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John Jaskowiak Marks 50 Years as a Friar

This is the third in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The Province’s 2019 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored in June at a special Mass celebrated in New York City. The previous newsletter issue featured Kevin Cronin, OFM.

BOSTON, Mass. – It began as a simple idea, a comforting gift for an ailing friend who had a special devotion to St. Theresa of Avila, founder of the Carmelite order of sisters. John Jaskowiak, OFM, hand-stitched a doll-size habit worn by the Carmelite nuns, outfitted a doll with the garment and presented it to his friend.

“After the first one, I got the idea to create other nun dolls as a way of honoring the legacy of women religious. It’s also a way to preserve history, as many orders no longer exist,” John said in a telephone interview from St. Anthony Shrine in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, the only home he has known as a Franciscan friar.

Ever since creating that gift, John has made a habit – and a hobby – of handcrafting doll-size authentic and historically precise attire worn by women religious around the world, replicating every detail right down to the crest, color, pockets and pleats. This has evolved into an impressive 150-piece collection, with each doll representing a different religious order. He is so meticulous about the stitch work and exact details that he researches the habits and tries to get detailed drawings before he cranks up his sewing machine.

John with his nun dolls in the lobby of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. (Photo courtesy of John.)

Although these nun habit-attired dolls are not for sale, part of the collection is on view in the lobby of the church on Arch Street, while most of them are displayed on shelves and cabinets in a room at the friary.

In a way, John’s unique collection is a personal acknowledgment of the impact that a group of nuns had on his own religious vocation. As John marks his 50th anniversary since his first profession as a Franciscan friar, he reminisced about the early influence of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the order of nuns that taught at his grammar school, St. John Cantius, in northeast Philadelphia, where he was born and raised.

“The sisters were very pious women. There was a special aura and holiness about them, especially when they pulled the chapel veil across their face to receive Communion. It was part of the mystery and reverence – something that always fascinated me about our faith when I was a child,” said John, whose doll collection has been featured in the Boston Herald.

First Vocation Stop: The Augustinians
The product of a close-knit community of Polish, Irish and German immigrants, John loved religion class and serving as an altar boy at the parish of St. John Cantius. In addition to the nuns, there was another important woman that influenced his vocation – his mother, Cecelia.

“It was all intertwined – the strong example of my mother being a devout churchgoer, and the presence of the nuns. But the thing for me was the pageantry of the high Mass – the chanting, incense, the group of altar boys serving at the Mass, and reverence for the Eucharist. I loved being part of that. It gives me goose bumps just talking about it,” said John, the youngest of three children.

A vivid memory of his adolescence was rising before the sun came up every Saturday morning to help his father, a milkman, deliver hundreds of milk bottles to the doorsteps of homes throughout the neighborhood. He and his two sisters were raised in the frame house that his grandfather built, just one block from where John’s mother grew up. Extended family also lived in the neighborhood where a large contingent of Jaskowiak immigrants planted their roots.

The thoughts of religious vocation that stirred in his early childhood followed John to Fr. Judge High School, which was run by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. Influenced by a family friend, John joined the Order of St. Augustine, and upon entering a three-year pre-novitiate program at Augustinian Academy on Staten Island, N.Y., he took the name Anthony of Padua, who ironically was an Augustinian before becoming a Franciscan.

John’s first encounters with the Franciscans were with friars who came to the academy weekly to hear confessions. But it wasn’t until he moved to an Augustinian monastery in Massachusetts, where he resided while taking theology, English and history courses at Merrimack College, that he struck an interest in Holy Name Province after meeting several Franciscan friars in his college classes, among them Anthony LoGalbo, OFM, and James Jones, OFM.

John during his teaching career in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy of John.)

“I loved the Augustinians, but there was something different about the Franciscans. They seemed to have a special fraternity – that’s what appealed to me,” explained John, who added, “They were always very inclusive. I remember being invited to a Christmas party hosted by the Franciscans when I was still an Augustinian. They were handing out presents, and they had a gift for each of their visitors, including me. They made you feel like part of them.”

That was John’s watershed moment. After many visits and spending time at the Franciscan friary in Rye Beach, N.H. – and just months away from his solemn vows with the Augustinians – John decided to switch orders. After leaving the Augustinians, he spent two months at Rye Beach before being received into Holy Name Province at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in June 1968 in Lafayette, N.J. He went on to make his first vows in 1969, also at St. Raphael’s, and professed his solemn vows in 1972 at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.

Nursing and Education Ministries
John received an LPN degree while with the Augustinians, and later his RN degree at Laboure School of Nursing in 1972 while in formation with Holy Name Province. Assigned to St. Anthony Shrine, John worked as an orthopedic nurse from 1973 to 1976 at Carney Hospital in Dorchester, Mass., the first Catholic medical institution in New England.

Deciding to switch gears and pursue a ministry that was also influenced by the nuns that taught him in grammar school, John enrolled at Boston’s Emmanuel College in 1976 and earned a bachelor’s degree in primary education two years later. He taught religion to third and fifth-grade students at St. Brigid grammar school from 1978 to 1983.

John says that teaching was one of his most rewarding ministries – and apparently, one that is still reaping benefits. “Former students still call and visit. One student in his 50s told me that my teaching provided a solid foundation that has helped him to be a good father to his three children. That is very gratifying to hear,” John said.

But he didn’t abandon health care altogether when he was teaching at St. Brigid – moonlighting as a visiting nurse, dropping in on homebound elderly members of the Third Order of St. Francis, and taking care of friars at the Shrine. These days, he continues to serve as the friary’s unofficial medical consultant, checking blood pressure and responding to health care questions when friars ask. His self-taught expert tailoring talents don’t go unnoticed either, as he is often pressed into duty, sewing a loose button and making alterations to garments.

His teaching ministry came to an end in 1983, when he was asked to devote full time to administrative financial duties at St. Anthony.

Two nun dolls wearing the habits of the sisters who influenced John’s life in grammar school. (Photo courtesy of John.)

“Living at the Shrine all my life has been wonderful for me. Meeting so many people has been a blessing. You just hope you were able to make a good impression. But it’s really God’s hand and you’re just the vessel playing a small role,” said John, who enjoys listening to the music of his collection of cassettes and vinyl records (not surprising, since he proudly professes that he doesn’t have a cell phone or an email address).

“Being able to do what you think you can do, and how that best serves the greater good – that is a unique aspect of Holy Name Province and something that has made me proud to be a Franciscan,” John said. “The Provincial leadership is open to what you have to say. They listen to what you think is best for yourself and the Province.”

When looking back on the past 50 years, it was likely not happenstance that John’s faith was nurtured by an order of religious women whose ministries were centered on teaching and nursing. It was probably more by design than by chance that John was raised in a parish whose namesake, St. John Cantius – the patron saint of Poland, Lithuania and students – was well known for his humility, amiable disposition and love of teaching. John’s Franciscan life has paralleled that of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and St. John Cantius – and that is no coincidence at all.

— Stephen Mangione, a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

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