Franciscan Influences: Value of ‘Taking it to the Streets’

Marc Kielty Features

This essay is part of a series launched in November 2010 in which lay people describe the impact that the friars have had on them.  The most recent reflection appears in the Aug. 14, 2013 issue and was written by a former friar, John Wagenhofer.

Below, a staff member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C., describes how the friars have affected his life and his attitude, both while working as deputy chief of police and as a parish staff member.

As with many new parents, it was the birth of our daughter that began to steer me back to the Church from which I had fallen away during my college and early adult years. Our daughter was baptized at my home parish 120 miles away because my wife and I had not yet felt a connection to a local church in Raleigh. We visited many, but ultimately stayed at none.

In 1995, we visited The Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi — sort of an unusual name for a church I thought, but I soon learned that it was indeed a community, a Catholic community, which truly tried to walk with Jesus in the way of St. Francis.

The Guys in the Brown Robes
Upon walking in as strangers, we were promptly welcomed and the building, although simple, I found to be very appealing. What further impressed me was that the priests, who I later learned were Fathers David McBriar, OFM and Daniel Kenna, OFM, were actually walking around before Mass and chatting with people. And, they were wearing brown robes! What was up with that? (At this point in my life, I had only been exposed to diocesan priests wearing black and roman collars.) I left feeling excited and hoping that perhaps I had could find that elusive “horizontal relationship” with God, though his people and his Church, which I had been searching for.

As an officer with the Raleigh Police Department, I often found myself trying to help people navigate through what I sometimes felt were hopeless situations: the AIDS patients in the run-down group home on my beat; the homeless people under the bridge; the gay guy who got beat up for no reason; the young girl who had been assaulted by her boyfriend for wanting to keep their baby instead of seeking an abortion, and the like.

As I spent more time around this new parish, I learned that they actually had an AIDS Care Team; they had a gay and lesbian ministry; they did clothing drives for the homeless and participated in a transitional housing program; and they supported shelters for unwed pregnant women. Church people who actually left the building and, as the Doobie Brothers sang, were “taking it to the streets” where I spent most of my waking hours. How refreshing. Who were these guys in the brown robes, and weren’t they going to get in trouble for allowing all of this to go on at, of all places, a church in the conservative south?

Ministry of Presence
Around this same time, Mark Reamer, OFM, came to Raleigh’s St. Francis and joined the chaplaincy program in the police department. Shortly thereafter, I was called to the scene of a traffic accident involving one of my officers. Rescue personnel were working frantically to extricate her, but while I and several of her fellow officers looked on, her life slipped away. Who was going to help me, and my officers, through this? Standing on the side of the road at 3 a.m., I phoned Father Mark to both seek his support personally as well as his professional guidance. He quickly responded and remained present to my officers, and me, during the ensuing days.

Since 1995, there have been other line-of-duty deaths and countless other situations where Fr. Mark has left the comfort of the friary to head to the streets once again. Although I suspect many of those situations have gone without a verbal thank you, I know that his presence was greatly appreciated. Perhaps the silent thanks is evidenced best in the officers whom he has married; babies of officers, and sometimes even officers themselves, he has baptized; and parents of officers he was asked to bury.

Fr. Mark and his brother friars have always been present for me in both my professional and personal life. I think their greatest gift plays out daily when, even when I am not at church, the Church is still with me. Whether they realize it or not, the guys in brown have helped form my conscience, and thus behavior, in ways they can never imagine.

— Marc Kielty is the coordinator of ministry support at Raleigh’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish. He retired in December 2006 as deputy chief of police for the Raleigh, N.C., Police Department where he had worked for 30 years.