Friars Settle into New Florida Community

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

The friars of San Damiano Friary – Steven Pavignano, Luis Aponte-Merced, Paul Santoro and Todd Carpenter. (Photo courtesy of Todd)

ORLANDO, Fla. — It was a homecoming of sorts this summer when four friars arrived in Orange County at the parishes of St. Joseph and St. Maximilian Kolbe, as well as Saints Peter and Paul. It was a return to parochial ministry in the Diocese of Orlando where friars served from 1972 to 1996 in the town of Apopka, less than 20 miles from where they are now ministering to more than 2,500 families.

The quartet of recently arrived Franciscans includes three members of Holy Name Province – Steven Pavignano, OFM, guardian of San Damiano Friary, where the four reside; Todd Carpenter, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph and St. Maximilian in the Union Park section of East Orlando, and Paul Santoro, OFM, pastoral associate at Sts. Peter and Paul in Winter Park. The fourth member, Fr. Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, of the Ohio-based St. John the Baptist Province, is parochial vicar at St. Joseph and St. Maximilian.

The friars, who were asked by the Diocese of Orlando to serve in the parishes, are less than 100 miles from a Tampa parish that has been staffed by Holy Name Province since 2005 – Sacred Heart, which welcomed its new Franciscan neighbors with an announcement in the parish bulletin. They are also not far from St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, where many friars, although retired, continue to minister to the community.

Florida Catholic newspaper rolled out the welcome mat by introducing the friars to the Orlando community in a July article.

The Orlando parishes are culturally, economically and spiritually diverse, with parishioners speaking four languages – English, Spanish, Tagalog (native to the Philippines) and Polish.

“This is a great opportunity for our friars,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM. “We are delighted to be in this growing Latino community, where we, as friars, can help nurture and strengthen the Christian community in the spirit of our patron St. Francis. We have been energized by the gracious welcome from parishioners and the bishop of the Orlando diocese.”

Appreciating Welcome of Community
With the itinerant nature of the Order of Friars Minor, it is the mission and ministry of friars to spread the Franciscan message far and wide, with their assignments and locations adjusted to communities and people in need. Since 1901, Holy Name Province friars have served in more than 80 communities throughout the United States, up and down the eastern seaboard from Florida to New England, and as far west as Colorado and as far south as Puerto Rico. The friars have also served in missions overseas.

A few days before the Province’s new ministry became official on July 1, Todd – a former pastor of St. Paul’s Parish in Wilmington, Del. – celebrated his first Masses at St. Joseph and St. Maximilian, where Bishop John Noonan of Orlando introduced the friars to the congregation. 

The friars were quickly embraced by the diocese – they were invited last month to participate in the diocese’s annual Priests Convocation, and Todd was also asked to preach at the Mass at the conclusion of the ecclesiastical assembly.

A little more than three months into their Orlando tenure, the transition has been smooth, according to Steven, though he points out that the pace has been non-stop for the friars. As they have been acclimating to their new surroundings, the friars have met parishioners and familiarized themselves with existing ministries and parish operations, including developing some of their own initiatives. They have also tended to the administrative side of operating a parish, including plans for much-needed maintenance and improvements to the buildings and properties – all while ministering to the faith community, participating in parish events, developing a plan for the future, and dealing with the aftermath of an unwelcome guest – Hurricane Irma.

The friars celebrate Mass twice a week at the Catholic Center at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. (Photo courtesy of Todd Carpenter)

All reports point to the friars having an immediate impact not only on their new parishes but also in the overall community. Twice a week – at 5 p.m. on Sundays and Tuesdays – the friars celebrate Mass at the nearby University of Central Florida where, Todd said, “the students seem to enjoy having us visit the campus.”

Recently, Todd got to know the work of a homeless ministry supported by parishioners who are part of the St. Joseph-St. Maximilian Emmaus movement – whose members are devoted to personal and parish growth through fellowship, study, prayer, worship and outreach ministry. One of their ministries is preparing and serving a hot meal every Monday for 150 homeless and needy in downtown Orlando.

“When a member of Emmaus mentioned the homeless ministry, I asked if the parish could do more to support them,” said Todd. “Because it has been a challenge for the participants to cook these meals in their homes, we offered them the use of the church kitchen. In return, they gave the kitchen a much-needed cleaning and a fresh coat of paint.”

Fostering Leadership and Unity
A few weeks before, the friars led parishioners in providing humanitarian aid to Irma victims by distributing ready-to-eat meals, snacks and bottled water (provided through Catholic Charities) – an endeavor that was featured on the local NBC news affiliate.

“Irma certainly added to the whirlwind of settling into our new home and parish families,” said Steven, a New Jersey native who had previously served in ministries in Boston and Buffalo, and in parishes in the South.

The friars arrived to active congregations, with large numbers of volunteers and participants in many traditional liturgical ministries – including, among others, prayer groups for men and women, pro-life advocacy, the Emmaus retreat, and a youth and young adult ministry.

“We hope to build upon the work of the previous pastor by introducing parishioners to Franciscan spirituality. We would like to foster greater leadership roles among the laity and create a higher level of awareness, education, and advocacy on broader social justice issues. There is also a need for more meaningful adult formation and education ministries,” said Todd.

Todd with representatives of Catholic Charities. (Photo courtesy of Todd Carpenter)

Dealing with Hurricane Irma wasn’t the only challenge in their new environment.

Although not a canonically merged parish, St. Joseph and St. Maximilian Kolbe has been operating since May of 2016 on a single campus, under one pastor with integrated Masses and ministries.

Since the 2006 creation of St. Maximilian, parishioners – while actively raising funds to construct a church in the Avalon Park neighborhood – attended Sunday Masses in a public school cafeteria. With the church yet to be built, the bishop decided to unite the St. Maximilian faith community with the 55-year-old St. Joseph Parish, whose 1,250-seat church is just a five-mile, 10-minute drive away.

Parishioners have shared their frustrations over the joined parishes, but they are also looking forward to the presence and leadership of the Franciscans.

“It has been difficult for both faith communities – one trying to establish an identity and still without a church building, and the other with a well-established history. Anxiety and apprehension are understandable,” Todd said.

“As Franciscans, we minister through our Franciscan tradition and spirituality, trying to bring God’s presence to the whole community and to each individual who seeks counsel. We are instruments of peace and unity among the Body of Christ,” said Luis, a native of Puerto Rico.

“In that spirit, healing and unity are central to our ministry among these faith communities that have been fractured and frustrated,” Todd added.

Luis Aponte-Merced, Todd Carpenter and Steven Pavignano with Bishop Noonan. (Photo courtesy of Todd Carpenter)

Noticing Positive Response
Luis, who was assigned to ministries in Illinois and Ohio for the past decade (and welcomes the milder Florida climate), said that despite their differences, parishioners are united in their faith, generosity and sharing attitude.

He has felt invigorated by the warm and welcoming response of parishioners to the friars.

“It is human nature, of course, that some people would express concern. But the process has been positive, as parishioners get to know who we are as friars, how we live as a community, and what changes and ministerial initiatives we would like to implement. The Latino community has been very grateful to now have two priests who speak fluent Spanish,” said Luis, who is also eager to work with his Franciscan brothers from Holy Name Province.

Steven echoed that sentiment: “Parishioners have observed how we live in community, how we are always available and willing to listen. They are encouraged by the hope we bring for unity, and for advancing the growth and development of our faith community whether this becomes a permanent merge or an eventual separation of the parishes.”

“The people seem to appreciate our approach to the parish and ministry,” said Todd, who previously served as pastor of parishes in the Bronx and in Camden, N.J. “They like the fact that we have not come in to make more sudden changes – that we are accompanying them rather than running things. There is much great lay talent here and we are very much allowing our parishioners to share their time and talents in all aspects of the parish.”

“We are very much accompanying our parishioners as they come through a difficult transition from a year ago when the two communities came together. We are taking the necessary time to get to know the parishioners, the life of the parish, and the parish groups/organizations before suggesting any changes or new initiatives.”

Paul, who several years ago lived in nearby Lakeland and worked at the Catholic high school, lauded the “immense diversity” of people, particularly with the large Hispanic and Filipino populations.

“Like most of the South, the Church here is young and vibrant. It’s invigorating to see people view their parish as their home and regularly share fellowship after Masses,” said Paul, who as pastoral associate oversees social outreach ministry at Sts. Peter and Paul, works with the large population of senior citizens, and is developing plans to reestablish the parish’s young adult ministry.

Luis, Todd and Steven with parishioner Wilmar Rojas, who in August was officially instituted in the ministry of reader as part of his diaconate formation. (Photo courtesy of Todd Carpenter)

The friars look forward to walking with the people of both parishes and to bringing stability and healing.

“Our parishioners can take comfort in knowing that the patience, compassion, experience, and leadership of the friars – and the Franciscan tradition and spirit – will guide the future of their faith community,” said Todd.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province. Information about the Orlando friars can be found on the St. Joseph & St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church Facebook page.

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