Franciscan Influences: Parish as Home

Gail Lewis Features

This essay is part of a series in which lay people describe the impact that the friars have had on them. The most recent reflection appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of HNP Today and was written by a former staff member of the Catholic Center of University of Georgia.

Below, a staff member of the book and gift shop at the Province’s parish in Tampa, Fla., describes how the friars’ “exemplary job of sharing” affected her life and brings the community together.

Located next to Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, Fla., the Sacred Heart Gift and Book Store is so much more than just a place to buy religious items. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to serve parishioners, workers in the downtown Tampa community, and visitors alike. I’ve celebrated sacraments, weddings, anniversaries, welcomes and goodbyes, as well as any and all important and memorable events that happen throughout life.

This fall, the store is celebrating its fourth anniversary of operation, and I can’t help but look back at where we started and how this little store became such an integral part of not only the parish, but of the lives of our parishioners, in no small part due to the welcoming and approachable nature of our wonderful Franciscan friars.

My love for all things Franciscan started years ago with a dear departed friend, Fr. Timothy Moffitt, OFM. He was open, friendly, caring, and generous in spirit. Many years later, a friend shared with me that a group of Franciscans was coming to Sacred Heart Church to make it their home, so I wandered from my old parish to find once again the beautiful spirit of the Franciscan way.

Through Fathers George Corrigan, OFM, Sean O’Brien, OFM, Andrew Reitz, OFM, and, a few years later, Zachary Elliott, OFM, I was welcomed and soon put to work.

Faith Brings New Opportunities
I always volunteered in some way throughout the years — as a Eucharistic minister, helping with church fairs, cooking dinners, whatever small way I could — as my time was wrapped up in a corporate retail position, which required much travel, and two beautiful sons to bring up with my loving husband.

As I sat with my peers at meetings throughout the 17 years I devoted to my company, we always shared what we would do if we didn’t need to pay the mortgage, put children through college and put food on the table. I prayed and promised myself that I would do something that gave back to others, something I felt good about at the end of the day.

While on vacation from my job, I got a call informing me that my position was eliminated, along with those of 20 of my peers, as the company was downsizing, and I would not be returning from my vacation. Devastated, I turned to Fr. Andrew for comfort. (Fr. Andrew has since moved to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York City). He said everything would work out and within a few weeks he came to me and asked what I thought of this little vacant shop next to the church. He said he wanted to open a gift and bookstore, and would I be interested in helping? He had parish gift store experience in his past and was excited to try it again. Of course, I would be! My prayers were answered. And so the story begins of my work with Fathers Andrew, George, Sean, and Zack, and all of the wonderful, dedicated volunteers who have helped our little shop thrive.

The store started out with books, holy cards, medals and statues. It soon grew to carry jams, honey, candles, Baptismal items, brass works from Germany, icons from Italy, a section devoted to St. Francis, and much more! But the real success of the gift store is that it has become an extension of our parish and the Franciscan culture of hospitality and welcoming ways. It is a ministry unto itself.

Franciscan ‘Salesmen’ Bring Community Together
There is a great sense of community. It is not unusual to find George selling items — “Buy one, get one full price” — Fr. Sean standing outside our door urging parishioners to come in, and Fr. Zack inquiring about the state of business, as he also has some retail experience in his background.

On any given day you will find George, Zack, and Sean seated at our reading table enjoying lunch with parishioners and others from our downtown office community. All are welcome! Customers outside of our faith have even joined our RCIA because of the openness the friars have shown while visiting the shop. On a busy Sunday, you can catch all three friars coming in to say “hi” only to be stopped many times to bless items that have been bought, always with a smile, a little joke, and a heartfelt blessing. What a great gift!

The first Saturday night of each month, we have a wine and cheese reception after the 5:30 p.m. Mass, where we treat parishioners to an assortment of appetizers and wine, which, by the way, was Sean’s brainchild. This little gathering has become such a hit that when we have to cancel, there are sighs heard throughout the church.

This gathering attracts many because all of the friars are in attendance. There are many thoughtful conversations carried on throughout the room:  “When should I baptize my baby?” “Is it hard to get an annulment?” “My daughter is getting married.” Of course, these questions cannot be answered at one wine and cheese gathering, but down the road I’ll hear, “I met with Zack after meeting him at the gift store,” or “Fr. George was very helpful with our wedding preparation,” and “I joined Hands of Hope after meeting Fr. Sean.”

So, we grow our Franciscan parish, not because of a gift and bookstore, or because of a wine and cheese gathering, but because we have three friars who are available, open, and welcoming to all.

Fathers George, Zack, and Sean have all done an exemplary job of sharing their Franciscan ways at Sacred Heart. It is not only a parish community; to many, it is our home. And isn’t that how it should be?

 Gail Lewis, a native of New Jersey, has worked at the Sacred Heart Gift and Book Store since 2009. She and her husband have two grown sons.