This is the first in a series of profiles of the friars celebrating major anniversaries of profession this year.
TRIANGLE, Va. — John Heffernan, OFM, assistant pastor at St. Francis Church here, is grateful for growing and learning as a friar, even after 25 years of being a Franciscan.
“I’m still grateful after all these years,” he said, as he anticipates celebrating the 25th anniversary of his profession with the Province in June. “It’s been a time of growth as a brother and learning many things from my friar brothers. For that, I’m grateful.”
John is not only still learning, but teaching, too, coordinating adult education at St. Francis. As assistant pastor to Charles Miller, OFM, John shares in all ministries, but is especially responsible for the art environment at the church, including seasonal decorations and flowers, and for coordinating adult education.
In his classes, he likes to focus on scripture and is studying the Old Testament right now with the group. “What I like to do is help people find things themselves. I lay out the information and the possibilities that they can discover, especially how the scriptures are still relevant today. They spoke before and they speak now.”
Introduction to Franciscans
John was first introduced to the Order while a student at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary near Boston in 1981. He met friars from St. Anthony Shrine who were having an event in the park near Boston Common to commemorate the 800th birthday of St. Francis. He had some familiarity with the Franciscans because F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, Stephen Doyle, OFM, and Joseph Doino, OFM, were his professors at the seminary. He also had met Louis Canino, OFM, while involved with the Francis Players, performing in a show along with Michael Duffy, OFM, Richard McFeely, OFM, and Robert Frazetta, OFM, in East Boston.
Being assigned to his first ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Church on Long Beach Island, N.J., was a long way from home for this Buffalo, N.Y., native. At St. Francis, he was an associate pastor and youth minister.
In 1996, David McBriar, OFM, invited John to join St. Francis of Assisi Church in Raleigh, N.C., a ministry that he said was among his favorites. “It was a wonderful assignment — a lot of things began and grew there,” he said, including the Hispanic ministry that he was happy to be part of.
John embraced the Hispanic ministry, learning Spanish along the way.
“The ministry in Raleigh and Durham was the most exciting time in my career. It was a great project, and fun to be working with other friars. Our hopes and goals were met in a vision and dream for those in the parish. We worked on it together.”
John, who likes to work collaboratively, also spent two and a half years in Peru. While the ministry was exciting, he found Peru isolated and lonely and missed his siblings in Buffalo and brothers in the Province. “I was also tired of being sick so frequently,” he said, adding “you get lots of intestinal bugs.”
He returned to the United States in 2008 and settled in Triangle, at what he calls a moderately large parish.
Pride in Holy Name Province
He enjoys his work at the parish and is glad to be part of Holy Name.
“I’m proud of our commitment to being involved in social justice issues, along with our commitment to collaborate and work with people in need.”
It’s for this work that he would like to be remembered in this world. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who was kind,” said the friar. “I probably won’t be, but I’d like to be.”
He did share, though, his passion for cooking and said he especially likes preparing seafood at the friary. He also likes historical biographies and was currently reading one on the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. “I’m not much for TV.”
Movies do entertain him, however, particularly those by independent movie houses, which he seeks out in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area.
John said he also was once a skier who enjoyed the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, and the slopes of Colorado.
“I’m very grateful to several friars who have inspired and motivated me. In particular, I’ll always be delighted that David McBriar invited me to come to Durham. It was a time filled with missionary energy and great encouragement from David’s pastoral example.”
He continued, “Angelus Gambatese, OFM, is another friar who pushed me onto a new frontier. In 1989, Angelus began what was then a fairly ambitious and innovative ministry to persons suffering from AIDS. Health care was minimally available for these people, and Angelus invited me to come to Paterson, N.J., where he was working, and take a post at St. Joseph Hospital to offer dental care for people with AIDS.
“It was quite pioneering,” John said. “There were lots of unknowns in those days. It was a formidable task and tremendous. I later took a post with the New Jersey Dental School at a clinic in Camden, N.J. It was a St. Francis experience for which I’ll always be grateful to Angelus for his compassion and insight.”
Shown in the photo behind is Daniel Kenna, OFM, who ministered with John in Beach Haven, N.J., in the early 1990s and later in North Carolina.
— Wendy Healy is a freelance writer living in Connecticut and a frequent contributor to HNP Today.