Jubilarian Profile: John McVean Celebrates 50 Years as a Friar

HNP Communications Friar News

This is the third in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2012. The Feb. 15 issue of HNP Today featured Charles Miller, OFM.

NEW YORK — John McVean, OFM, program director of St. Francis Friends of the Poor, will celebrate 50 years as a friar this summer.

Unlike other jubilarians who have had many ministries over the years, John’s focus has been dedicated solely to working for marginalized people of society out of St. Francis Friary in New York City. The Upstate New York native was first assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Church after receiving a master’s degree in sociology from The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and has spent 43 years at St. Francis.

“I took a vow of stability,” he joked. “It’s been my only assignment.” That one assignment, however, has remained as relevant and vibrant as when it began, largely because of John’s dedication.

To what does he attribute his longevity? “You’ve got to be a little crazy yourself to relate to the population,” he said. But joking aside, John has a heart for — and a good understanding of — the chronically mentally ill without the benefit of any formal training. “Had I known then what I know now, I would’ve gotten a degree in social work.”

He admits, however, that though a lot of work is still left to be done in society, in general, programs like the Friends have dispelled “ignorance and prejudice against the mentally ill.”

His ministry first began when former Provincial Minister, the late Finian Kerwin, OFM, asked him to develop a social outreach program in New York City.

“It was after Vatican II,” recalled John, “and the pope said, ‘Let’s open the windows to the Church.’ Finian said, ‘Let’s open the windows of the Province and let’s go out to the people.’”

Helping the Needy
With that mandate, John researched what communities in New York City were underserved. At first, he looked to help senior citizens, many of whom came to church, but his focus quickly shifted. “What I stumbled on totally by accident was the deinstitutionalization of patients from state mental hospitals.”

John recalled that in the 1950s and 1960s, the development of anti-psychotic medications gave new hope to the throngs of chronically mentally ill people confined to state hospitals. When they were first discharged into the communities, he recalled, the people floundered, because there were no communities to help them and many were abandoned by their families.

Many of the people ended up living in what were called single-room occupancy — or SRO — hotels in New York City. Quite often, John said, the hotels were run down and filled with derelicts. The chronically mentally ill, not being compliant with medications because they had no one to help them, would often relapse and end up hospitalized again.

John wondered if there was a way to break what he called this revolving door cycle. At the same time, New York City was gentrifying and many of the SRO hotels were being bought by developers and renovated into expensive apartment houses or ritzy hotels. The problem of the chronically mentally ill living in New York City was further compounded because the residents of the SROs were being displaced and becoming homeless.

Pondering what to do, John happened to meet a psychiatric social worker with the State Department of Mental Health in the Aberdeen SRO Hotel on W. 32nd Street, near St. Francis of Assisi Church, which has housed many of the people.

“He and I got talking and one thing led to another. We decided to pool our resources to help these folks.”

That was the beginning of St. Francis Friends of the Poor, which today operates a multi-million dollar budget and houses approximately 250 people in three Midtown Manhattan residences.

In 1979, the Province established St. Francis Friends of the Poor as a non-profit organization, and it began raising money. In 1980, with a low-interest loan from the Province, the organization bought its first SRO hotel on 24th Street and began transitioning that into housing for the chronic mentally ill. The first clients of SFFP were those displaced from the sale of the Aberdeen. In 1982, St. Francis Friends of the Poor bought a second hotel on 22nd Street and added a third on 17th Street in 1986.

A Model of Success
Today, with offices in the 22nd Street site, the residences — as they are often called — are one of the most successful programs of its kind in New York, often lauded by city government and looked to as a model by others.

With a staff of more than 35, including a building management team and psychiatric nurse clinicians, activity therapists, entitlement specialists and a part-time medical doctor, Friends is a full-service program. John oversees the program staff of professionals.

“My training was like  baptism by fire,” said John, who had no formal mental health training. “I totally stumbled into this. God sure works in strange ways.”

John’s acquaintance with the friars was also by chance. He initially wanted to go to Holy Cross College, but since the family did not have the money for an expensive education, he had to rely on New York State scholarships, which he received to attend St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., where he met the friars. With a degree in philosophy from SBU, he went on to Catholic University for graduate school.

He is proud of his work with SFFP, and is grateful to the Province for its support. “We (John Felice, OFM, and Thomas Walters, OFM) have had an impact in the city. We’re most proud of being considered in the mental health field as the inventors and founders of supportive services for an at-risk population. We coined the reality of having professional staff right on-site to help this at-risk community.”

The Friends friar team has lectured on this model of ministry around the world, and is delighted that others have followed in its footsteps, especially for housing other at-risk populations, such as single mothers or AIDS patients. “There are many variations on a theme,” said John.

John is also delighted that his work allows him to celebrate Mass and hear confessions at St. Francis of Assisi Church, next door to St. Francis Friary where he lives.

He is involved in long-range planning for the residences, especially considering how to replace the organization’s management when this team is retired.

Grateful to the Province
“The Province has been very supportive in allowing us to go in a whole new direction. I’m happy to be part of a tradition of a Province that has been willing to let its men try new things.”

Over the years, he said, he has felt grateful for the fraternity of friars like John Felice and Tom Walters, as well as the late Peter Sheridan, OFM, and Jerome Kelly, OFM.

John is shy to admit that he’s a standout at crossword puzzles, completing eight to 10 a week. “I used to hate them,” he said with a smile. He began when he quit his two-pack-a-day smoking habit 20 years ago.

He would like to be remembered in life “as having lived up to the Franciscan tradition of identifying with the poor and the less fortunate, and making a difference in their lives.”

“God works in strange ways with strange people like me.”

— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today and author of Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal after 9/11.