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Franciscan Volunteer Ministry Takes Root in Durham

Franciscan Volunteer Ministers in Durham with their site supervisor, Hugh Macsherry. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan)

DURHAM, N.C. — The Franciscan Volunteer Ministry of Holy Name Province is writing a new chapter in its nearly 30-year history. Four volunteer ministers arrived at Immaculate Conception Parish at the end of the summer to mark the first time that FVM is serving in North Carolina. In just three months, the volunteers have made their presence felt not only in the parish, but in the broader Durham community as well.

The group is among 14 lay volunteer ministers, men and women who range in age from 21 to 39, serving in three Franciscan communities as part of FVM – a faith formation program that fosters service to the poor and marginalized, personal and social development, spiritual growth, prayer life, and social justice advocacy.

The Franciscan communities of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Md., and St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, Penn., are the other FVM sites, where young adults commit to one year of service.

With Durham being a new FVM site and a community with a diverse immigrant population, the quartet of volunteers has expanded FVM’s range of ministries beyond the parish – including outreach work with the homeless and poor, under a local program called Urban Ministries; the disabled, through an area initiative known as Reality Ministries, and with families in the Catholic Charities network.

“My biggest ministry is one of presence at Reality Ministries, a supportive community for people with different abilities,” explained Kiana Cunningham, a resident of Williamsburg, Va., who worked at several museums before joining FVM to see where God would lead her.

“My favorite thing about this ministry is the people that I meet. People with different abilities have so much to offer. Truly being present with someone is a lost art. We focus on working alongside people with different abilities, rather than doing things for them,” said Cunningham, a 2016 graduate of Regent University in Virginia Beach who also teaches catechesis of the Good Shepherd, visits a local nursing home, and helps out at a food pantry and clothing closet.

Like Cunningham, all of the volunteer ministers have quickly become part of the fabric of the Durham parish, serving in a wide variety of ministries that include, among others, participating in faith and sacramental formation, singing in the choir, teaching youth religious education and English as a new language, visiting hospital patients and their families, collaborating with justice, peace and integrity of creation, and helping to maintain the parish community garden with parishioner-volunteers.

“We are grateful for being invited to share in the life and ministry of the Franciscan community in Durham,” said Katie Sullivan, who served as a volunteer minister in the mid-1990s, and who is starting her 21st year in 2019 as FVM’s executive director.

“FVM is one of the few faith-based service programs in the United States that works directly with the sponsoring religious community and its ministries. With the sponsorship and involvement of the Franciscans, FVM uniquely has a ministry and community component,” explained Sullivan, an element that factored largely in her own decision to commit to FVM after graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

FVM’s ministry sites are established in Franciscan communities where friars are able – and willing – to fully support volunteer ministers by providing spiritual direction, participating in faith formation activities, and, among other things, accompanying them on four retreats during the one-year commitment period.

The 2018-19 FVMs with their supervisors at their fall retreat in West Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan)

Enthusiastic Support
From the outset, the program has received the enthusiastic support of parishioners and friars at Immaculate Conception, including Christopher VanHaight, OFM, pastor, and Hugh Macsherry, OFM, parochial vicar, who supervised volunteer ministers when he was stationed at a parish in Camden, N.J.

“It has been a graced time having the Franciscan Volunteers with us. Their unique personalities and faith lives continue to be a source of wonder for me as pastor,” Chris said. “As the volunteers continue to grow as servant-leaders, I look forward to their contributions to parish life. It is also an opportunity of enrichment for the volunteer ministers.

“Parishioners are eager to continue this relationship with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry for years to come,” he added.

The individual interests and backgrounds of the volunteer ministers have sparked connections with different communities in the Durham parish.

“Members from our Nigerian community welcomed a volunteer minister who, much to their delight, is from Nigeria,” Hugh said. “Some of our devotional groups have also felt a strong affirmation as a result of the participation of our Franciscan Volunteer Ministers.”

The young adults have benefited from working with parishioners from a broad diversity spectrum. For example, in assisting with the community garden, they have worked with an Iraqi Christian parishioner who owns a local nursery and landscaping business.

“In a parish as large as Immaculate Conception, the personal interactions by our volunteer ministers make the difference for parishioners, friars and the volunteers themselves,” Hugh said.

“It is a joy to work with these ministers because they bring a lot of energy and ideals wherever they go. They find the challenge of working out those ideals in the world, and perhaps even more so, as they live in community,” said Hugh, who supervises the volunteer ministers in Durham.

The friar supervisors at the other FVM sites are Michael Duffy, OFM, at St. Francis Inn, and Christopher Posch, OFM, at St. Camillus.

“The experiences of the FVM ministers challenge me as a friar to think about how I live in community,” Hugh said.

At all three locations, volunteer ministers live in community, usually in a house or apartment located in close proximity to the Franciscan ministry with which they are associated. “Volunteers create and share a home and everything that comes with it – basic logistics like chores, cooking, cleaning and shopping, and dealing with things like clutter. At least once a week they share a meal, a prayer, and a fun event together,” Sullivan explained.

They also experience the Franciscan charism, which brings tremendous emotional, spiritual and personal growth, and development of professional, practical and communications skills – as well as cultural, social and economic awareness, and a deep sense of unity, support and encouragement that comes with belonging to a community, according to Sullivan.

Christopher Posch with the FVMs stationed in Silver Spring. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan)

Siena College Roots
FVM’s roots date back to 1987 when students from the senior class at Siena College were directed to both the Jesuit and Mercy Volunteer Corps after they expressed interest in volunteer service upon graduation. But their persistence to continue the Franciscan spirituality cultivated during their four years at Siena sparked the first steps and humble beginnings of FVM. Although they were the first volunteer ministers, it wasn’t until 1989 that FVM was incorporated and sponsored by Holy Name Province.

Since its inception, 243 volunteer ministers have served at the current friar community sites, as well as past sites in Anderson, S.C.; Camden; Buffalo, N.Y.; Boston, Mass., and Wilmington, Del., with 53 of them signing on for a second year of service.

In addition to the volunteer ministers at Durham, six volunteers are assigned to St. Francis Inn in the Kensington neighborhood — where FVM has been serving since its creation in 1989 — and four ministers are assigned at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, where FVM’s presence began four years ago.

At St. Francis Inn, volunteer ministers have taken on various roles – from serving dinner daily to as many as 400 guests who are homeless or have fallen on hard times; picking up food donations; delivering food to the homes of the physically limited; connecting families and individuals to local resources like shelters, food pantries and addiction recovery services; providing life skills to help people prepare for job interviews; coordinating Christmas parties and other children and family events, and operating a clothing distribution program.

At St. Camillus, volunteer ministers serve at the parish food pantry and a food outreach site in the Silver Spring neighborhood of Langley Park. In a parish that has more than 100 countries represented and is the largest in the Washington, D.C., diocese, volunteer ministers teach religious education classes and English as a new language, as well as assist in the library, classrooms, reading resource center, and after-school programs at St. Francis International School. They also work in the broader community, advocating for immigrants and the homeless, and delivering meals to elderly shut-ins.

The current group of seven women and seven men – of which six graduated college in May, seven were employed full time, and one committed to a second year of service – represents eight states and four countries of origin (Honduras, Nigeria, Russia and the U.S.). Many came through invitations from friars, including Casey Cole, OFM, Patrick Tuttle, OFM, and Basil Valente, OFM,

Michael Duffy, top left, with FVMs in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan)

Real World Experience
While volunteers are introduced to FVM primarily by friars, college alumni or current and past volunteer ministers, many are drawn to the ministry through the recruitment efforts of associate director Lizzy Heurich, who participates at college and university-sponsored career service clubs and post-graduate volunteer fairs, where she encourages students to consider devoting one year of service after graduation. FVM recruits at Siena, St. Bonaventure, Villanova, Georgetown, Iona and other colleges and universities.

In the current group of volunteer ministers are several individuals who left behind significant professional careers and graduate degrees to join FVM – including Scott Robinson, 39, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Pepperdine University and a second master’s in accountancy from San Diego State University.

“I felt an urgent need to obey and belong to Jesus. The aspiration of religious life was born, and I began searching for the way towards a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. God was so gracious to lead me to FVM and to the family of St. Francis,” said Robinson, a Los Angeles, Calif., transplant living in Charlotte, N.C., before joining FVM, and who is now a volunteer minister at St. Camillus in Silver Spring.

“So far, having begun various ministries in teaching, with the food pantry, and extraordinary ministry of Holy Communion, I am learning that to nurture my faith, I must share it. Although it is challenging, it has been an awesome privilege,” Robinson said, adding, “I am so thankful to our benefactors, FVM and St. Camillus for making this possible.”

Sullivan said that when a friend or relative hears that someone is joining FVM, their initial reaction is they’re taking time off before they enter the real world. “But being a volunteer minister is not a vacation. If anything, you are in greater contact with the world because you’re ministering to people on the margins and those in great need,” she said.

“People join for a number of reasons – for some, it’s what they are supposed to be doing at that point in their lives. Others just want to put into practice what they learned academically and observed in life – and still others want to experience their faith in action,” Sullivan continued.

For young people right out of college who have no ties or financial responsibilities – and for those already established in the job market who may be looking to take a sabbatical or a profession shift, the program often is suitable and satisfying.

“Whatever the reason, FVM is a practical and life-giving approach to living their faith differently and helping people in tangible ways. After their service, everyone brings their experiences to their profession,” Sullivan said.

While HNP provides the bulk of the financial resources, Franciscan Volunteer Ministry also fundraises to support the program and its volunteers – who receive room and board, health insurance, a monthly stipend, communal car and insurance, and even financial assistance with existing educational loans.

Marking a Milestone
Plans are already in motion to mark the 30th anniversary next summer, when present and past volunteer ministers and FVM supporters will gather at the Province’s San Damiano Hall on West 31st Street in New York City. The July 20 event will also serve as a fundraiser.

“We are excited about 2018-2019 being FVM’s 30th year of service.  Our birthday commemoration will be a wonderful celebration of prayer, food, fellowship and shared memories. Three alumni, one from each decade, will share their FVM experience and how it shaped them into the adults they are today,” said Sullivan, who noted that details about the celebration would be released early next year.

The volunteer ministers at Durham are Kiana Cunningham of Williamsburg, Va., a 2016 graduate of Regent University in Virginia Beach; Chukwuma Obadike of Nigeria, who attended the University of Port Harcourt in his native country; Greg Perenich of Tarpan Springs, Fla., a 2018 graduate of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and Elizabeth Russell of Scranton, Penn., a 2018 graduate of Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr.

In Philadelphia at the St. Francis Inn, volunteer ministers include Christian Alexandrou of Worcester, Mass., a 2018 graduate of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.; Christina Francisco of Greenville, S.C., a 2015 graduate from Greenville Technical College; Griffin Fraser, a native of Candia, N.H., and 2018 graduate of St. Anselm College in Manchester; Morgan Friedman of Williamsville, N.Y., a 2017 graduate of Siena College in Loudonville who is serving in her second year with FVM; Roman Kelly of Greenville, S.C., who received a certificate from Greenville Technical College in 2016, and Mary Catherine Mazzella, a native of Plattsburgh, N.Y., and 2017 graduate of State University of New York Oswego.

The volunteer ministers serving at St. Camillus in Silver Spring are Jesse Koch of Yonkers, N.Y., a 2018 graduate of Iona College in New Rochelle; Ana Mahomar of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, a 2018 graduate of St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Tx.; Chynnah McFadden, a native of Tampa, Fla., and 2015 graduate of the University of South Florida, and Scott Robinson of Los Angeles, Calif., a 2001 graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., who also has master’s degrees from Pepperdine University in Malibu and San Diego State University.

Although there has been a decline over the past five years in participation in faith-based programs – the number of volunteers has dropped from 2,500 to 2,000, according to CatholicVolunteerNetwork.org, FVM is pleased that after experiencing lower numbers in previous years, it is blessed with a full complement this year.

Franciscan Volunteer Ministry continues to attract participants from many states, schools, experiences and backgrounds – all united in their commitment to a simple lifestyle and a strong desire to live in Gospel-based communities as witnesses of their faith and Franciscan ideals and values, and promoting solidarity with the poor through service, prayer and brotherhood.

— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.

Editor’s note: In recent years, several former FVMs have written essays for HNP Today about the impact that their service with the Franciscans had on them. They include Jeff Sved, Michael Fenn, and Andrew Staiti

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