This is the second in a series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, featuring those making a difference in their communities through varied hobbies, activities, and interests.
BUTLER, N.J. — His résumé reads like a jack-of-all-trades – farmhand, chef, housekeeper, sacristan, chauffeur, receptionist, office attendant, pastoral assistant and senior associate friar.
But equally important to the roles and responsibilities he mastered during 58 years of pre-retirement ministry – of which 50 were served in two New York City parishes – has been a telephone spiritual outreach that Charles Gilmartin, OFM, began when he retired in 2010.
Although he now resides at St. Anthony Friary, Holy Name Province’s retirement residence in Butler, he still maintains contact and friendships with New Yorkers whose lives he touched with his spiritual guidance and outreach – including many who have spent a better part of their lives in recovery programs.
But for Charlie, as he is affectionately called by his brother friars and friends, his telephone ministry has been a two-way street. He, too, has been faced with many health issues, among them, progressively failing vision. The people on the other end of the line help him as much as he helps them. His compassion and empathy comes from the heart – and because he understands how spiritually and physically debilitating health problems can be, his words provide greater comfort and strength to those who reach out.
A Crush and a Calling
Ironically, God reached out to Charlie in a bit of an unorthodox way. A native New Yorker, Charlie worked in the mailroom and circulation department of a major publishing company in Manhattan, where a female co-worker gave him a book authored by one of the most well-known American Catholic writers and theologians of the 20th century.
“I had an enormous crush on her, and she knew it. But she evidently also knew that God had others plans for us – at least for me,” Charlie quips.
Indeed, she intuitively believed that the religious life was calling him – before he even knew it.
“Once I started reading, I immediately related to the book. I was underlining paragraphs and re-reading them, and the Holy Spirit was moving me to understand what [the author] was saying. And then I got this feeling – the best way to describe it, I felt this gnawing that was saying, ‘You’re going to be a brother, you’re going to be a brother,” Charlie explained. “I answered and said, ‘okay.’”
The book inspired Charlie, a graduate of Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, N.Y., to visit with the Maryknoll Society, the order of priests and brothers known for its missionary work around the world.
When the pastor of his parish (St. Ignatius of Loyola on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) learned of his interest in becoming a Maryknoll brother, he asked him an unusual question.
“The conversation went something like this,” recalled Charlie. “He asked, ‘Do you like bugs?’ I responded, ‘Actually, no, mosquitos drive me crazy.’ He leaned toward me and said, ‘Kid, how would you like to wake up in the morning and find a scorpion in your shoe?’”
After the point was made that he might not be cut out for missionary work, his pastor counseled and helped him through his discernment, suggesting that he meet with a spiritual director at the nearby Franciscan parish of St. Stephen of Hungary.
The Franciscans were a good fit for Charlie, and soon after meeting with the vocation director at the Province’s West 31st Street headquarters, he signed up. When he came to live at St. Anthony Friary in 2012 two years into his retirement, Charlie had come full circle.
Once a very active Franciscan formation center, the five-story house and splendidly manicured grounds in Butler was also the first stop on his way to becoming a friar.
“I guess you can say I returned to my roots all these years later. I remember the three months I spent here at the very beginning,” he said during an interview at the friary, “because all we did for three months was learn philosophy – and rake leaves, tons of leaves!”
His next few moves explain not only how he got the jack-of-all-trades moniker, but also how he became proficient in all of them. He was assigned to the friary in Paterson, N.J., which then housed the novitiate, where he worked in the kitchen and carpentry shop, and then was sent to the Province’s minor seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., where one of his first assignments with other in-formation friars was the tall task of installing a new 25,000-gallon hot water tank.
Charlie also worked on the farm in Callicoon (which had an impressive 32 head of cattle) before heading to St. Francis Friary in Rye Beach, N.H., where he learned plumbing, welding, and electrical skills during the house’s transformation into a house of philosophy for the clerics studying for the priesthood.
Grateful for Others
Charlie – who returned to New Jersey for his first profession in 1952 on the feast day of St. Clare and made his final profession in 1955 in Allegany, N.Y. – is grateful for all of the people that have helped him through his health issues, but he is equally thankful for the many opportunities to provide them with spiritual guidance and prayer through the strength provided by the Holy Spirit.
“It’s a blessing to still have people around to share what’s going on in their lives, and vice-versa. People being there for each other in a time of need – those are very spiritual encounters,” he says of his phone ministry and of all of the good friends he made during his 41 years at St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street, and nearly eight years at All Saints Parish on 129th Street in Harlem.
A friar who lived with Charlie for many years recently described his generosity.
John Felice, OFM, said, “I had the privilege of living with Charlie for 41 years of his life here at St. Francis. He was always unfailingly polite and generous with his time. This was most clearly seen in his work with the poor and addicted around the city. No one went away without a kind and encouraging word.
“The last time I was with Charlie was at our recent Provincial Chapter,” added John, who served as guardian at St. Francis Friary. “He and I sat next to one another at the same table each day. When it came time to vote for the Provincial Councilors, I had to vote for him because of his weakened eyesight. When the voting was over he had a big smile on his face. All his candidates won.”
Charlie is enjoying life at St. Anthony Friary. “It is wonderful here, very caring, very warm,” he says.
Undoubtedly, Charlie contributes to that care and warmth each moment he spends on the phone offering comforting words and spiritual outreach, keeping the voice on the other end of the line on the path of recovery.
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.