This is the first in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The 2013 silver and golden jubilarians will honored at a Province Mass in June.
STONEVILLE, N.C. — Louis Canino, OFM, director of St. Francis Springs Prayer Center, knew he wanted to be a priest since he was a first-grader growing up in Syracuse, N.Y.
“There was a pastor who I had idolized since first grade. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, ‘Fr. Walsh,’” recalled the affable and well-regarded friar who celebrates 50 years of profession as a Franciscan friar this year.
In high school when he was involved in typical teenage activities with friends, he said he tried to dismiss the idea of joining the priesthood, but once again, the calling was loud and clear. He was encouraged by his parish priest to “give ministry a try,” and the rest is history, as they say.
This dedicated listening to God’s calling, or holy obedience as Louis calls it, has clearly defined his ministry over the last half century.
His openness to go where he was asked allowed him to take assignments at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and twice at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, and gave him the energy to juggle several roles at once, including roles as Provincial Councilor, rector of St. Anthony Shrine, director of the Province’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation efforts, and overseeing ministry to the poor at St. Francis House in Boston in the mid-80s. “I was to the point of burn-out,” he recalled. Holy obedience has also allowed him to be a voice of the needy, and an advocate of social justice over the years.
While Louis perhaps has not had as many assignments as other friars, spending the last eight years at the prayer center and 21 at the downtown Franciscan Center in Greensboro, N.C., he has left a legacy wherever he has worked. “I’ve had a stick-to-it-tive-ness at almost every place,” he said with a smile.
One of his most memorable assignments was at St. Anthony Shrine, where he cofounded the St. Francis House, a food and shelter program for people in need. Today, the program is highly recognized throughout New England and a model for others.
After graduation from the Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, Louis entered St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary, Callicoon, N.Y. in 1960. He was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael’s novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., in 1962 and professed his vows there in 1963. He then continued his college education at the Province’s former house of philosophy in Rye Beach, N.J., earning a degree from St. Bonaventure University in 1965. He obtained a degree in theology from The Catholic University, Washington, D.C., a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Boston State College, and a master’s in spiritual direction from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He professed his vows in 1963 in Lafayette, N.J.
Following his ordination in 1969, Louis was assigned to St. Elizabeth’s Church in Wyckoff, N.J., St. Anthony Shrine, and at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Wilkes-Barre, where he was pastor. He was then preparing to be the formation director for a small religious community in Maryland, when the Province asked him to return to St. Anthony Shrine.
Although he didn’t initially want to return, once again he was obedient to the call of his superiors and became the shrine’s rector in 1982.
“My bags were packed to go to the Washington area and I get a call from the Province, ‘Can you come to New York City? We have to talk to you.’” He would learn that he was being assigned to the shrine, and while he didn’t really understand the reasoning, years later it would all make sense. He was called to advocate for the poor and establish St. Francis House.
“It’s not what I want, but if this is what you want me to do, I’ll do it,” Louis recalled thinking. “I believed in holy obedience.”
At the time, with deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the homeless problem in the Boston area had burgeoned, and Louis and the friars at the ministry in downtown Boston tackled it head on, creating St. Francis House and building a dedicated facility.
“Arch Street, as we refer to the shrine, was doing well financially and what we were doing was great – giving out coffee and sandwiches – but we had to do more. That’s where the idea of St. Francis House was born. We took a holistic approach, not just offering food and shelter, but medical care, job counseling, and more.” Louis built on the foundation set by Raymond Mann, OFM, Joseph Nangle, OFM, and John Quinn, OFM, who established the initial breadline. The friars couldn’t have been more pleased with their outreach efforts, helping more than 350 people a day.
Louis reflects: “What it said to me was, ‘God, now I know why you brought me to Arch Street. Not to run the shrine, per se, but to be the initiator for St. Francis House. I saw how God worked and once again witnessed the value of holy obedience.”
With the center well established, Louis saw his work in Boston once again complete and asked the Province leadership for a new assignment preceded a sabbatical at Duquesne to study spirituality.
Only two months into his studies, holy obedience was at work again, when the Province asked him to go to Greensboro, N.C., to establish an urban storefront ministry. The Franciscan Center was born 22 years ago. The center was part of a Franciscan effort in the area that included taking on a new parish and beginning campus ministry at two colleges.
Louis managed the center, which included a Christian bookstore, Eucharist once a week, mid-week liturgy, and spiritual direction program. In addition to preaching here, Louis was also was a supply pastor for 10 local churches.
“I still had a burning in my heart to do a prayer and retreat center.” He got permission from then-Provincial Minister John Felice, OFM, to conduct a feasibility study for the needs in the community, and the response was astounding. In 2005, the St. Francis Springs Prayer Center, one of the most picturesque spiritual retreat centers in the United States, opened.
Today, with a staff of three full-time and two part-time members as well as 122 volunteers, the retreat center, which can host 40 people, welcomes 8,000 to 10,000 visitors a year. Built from the ground, with a $4+ million capital campaign, the center is a dream come true for Louis.
“I learned that God’s plan and our time and God’s time are different. I wanted to do this for years, and God told me when the time was right.”
Facing a hefty financial burden to build, Louis also learned that the center was God’s project, not his. “If it’s God’s project, he’ll take care of it.” Donations were always there when needed.
The best part of the ministry, he said, is the timing of a retreat center. “I think, at this time in the history of the Church and the world, this is probably one of the Holy Name’s most important ministries. We believe everyone has a contemplative bent; it’s one of the most undeveloped and undernourished gifts. We nourish that.
“If people really engage in qualitative prayer, we realize that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. There will never be peace in the world, unless there is justice. Because it’s an interfaith center, we revere and respect all faith traditions. Because of this dynamic, people feel welcomed, and it’s a catalyst for more interfaith dialogue and exchange.”
Louis describes himself as a regular guy with simple tastes and who enjoys seeing his three siblings once or twice a year — not as often as he’d like, but they all live in Central New York.
He enjoys a good movie and writing plays, several of which, on the lives of St. Francis and Abraham, have been performed in various cities.
He also likes quiet time to read and loves a good comedy. Louis said he would like to be remembered in this world as a humorous, kind and free-spirited person.
“I could not be more affirmed in my life as a friar.” He knows he made the right vocation choice, by following his first-grade heart, when he gets cards from visitors to the center who thank him for listening and helping, especially with grief issues and spiritual direction.
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.