This is the second in a series of profiles of Holy Name Province friars who are marking major anniversaries as Franciscans in 2015. Xavier and the other jubilarians commemorating 50 and 25 years of profession will be honored by the Province in June.
PHILADELPHIA — After four years in the Navy as a young sailor, Xavier De La Huerta, OFM, made a mid-course correction and entered religious life, a journey he has enjoyed for the past 50 years.
The friendly and humble brother, who serves at St. Francis Inn, the Province’s busy soup kitchen in Philadelphia, celebrates a milestone this year, commemorating a ministry focused on helping those in need.
In fact, 34 of his 50 years as a Franciscan have been spent at St. Francis Inn, where he says he has “lived the life of faith.” It’s easy to see his outreach to the poor as he continually befriends guests of the Inn and listens to their challenges.
“This place (the Inn) belongs to God, not to us. I’m just an instrument of God,” said the friar who describes himself as old-fashioned for getting by without an email address or a cell phone. He is perhaps best known for saying, “If you want to get in touch with me, ask the Holy Spirit to find me. He makes my assignments.”
This faithful approach to life has defined much of Xavier’s work as a friar. While his assignments have included several as a cook, he doesn’t describe himself as such, but rather, as someone who has helped the poor. “I like cooking, but I like being involved with the people more,” he said with a smile.
Turning Lives Around
“I identify myself with the guests at the Inn,” he explained. “My guests know me well and many have told me that I’ve helped turn their lives around. I’ve seen a man on drugs go on to become a school principal. They teach me to be dependent on God and that God is running the world.”
Xavier says he gives this same message to new volunteers at the Inn. “I tell them to depend on God, because this place is run by God.”
This outlook on life was not always the case for Xavier, who joined the Franciscans at age 28. It was during the Cuban missile crisis, when he was storekeeper on a Navy destroyer, making sure the ship was supplied, that he became interested in religious life. While stationed in Newport, R.I., he got to know the friars there, and credits The Little Flowers of St. Francis for leading him to the Order.
A native of Brownsville, Texas, and the son of first-generation U.S. parents of Mexican descent, Xavier studied farming at the University of Maryland. After one year, however, he decided that school wasn’t for him. “But I didn’t have a plan going forward,” he said.
He recalls painstakingly comparing religious life to secular life, and being in a “bit of a turmoil,” when he was advised by a priest to give the Franciscans a try. “I went to a pastor and told him what was going on in my head. He said, ‘Try religious life. If it’s not your cup of tea, you’ll know it, or they’ll let you know it.’
In 1962, he joined the Province as a tertiary brother and quickly found that he enjoyed religious life. From 1962 to 1964, he worked as a cook at the Province’s formation house in Croghan, N.Y. He later spent a year at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he also was a cook, and professed his first vows there on July 15, 1965.
Later that year, he was moved to St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., where he continued to serve as a cook and professed solemn vows on June 1, 1969. He found a mentor in Romuald Chinetsky, OFM, who was a chef.
While cooking in Rye Beach, Xavier began reaching out to the community and “getting involved with the needs of the poor in the local area.”
An Invitation to St. Francis Inn
Xavier was very comfortable listening to people with drug, alcohol and personal problems, and helped provide them with shelter, food and other basic needs. Before long, he became known for his work and was invited by Emmet Murphy, OFM, to bring his skills in cooking and ministering to the poor at St. Francis Inn.
In 1981, he began his current assignment in Philadelphia. While his ministry no longer includes cooking, he still enjoys interacting with the guests.
His work also includes helping the friars at the Inn — driving them to appointments and shopping, and doing whatever needs to be done. “We’re a family here,” he said. “I’m always moving around. The Holy Spirit surprises me every day with different things. I never know what I’ll be doing.”
Xavier is also the spiritual assistant to the local Secular Franciscans group, and has participated in the Hispanic Ministry Committee’s vocation retreats.
He spends his free time listening to music — “the oldies” — and while he says he doesn’t watch TV, he enjoys an occasional movie. He also likes visiting his two remaining siblings. He has a brother in Arizona and a sister in Maryland.
He would like to be remembered as someone who cared for those in need, including his brothers, and for helping to change people’s lives.
How many lives does Xavier think he has touched? Hard to say, he comments. “I don’t go by numbers.” But after three decades at St. Francis Inn, the number is likely in the thousands.
His advice to new friars is simply “to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ. For me, being a friar has meant being open to God’s grace in my life and being open to sharing it.”
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: A profile of Br. Xavier titled “A Throwback to St. Francis” appeared in the Summer-Fall 2014 issue of The Anthonian.