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Profile: Michael Duffy Marks 50 Years as a Friar

This is the first in a series of profiles of HNP friars commemorating anniversaries of Franciscan profession in 2016. In June, the Province will honor the jubilarians marking 50 and 25 years since profession

PHILADELPHIA — Can work bring joy?  It certainly has for a friar who’s lived among the poor for nearly three decades and who is now marking a half century as a Franciscan.

Michael Duffy, OFM, a team member of St. Francis Inn, who spends his days serving the poor and feeding the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood, as well as guiding young adults who are part of the Province’s Franciscan Volunteer Ministry,  finds his work so satisfying — and busy — that he has not paused to cultivate hobbies.

“There’s so much work to be done in all our ministries that I find my life is not compartmentalized between what I do for work and what I do for fun,” said Michael, who lives at Juniper Friary. “It’s all wrapped up in one.”

When asked about his hobbies, Michael said he delights in small activities “here and there such as  seeing movies, taking road trips,  reading about technology and, of course, eating sweets.”

Call to Service
Michael, who was born in Laconia, N.H., said his parents — Francis and Margaret — were hard-working products of the Depression.  He has one brother, Stephen, who lives in Columbia, Md., with his wife Nuala. Their three children and nine grandchildren live nearby.

After graduating from Boston College in 1961, Michael joined one of the first faith-based volunteer service groups in the country. Sponsored by the college, it sent graduates to Jesuit ministries outside of the United States.

Michael spent two-and-a-half years doing volunteer work in Jamaica as part of the program. While away from the distractions of the modern world and life in the United States, he began to think about “the big picture of life” and decided to try, despite his Jesuit experience, to join the Franciscan Order.

The simple spirit of the Franciscans and the life of St. Francis himself appealed to Michael.

“The friars didn’t seem to rest on titles or hierarchy but were ‘with the people’ and very approachable,” Michael said. “Practically speaking, the friars also offered a wide variety of ministries that opened so many possibilities for the future.”

In 1964, Michael went to St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y, for his first year of Franciscan formation. The following year, he entered the novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., and made his first profession as a Franciscan there in July 1966. He then studied philosophy for a year at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., before going to Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., for theology, graduating from Washington Theological Coalition.

On Oct. 4, 1970, Michael professed his final vows in Washington, and the following year, also in the nation’s capital, he was ordained to the priesthood. He then received his first assignment — at St. Joseph’s Parish in East Rutherford, N.J., one of the few parishes at the time served by a “team ministry,” rather than by a pastor and assistants.

“I lived with wonderful friars who were my mentors in ministry,” Michael said. “I loved parish life and my involvement with the people in preaching, youth ministry, liturgies, and music was life-giving for me.”

His East Rutherford assignment was followed by an appointment to Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1975, serving as the Province’s co-director of vocations.  After four years of guiding young men in their vocation discernment, he requested to go to the Maverick Street community in East Boston in 1979, where he was part of a friar community living next to housing projects ministering to the local community.

“It was an ideal situation for friars,” Michael said. “We were in a diocesan parish but for all practical purposes, the area was transformed into a Franciscan community because the friars were involved in every aspect of the parish without having the ‘corporate responsibility’ of administration. It was a wonderful eight years.”

Working with the Poor
Since 1987, Michael has been stationed at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, working in the soup kitchen and its extended ministries to the poor.

An aspect of his work that Michael said he values is that the ministry is run equally by all who are involved — friars and religious sisters, young and old, men and women.

“We all do it together,” Michael said. “There’s no director here, no hierarchy. We simply get together and pray and respond to needs. It’s not just friars. It is other people — men and women, young and old, laypeople and religious.”

The jubilarian said he is happy serving and working with the poor, and would most likely want to work only with this population in the future.

“I believe the Franciscan charism is to live and work with the poor,” Michael said.

One of Michael’s favorite roles has been working with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry. In the late 1980s, when the Provincial Administration decided to start a volunteer program, he was invited to serve on its board of directors. Michael said that because his first ministerial experience in Jamaica was so life changing, he always hoped a similar program could exist in the Franciscan Order. He is still involved on the administrative level, serving on the board, and works on the practical level as site supervisor for the FVMs in Philadelphia.

For him, the hallmark of Holy Name Province is the leadership’s openness to letting friars be who they are and to do what they do best.

“The friars are very accepting, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously which I think is a good thing,” Michael said. “It’s the way we see ourselves and how we interact with people. We’re just another one of the crowd trying to serve our brothers and sisters.”

Michael named many friars who had been influential to him and to whom he looked up because of the ministries they chose, their temperaments, their spirituality and their gentleness. One is the late Mychal Judge, OFM, with whom he lived and ministered in East Rutherford and whose eulogy he delivered in September 2001.  Among the others are Charles Finnegan, OFM, the late Donan McGovern, OFM, and Alexius Mulrenan, OFM, as well as Daniel O’Rourke.

“They were men of great faith,” he said.

One of Michael’s most fond memories is the opportunity he had to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis when he visited Philadelphia in 2015. After going through security, Michael said he was seated in the fourth row, sitting about 30 feet from the pope for the entire Mass.

“When the pope entered the cathedral, he broke rank with the procession, turned and walked toward us,” Michael said. “He stopped eight feet from me and turned and bent down toward a severely handicapped 4-year-old in a wheelchair. He held the little boy’s head in his large hands and fervently prayed over him. There were no security, aids, or photographers between us, so I was able to witness and experience the power of the pope’s presence in a special personal moment.”

Looking Back
While 50 years might seem like an unforgettable milestone, Michael said that he thinks about the anniversary only when someone reminds him of it.

“When a person becomes a friar, it’s not a career. It is part of life and this is just the passing of a lifespan, just like anyone else with a family,” he said. “It’s so integrated that I don’t think of it as a milestone. It’s just another year of doing what I’m supposed to do.”

Michael said he has learned, as a friar, that “God calls us through people. Instead of us deciding what’s good for them, we should live and work among the people. They let us know what they need and that becomes our ministry.”

While he said he doesn’t necessarily set “big, lofty goals” and prefers to live in the “here and now”  and to try to bring a little Franciscan spirit to each of his endeavors, Michael has a theory to share about his future: “The best is yet to come.”

Mary Best is a Western New York-based writer and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University. 

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