Jubilarian Profile: John Felice Commemorates 50 Years as a Friar

Wendy Healy Friar News

This is the third in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of profession in 2013. The previous issue of HNP Today featured Bernard Creighton, OFM

NEW YORK — As he prepares to celebrate his 50th year as a Franciscan, John Felice, OFM, the former Provincial Minister, describes his rich ministry as “long and interesting.”

Though he is most known for creating dignified housing for the marginalized, John has also worked in other justice and peace efforts as well several administrative roles.

Today, the Long Island native is director of St. Francis Friends of the Poor, the program for the homeless and mentally ill that he co-founded with John McVean, OFM, and Thomas Walters, OFM, more than 30 years ago.

He preaches at morning Masses and hears confessions at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, where he lives at the friary. He calls himself a veteran New Yorker and has spent his entire career not more than 40 miles from his hometown of Patchogue, where he attended Catholic high school.

Over the past 50 years, the two-term Provincial Minister (1997 to 2006) was also a provincial councilor for two terms from 1976 to 1982, and had three terms as pastor and guardian from 1973 to 1982 for Holy Name Province’s historic church on West 31st Street in Manhattan.

While the Province grew and expanded its programs and services to the marginalized under John’s leadership, he is quick to point out that any vision that he might have is a gift of the Spirit, and that he is grateful for the many opportunities that the Province has afforded him.

“I am certainly not alone when I do these things, and I have no sense that any of it was something that I pulled off by myself,” he said. “I had the opportunity to do some things and make a difference.”

Among those “things” are starting the Province’s pre-novitiate program in the Bronx, N.Y., along with launching the Province’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office. He also is credited with creating the Benevolence Trust to support the works of the friars in social justice.

John first met the friars while a freshman at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., one of the two colleges sponsored by Holy Name Province. He alludes to admiring the friars’ “simplicity and heart and genuine affection for one another,” and being impressed with their work and spirit.

Gratitude for Gift of the Province
After finishing his freshman year at SBU, John decided to join the friars. He studied at St. Joseph Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., for a year and then was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael Novitiate in 1962, where he professed his first vows the following year. He completed his undergraduate education at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., earning his BA in philosophy from St. Bonaventure University in 1965. He then studied at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., earning his bachelor’s degree in sacred theology in 1969. John was ordained as a priest in the fall of 1968.

“Joining the friars was the smartest thing I ever did,” he said. “The Province, in its great kindness, accepted me into the Order and I remain always grateful for that first great gift.”

During summers in Washington, he also worked toward a graduate degree in sociology at Catholic University. He hoped to complete his graduate work when Provincial Minister Finian Kerwin, OFM, intervened with other plans.

“He insisted that I join the Province’s vocation office,” John recalls, where he began his first ministry in New York City in 1969.

While he was in the vocation ministry, he started the Province’s pre-novitiate program in the Bronx, N.Y., which lasted for 25 years. Data showed that young men began to make their career choices in their junior year of college, and he wanted a program that might appeal to them. “It was a good project and served the Province well for the times.”

As John was preparing to go to the Bronx to work at this program, again, Finian intervened. “So Finian gets me elected as pastor and guardian of St. Francis Church in Manhattan. I am 31 years old, the youngest friar in the house, and not really interested in the job,” he said with a smile, citing the challenges associated with running a friary of 70 men right after Vatican II.

But John admits that his time there was “great fun and a great challenge” after all. In addition to overseeing a large and active church and friary and implementing the post-Vatican II vision of ministry, he enhanced the development office. Faced with an aging building with deferred maintenance, John knew that in order to finance needed renovations of both the friary and the church, he would have to raise funds.

He also envisioned ways to foster fraternal life among the friars, who, after Vatican II, were feeling a bit beleaguered. John initiated cookouts on the roof, special events in the friary, and speakers for seminars to strengthen the life and ministry of the friars.

He recalls, “It was a big house in a transitional period of real challenge for both older and younger friars. I wanted to make the transition with grace and humor.” And so, he did.

Toward the end of his third term as pastor, John became involved with the needs of the mentally ill in New York City, many of whom had been put out on the streets when the institutions that cared for them were closed during the 1970s. Homelessness among this population was becoming a big problem, and John joined John McVean and Tom Walters to develop residences for the homeless mentally ill under the auspices of St. Francis Friends of the Poor. At first, St. Francis Friends bought an old hotel to house those in need and, over the next 16 years, the organization opened two more residences. Today, SFFP runs three residences offering permanent housing with supportive services to 255 tenants.

When St. Francis Friends was launched in 1980, John was 40 years old and had already made a name for the Franciscans in creating model program to house the mentally ill. He worked with both city and state agencies to help create laws and policies to help this population, as well as assist others from around the country to establish similar programs. “I was very happy at the residences and not planning a change.”

Appreciation for Assignments 
In his own words: “Then comes the (Provincial) Chapter of 1996.” He recalls rumors about his candidacy for Provincial and was deeply concerned. “I had no interest at all. I felt out of the loop. I was working on the streets for the past 16 years and everyone knew I didn’t feel competent for the job.”

“But I got elected anyway,” he said with a smile, adding, “I did the best I could.”

As he thought about his new assignment, he considered what he could bring to the job. “I’ll bring my experience,” he thought, “on social justice issues and working with the laity in ministry.”

First on his list of priorities was starting the JPIC Office, and the Benevolence Trust. He also encouraged the colleges — SBU and Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. — to promote social justice among the students by establishing Franciscan Centers for Social Concern.

“I did not believe that it was the job of just a handful of concerned friars who wanted to be involved in social justice. I felt that every ministry of the Province should be involved in the needs of the poor.”

And so, social justice became one of the main themes of John’s tenure as Provincial Minister. Also during his administration, the Province formed a partnership with developers that led to the construction of the new 31st Street friary and Provincial headquarters as well as The Epic building next door.

When his two terms were up in 2005, he asked to return to the work of the residences. “I have been there ever since,” he said.

As he looks back on his career, he reflects on the mentorship of Finian, the great help of Charles Miller, OFM, and Edward Coughlin, OFM, during his time as Provincial, and of course, John McVean and Tom Walters.

In his spare time, John likes to read, mostly publications such as The London Tablet, The New Yorker, Crain’s Business, and The New York Times. He said he reads them in paper format, not on an e-reader. “I am an old fashioned guy,” he says, “and not big on hobbies.”

Describing himself as “a simple man,” he says he always “takes God at His word, and never feels isolated or alone.” Taking God at His word has been the touchstone of how he lives his life and views the world. He encourages people to “do their homework” on strengthening their faith. His ministry style is to support people as they find their own way on their journey of faith.

“Like God promised, ‘I will be with you always — while you figure it out.’ He is not there to solve our problems but to walk with us through them.”

Of his own journey of faith, John says he has been a “very lucky man.”

“Being one of the friars has been the privilege of my life.”

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today. Upcoming issues of the newsletter will feature jubilarians Richard James, OFM, and Michael Madden, OFM.