Friars to Leave Camden Parish

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

CAMDEN, N.J. — In a letter highlighting the Christian tradition of being on the road as well as the difficulty of departures, the Provincial Administration notified the people of St. Anthony of Padua Parish that this summer, the friars are returning the care of its community to the Diocese of Camden.

“It is with great sadness that, echoing the words of Jesus, I write to you today to announce that the Franciscans must be ‘on our way’ from St. Anthony of Padua,” wrote Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, in the letter that was read to the parish by Provincial Councilor Robert Frazzetta, OFM, on June 11. “After 32 years in Cramer Hill, we are no longer able to continue serving the community of St. Anthony’s. Because we have shared so much history and life with you over the years, our departure will be a difficult moment for all of us.”

“It was a day of tears but also one filled with hope,” said Robert, who read the letter at Masses between the Provincial Chapter and the feast of St. Anthony. “While the people already had some idea that the pastoral structure in the Diocese of Camden is about to change, they were still surprised and deeply saddened that the friars are leaving. Still, they understood that, with our decreasing number of active friars and our priority to live together in fraternity, we simply can no longer staff their parish. Many came to express their thanks to me for the friars whom they have gotten to know through the years and for the Franciscan spirit that permeates the community.

“A few wanted me to know that they had been away from the Church for various reasons but returned because at St. Anthony’s, everyone is welcome and no one is judged,” added Bob, who is guardian of St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J.

A Time of Transition
In his letter, Kevin described the reasons for the withdrawal:

“In 1985, when we arrived in Camden, we had 708 friars actively working in ministry in our Province. In 2001, we were down to 443 friars in active ministry. Today, in 2017, we are around 280. Very simply stated, we no longer have sufficient friars to staff all the ministries where we have served in the past.”

He continued, “Our Franciscan charism calls us to live and minister as brothers in community. Our fraternal life together is a central priority for us — it is the core component of who we are and profess to be: lesser brothers. With our diminished numbers, it is impossible for us to maintain all of our ministerial commitments with fraternities composed of several friars living in community. It is for these reasons, and with deep regret, that we have made the difficult decision to withdraw this summer from St. Anthony of Padua Parish.”

Hugh Macsherry, OFM, pastor since 2014, said, “The timing of the transition depends on the will of the new pastor, who will be assigned on July 1. We intend to do some kind of farewell program, probably a Mass, and we’ll invite friars who have served here in the past.

“For both the friars and the Camden people, it has been a blessing for us to be here,” said Hugh, a few days after the announcement was made. “The people of the parish have always been very hospitable. Our hope is that though the friars won’t be physically here, the spirituality of the friars that the people have come to love will remain. We hope the community will continue to grow and to be strong.”

He continued, “It has been a tremendous experience to be part of a diverse culture and to learn the traditions of the community. It’s been positive to live with the people who are struggling day to day and who are willing to share the joys of their heritage,” he said, referencing the demographics of the parish, which is largely Hispanic, with roughly five percent of the community being Anglo American and five percent African American.

“I enjoy the various devotions from varied countries,” said the pastor. “It has been a beautiful experience to be part of diverse cultures. I’ve especially enjoyed the foods,” said Hugh, adding that the parish has 800 to 900 parishioners and that the weekly attendance at Mass is about 600 people.

Gratitude for Collaboration and Support
In his letter, Kevin expressed appreciation to all members of the community — friars, laypeople and the diocesan leaders.

“I am very grateful to Bishop Sullivan and his predecessors for their goodness to us during the years of our service in this diocese,” wrote Kevin. “I am also grateful to Fr. Hugh, Br. Karl and Fr. Ron for their dedicated service to the parish in the last few years. I am thankful, too, for the many other friars and for the Franciscan Sisters of Syracuse, who served you over the past 32 years. Most of all, I am very appreciative of all the support and collaboration that you, the parishioners of St. Anthony Parish, have extended to us. On behalf of all the friars of our province, thank you for your goodness and understanding and faith.

“May the Church in Camden continue to grow and bear witness to the Risen Lord who is the center and foundation of our life and who calls us each day to be ‘on the Way’ toward the fullness of God’s kingdom.”

In the last 32 years, six friars have served as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua.

The first friar team – comprising John Anglin, OFM, and the late Thaddeus Sapio, OFM – was formed in March 1985. Other friars who have served at St. Anthony’s Parish in leadership roles include Paul Breslin, OFM, Todd Carpenter, OFM, Christopher Coccia, OFM, Aubrey McNeil, OFM, Gerald Mudd, OFM, and Jud Weiksnar, OFM. Currently, Karl Koenig, OFM, and Ronald Pecci, OFM, live at the St. Anthony of Padua Friary with Hugh. Through the years, a number of other simply and solemnly professed friars have also served at the parish.

During their time in Camden, the friars have launched – or helped to strengthen – varied community initiatives. They include a community garden, prayer walks, neighborhood landscaping and ecology programs, as well as the Von Nieda Park Task Force and Francis House, a center for people affected by HIV-AIDS. Also, the friars have displayed their Franciscan charism at St. Anthony of Padua School and guided Franciscan Volunteer Ministers based in Camden, which served as an FVM site for a decade.

Photos of parish events can be found on St. Anthony’s Facebook page. This is the second withdrawal that the Province has announced this spring. Last month, the friars notified Holy Cross Parish in Callicoon, N.Y., that they were returning the care of the parish to the Archdiocese of New York.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

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