Friars, Worshippers Celebrate 50-Year History of St. Francis Chapel

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. – Friars and worshippers attended a closing Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Luke’s Church in celebration of the decades of Franciscan presence at the popular mall ministry of St. Francis Chapel in the Wolf Road Shopping Center in the town of Colonie.

The Chapel on Wolf Road in West Albany was officially closed on June 30 – one of nine Fraternities-in-Mission from which Holy Name Province withdrew friars this year as part of a two-year collegial process called Fraternal Ecology to better position the Province to meet its ministerial commitments and maintain its core component of a fraternal community.

Friars and people who after the closing Mass celebrated for St. Francis Chapel outside Albany. (Photo courtesy of  Tina Rovelli)

The Sept. 4 Mass at St. Luke’s was celebrated by Michael Tyson, OFM, who was joined by concelebrants Charles O’Connor, OFM, and Gabriel Scarfia, OFM, to mark the end of 50 years of service at the Chapel, from December 1970 to March 2020, by Holy Name Province friars – and to honor the friendships and longtime worshippers from across the Albany area, and acknowledge the history and traditions of the half-century-old Chapel known for its convivial atmosphere.

“Our closing Mass was well attended and I was glad that we were able to meet and talk afterward with our faithful Chapel worshippers and supporters,” said Mike, who spoke during his homily about the ministry partnership between the friars and laity throughout the 50 years.

“Despite the closing of the Chapel, he pointed us forward in living out and sharing the Gospel,” Gabriel said of Mike’s homily message.

Tina Rovelli, a longtime worshipper at the Chapel, said that the St. Luke Church was chosen for the Mass of Thanksgiving because it has regular weekday Masses and many former Chapel regulars live in or near Schenectady. She said that Fr. Dominic Isopo, pastor at St. Luke’s, was kind enough to allow the Franciscan friars to concelebrate the 11 a.m. Mass – which was followed by an informal gathering in the parking lot of the church, enabling friars and former Chapel worshippers to greet and bid farewell to one another.

“It was a welcome interaction, as the friars prepared to move to new assignments and the Chapel-goers were choosing new churches. Everyone was thankful to gain closure from this get-together,” said Rovelli, who had been connected to the St. Francis Chapel since 1991 when her husband, Anthony, was asked by Giles Bello, OFM, the director of the mall ministry at the time, to serve as the vocalist, guitarist, and music coordinator.

Two years later, she was asked to be commissioned as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion – and, at that point, volunteered wherever she was needed, which included lector, organist, and bulletin coordinator. In 1996, her husband became the office manager and served in that role until the Chapel closed.

Early Departure, Delayed Farewell
After eight months of discussion and anticipation, it was determined that a farewell Mass would be important to Chapel worshippers and participants, according to Mike, who had spent six years at the Chapel, along with other friars, celebrating Mass, hearing confession, and providing spiritual counsel for the regulars, mall shoppers, local employees, travelers, and others from surrounding communities.

Mike Tyson with a woman who attended the  chapel near Albany. (Photo courtesy of Tina Rovelli)

“It was a beautiful celebration that ended too quickly. We know that people were immensely disappointed, but they also understood the reasons for the Chapel closing,” said Mike, who moved to Butler, New Jersey, the weekend after the celebratory Mass.

Rovelli said the abrupt closure of the Chapel in March due to the Covid-19 outbreak deprived worshippers of the opportunity for closure.

“People had thought there would be time for a celebration at the Chapel. We were planning for a Mass and buffet before the end of May. Then COVID hit and the lease on the building expired on June 30,” Rovelli said.

“We were like a family, so of course we were devastated to hear that our beloved Chapel was closing,” said Sue Hungershafer, a daily communicant who organized the celebration at St. Luke Church.

“The Chapel was a big part of my life – Father Bill DeBiase married me and my husband. I served as a lector and Eucharistic Minister, and I volunteered to wash the altar linens and serve at the information desk,” said Hungershafer, who often brought her parents to Mass because they were fond of the Chapel.

Atmosphere, Amenities Appreciated
The regulars and occasional visitors alike appreciated both the spiritual atmosphere and the practical amenities that the friars offered at the Chapel. For half a century, this ministry provided Mass, confession, and a welcoming atmosphere and spiritual refuge to those who stopped by.

Gabriel Scarfia, Charles O’Connor, and Mike Tyson at the celebration of 50 years of ministry at St. Francis Chapel, near Albany.  (Photo courtesy of  Tina Rovelli)

“Many people were especially appreciative of the sacrament of reconciliation. Many came a long distance to have their confessions heard by a friar,” said Charles, who had served at the Chapel since 2017.

“Since we couldn’t have a big celebration in the spring, it was good that we were able to have the Thanksgiving Mass. When we gathered afterward, people reminisced about the many friars who had served at the Chapel through the years. And we had many dedicated lay people of deep faith – like Tina and Anthony,” he added.

Founded in December 1970, St. Francis Chapel had often been described as a spiritual oasis. Since 1999, after the closing of the Northway Shopping Center – its original location – the Chapel was relocated among retail outlets, restaurants, and commercial businesses in the Wolf Road Shoppers Park strip mall.

The impact of the Franciscan charism and the welcoming way of the friars inspired many of the Chapel’s regular attendees to serve in lay ministries, such as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, lectors, and music ministers. There had been three Masses on weekdays and five Masses every Saturday. The Chapel was closed on Sunday.

Friars Gabriel Scarfia, Charles O’Connor, and Mike Tyson at the celebration of 50 years of ministry at the Albany chapel. (Photo courtesy of Tina Rovelli)

To publicize the Chapel’s services to out-of-towners, Mike had made a practice of taking the weekly bulletin to hotels in the capital district. “I dropped off bulletins to 25 hotels every week,” he said.

Charles recalled people often visiting the Chapel, simply sitting quietly in prayer and reflection.

Rovelli said people always seemed appreciative of the message of the friars. “Some of the priests who served at the Chapel had been foreign missionaries, and their homilies showed the unifying factor of Catholicism throughout the world,” she said. “The Franciscan charism of bringing holiness and scripture to the multitude is so beneficial. I like many of the teachings of St. Francis, as stated in The Canticle – especially his belief in bringing Christ to the marketplace.”

On the evening of Sept. 4, Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, presided at Mass at the St. Bernardine of Siena Friary on the campus of Siena College in Loudonville – during which he focused his homily on the 50 years of service by the friars at St. Francis Chapel.

According to Gabriel, Kevin – who thanked the most recent friar team for their good work at the Chapel – noted that it was the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that inspired the friars to establish the chapel mall ministry “to be where the people were.”

Gabriel was reassigned in September to Buffalo, while Charles is now ministering at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts. Other friars who recently served at St. Francis Chapel include Gerard Lee, OFM, who was the director before Mike Tyson took the position in 2017, Bill DeBiase, OFM, Ambrose Donohue, OFM, Reginald Reddy, OFM, and Ignatius Smith, OFM.

In addition to St. Francis Chapel, friars of Holy Name Province this year withdrew from ministry sites in Athens, Georgia; Greenville, South Carolina; Orlando, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; Wilmington, Delaware; Wood-Ridge, New Jersey; and New York City. Seven of the other eight locations were parishes and the eighth was a university ministry center.

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