisi in April after spending more than a month there. An essay by daughter Kelly Ann Lynch titled “Life is Changed, Not Taken Away” was published in September 2011 as part of the Franciscan Influences series.
Editor’s note: Laymen and women who are interested in writing an essay for this Franciscan Influences series are invited to contact Jocelyn Thomas in the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Mychal’s Message website
- “9/11 Walk of Remembrance to Honor Late Founder Steven McDonald” – Aug. 20, 2017, HNP Today
- “Sept. 11 Observances Planned, Mychal Judge Remembered” – Aug. 29, 2015, HNP Today
- “Friars Bid Farewell to North Jersey Community after 99 Years” – June 29, 2011, HNP Today
- “Mychal’s Message Raises Awareness for Homeless” – May 18, 2011, HNP Today