Jay Woods Set for Solemn Profession

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This article profiles one of two Holy Name Province members who plan to profess solemn vows in August. Jay Woods, OFM, and Angel Vazquez, OFM, along with friars from two other U.S. provinces are spending most of the month of July on retreat at Mt. Irenaeus.

Jay Woods, OFM (Photo from Provincial archives)

HARTFORD, Conn. – The 13-year career that Jay Woods, OFM, spent in theater, television, and film before joining Holy Name Province was, in many ways, a prequel to his religious vocation. After swapping set designs and costumes for pastoral ministries and vestments, Jay’s ministerial life as a Franciscan friar is no act. It’s a long-running sequel to a life of service to others.

The slap-across-the-forehead moment of religious vocation came unscripted and unrehearsed during a brief exchange with an actor he was costuming for the character Mister in the Broadway production, “The Color Purple.”

“Out of the blue, the actor asked me if the theater was the only profession I had ever wanted to do. When I told him there once was a time that I wanted to be a priest, he responded, ‘Isn’t that interesting? Two vocations of service.’ My internal response was, ‘Who are you calling a servant?’” said Jay, who recently completed his year-long internship – traditional before friars profess their solemn vows – at the parish of St. Patrick-St. Anthony in downtown Hartford.

“But I realized that he was absolutely right. I had felt a strong calling to a vocation of service for my entire life, and that’s how I view my vocation as a Franciscan – service to God, service to my brothers, service to those I am called to minister, and service to those I am called to care for,” said Jay, who is expected to profess his final vows as a friar next month at a special Mass at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, which is staffed by Holy Name Province friars.

Raised in a traditional Catholic household – attending Sunday Mass and religious education classes, and participating as an altar server – Jay was a product of the public school system in Peabody, Massachusetts, which is still home for his parents and two younger siblings and their families. Jay’s faith was important to him as a child and thoughts of the priesthood followed him into adolescence.

Still unsure about which path God was calling him to take – and with an interest in theater – Jay attended Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams because of its strong programs in philosophy and the performing arts. Eventually, theater won out.

After graduating in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in fine and performing arts, with a concentration in theater, and a minor in philosophy, Jay landed a dream job right out of college as costume director at North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, the largest regional playhouse in New England.

Listening to Others
He moved to New York City four and a half years later to work with the revival of “Pacific Overtures,” the first of more than a dozen musicals and stage shows of his own Broadway run as a costume dresser. His most treasured moments came with being the principal dresser for then-new musicals “The Little Mermaid,” “The Color Purple,” and “Wonderland.”

Among his other credits were assistant wardrobe supervisor for the national tour of the stage adaptation of “White Christmas,” and designer and set costumer for several films and television shows that included the ABC hit series “Ugly Betty.” It may not have been evident at the time, but his work in design and wardrobe was preparing him for his Franciscan ministries.

“I was highly intuitive to listening and to sensing the needs of the actors I was dressing into costume. These abilities have served me well in my ministry as a friar because I love spending time listening to others and learning where God is in their lives,” said Jay. “The opportunity to listen to people’s joys and sorrows is a sacred moment. Being allowed into their stories is truly an honor and very humbling. It puts you in the presence of the Holy.”

During his 12-month internship, which began in August 2019, Jay became more than a good listener. He even discovered newfound talents at St. Patrick-St. Anthony. Despite all those years in television and film, he never once stood behind the camera. But as a friar, he has added – out of necessity – camera work to his resume.

“The coronavirus pandemic created the need to find new ways for everyone to remain connected liturgically and socially. We were blessed to be able to install a live-stream camera system during Holy Week – and since then, we continued providing the celebration of daily and weekend Masses, Tuesday night Vespers, Friday evening scripture reflections, and other liturgies,” said Jay, who helped set up and execute the system.

“We continued to offer many scheduled workshops and retreats, switching from in-person to virtual formats using Zoom. The experience reminded me of how important it is to think creatively and outside of the box,” he said.

His biggest project during the past year was to find a suitable and willing community partner for Catherine’s Place – second-floor housing space above the parish offices that provides 12 apartments in a safe and structured living environment for homeless men in drug and alcohol recovery.

Valuing Collaboration and Celebrating Contributions
Through his network of community contacts, he connected the parish to The Open Hearth, a non-profit shelter and housing program in Hartford, which now provides day-to-day management and operational services to Catherine’s Place, the ministry named after Mother Catherine McCauley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy.

Jay, second from left, with The Open Hearth leadership team in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo courtesy of Jay)

“The experience was a beautiful collaboration between the friars, staff, and parishioners of St. Patrick-St. Anthony and the staff at The Open Hearth,” said Jay, who noted that his theatrical background helped expedite the project. “One of the most fulfilling aspects of being a theater designer and dresser is that it’s all so collaborative. Broadway shows do not happen because of one person. Opening night is the work of thousands of people. I am blessed to be in another vocation that values collaboration and celebrates everyone’s contribution to a project.”

He also values the relationships that evolved from his ministry work. “Above all,” says Jay, “I have been blessed with friendships of the outrageously dedicated and talented staff and parishioners. They have taught me what it means to be Church.”

The parish’s “big-hearted volunteers” come to mind – especially those who, on short notice, “helped ready the apartments at Catherine’s Place for 12 grateful men by making beds, tightening fixtures, sanitizing furniture, and much more. They are among the absolute heart of the parish. The memory of their joy and dedication will always be with me,” he said.

Jay added, “I am also grateful for the strong bonds with the five friars from whom I have learned so much – and I am most blessed by the friendships with the homeless, who have taught me what it means to love unconditionally.”

In partnering with The Open Hearth, he said that friars and staff can more attentively respond to the immediate and long-term needs of the homeless, impoverished and addicted who seek assistance daily at the doors of the friary. The struggles of addiction are personal for Jay. It is a road that he once traveled.

Proud and Open About His Recovery
On Sept. 8, 2012, Jay entered a rehabilitation facility for substance abuse. It was the same day he decided to leave the performing arts profession. “The pressures of the industry highly influenced my using, so it was time to get out,” says Jay, who is proud and open about his recovery, and takes great pride in saying that “Sept. 8, 2012, is still my clean date.”

In the early months of his recovery, he began volunteering in a day program for homeless LGBTQ youth and young adults in and around the Salem, Massachusetts, area. Like the conversation with the actor, the call to religious life and a vocation of service jolted him again when he was working with homeless youth. This time he listened more attentively. 

Jay Woods, second from left, is among a group of US-6 friars at a month-long retreat at Mt. Irenaeus in preparation for their solemn profession. Shown with Jay are, from left, Eric Seguin, of  St. John the Baptist Province; Mark MacPherson of St. Barbara Province; Angel Vasquez; and John Boissy, of SJB Province.  (Photo courtesy of Kevin Kriso)

His introduction to the Franciscans – the Conventuals in Granby, Massachusetts – was made by his diocesan spiritual director when he was a college student discerning between religious vocation and theater. “That’s when I first witnessed the Franciscan charism of fraternity in mission. Also, growing up north of Boston, my family and I frequented St. Anthony Shrine. While ministering there two years ago during a summer assignment, I was moved many times over by the graced reality that three generations of my family sat in the same pews occupied by the people I offered a reflection to,” he said, adding, “the kindness and mercy shown by the Holy Name friars in the confessional always struck me as moments of true divine grace.”

Jay began discernment in autumn 2013 with the Franciscan friars of Immaculate Conception Province in Boston. He began his novitiate year in 2014 at the Franciscan Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wisconsin, where on Aug. 2, 2015, on the feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Portiuncula, he professed his first vows.

He returned to Massachusetts to study philosophy from 2015 to 2106 at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. In summer 2016, while completing his clinical pastoral education internship at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Jay says that God made it “abundantly clear” that he needed to make another change.

“My spiritual director, Sr. Marie Puleo, told me very straightforwardly, ‘Jay, from the moment I met you, I knew you were in the wrong province.’ If that wasn’t a message from above,” said Jay, who transferred to Holy Name Province and relocated to St. Joseph Friary in Chicago in September 2016 to begin the interprovincial post-novitiate program.

With his intention to pursue ordination into the priesthood, he spent the next three years studying theology at Catholic Theological Union, during which time his ministry included serving as a chaplain for the incarcerated. He worked mostly in the drug rehabilitation division with men in early-stage recovery, serving as a mentor and spiritual director.

“As someone in recovery, I have always felt that helping others with addiction problems are holy encounters. This experience ignited my passion to advocate for prison and justice reform in Chicago and across the country,” said Jay, who noted that he has been inspired by friars, past and present, who fight against injustice and advocate for peace and equality.

He was moved deeply by Joseph Nangle, OFM, an octogenarian, who was arrested last summer for civil disobedience when he and other brothers protested the atrocities against migrants at the U.S. southern border.

A few weeks later, Jay said he was humbled to march with Joe in New Haven at a similar demonstration bringing to light the same atrocities. “The wisdom and experience of Joe – and so many other friars who are activists and advocates – has been inspiring and encouraging for me to follow in their sandals,” he said.

‘Yes’ to Franciscan Fraternity
What strikes him most about the Franciscans is that “we are simple men, each trying his best to live the Gospel. The Incarnational aspect of our Franciscan charism – celebrating the image and likeness of God in each unique person we meet and in all of creation – is what entices me every day to devote my life to the service of God and creation,” said Jay, who was looking forward to the month of solemn retreat at Mt. Irenaeus as a time to reflect, prepare and immerse himself in contemplation with God in the beauty of the mountains, forests, and rivers of Western New York.

“It will be a time to contemplate my ‘yes’ to the Franciscan fraternity and to serving all of creation,” he said of the retreat that friars make before solemn profession.

Jay with Sr. Cristel Nolan, RSM, a member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony  Parish, in December 2019. (Photo courtesy of Jay)

Jay is excited to be part of the “wonderful journey of the Franciscans in America on the precipice of decisions that will answer the call, ‘Lord, lead us to where you want us to go.’” He is looking forward to having a voice in the Order’s future and the planning for new contemplative fraternities-in-mission, fresh ministry opportunities, innovative intentional communities, and breaking down barriers of fear.

“I am eager to witness how we will answer the whispers of the Holy Spirit to continue to nurture the Body of Christ – a Body which, in these last days, weeks and months, has become even more bruised and bloodied,” he said.

Grateful for being able to invite 40 guests to next month’s Mass of solemn profession at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church – especially since he has seen many recent ordinations and events with far fewer attendees due to pandemic-related restrictions – Jay said he is thrilled that family and friends, including parishioners who have journeyed with him during his internship, will be there to celebrate his vocational milestone.

After professing his final vows, Jay plans to move to Chicago, where he will complete his last year of studies at Catholic Theological Union for his master of divinity degree. On Sept. 26, he is scheduled to be ordained as a deacon with four other brothers and will go on to serve during his transitional diaconate year at Our Lady of Pompeii Shrine, the oldest continuing Italian-American church in the city of Chicago and is affiliated with the Shrine of the Virgin of the Rosary in Pompeii, Italy.

With his interests centered around urban ministry, Jay would like to pursue a master’s degree in social work. “Being Franciscan is meeting people wherever they are in their journey, whether they’re homeless, poor, or in the grips of addiction,” he said.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.