NEW YORK — From caring for aging parents to coping with job loss, to dealing with anxiety or depression, the St. Francis Counseling Center here helps people address the problems of everyday life.
A ministry of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, the mental health center is adjacent to the church on West 31st Street. Calls to the Center have been up as New Yorkers deal with the down economy, failing financial investments, job loss, and other challenges.
The Center was started in 1996 by Ronald Stark, OFM, pastor of the church at the time, but friars at St. Francis of Assisi have a long history in counseling ministry. Friars have helped parishioners overcome emotional and spiritual problems long before the Center formally opened.
“It used to be called ‘parlor work,’” said Robert Gavin, OFM, who has ministered at St. Francis for 41 years, and has had a lifelong interest in counseling. Along with Thomas Walters, OFM, and the late Blaise Hamaday, OFM, Robert earned counseling credentials at the School of Pastoral Counseling at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., in the 1970s.
The parish’s interest in counseling grew out of its mission for service, according to Robert. “As an urban ministry,” he said, “that means if a person comes in with a problem, we always try to address the need.”
100 Appointments a Week
From those early beginnings, today, the Counseling Center has five licensed psychotherapists and two friars providing pastoral counseling on staff, seeing roughly 100 people a week. Issues include trouble adjusting to new life situations, struggling marriages, addictions, anxiety and depression.
“There are two occupational hazards for being alive,” said Robert, a counselor at the Center, “anxiety and depression.”
In 2002, Julie Berwick, LCSW, took over as the first lay director of the Center, and is known for enhancing the organization of the agency. She also increased the staff, which now includes interns from various social work schools. Prior to that, former Province member Brian Carroll, LCSW, had been instrumental in establishing the center’s non-profit status.
“It is better now,” said Robert. “We have more trained counselors, which means we can take in more people. The Center is also more organized, and can offer more variety, and that is a step in the right direction.”
Robert said that the Catholic faith-based Counseling Center is perhaps the only one of its kind in the New York region. “It is a rather unique quality of service,” he added. “We have the religious flavor here.”
Robert added that lay counseling facilities might say, “We do not even know if God exists,” but St. Francis Counseling Center assures people that he does. “We include religion into problems,” he said. Some secular counseling facilities, he added, would concentrate just on one’s emotional problems, and not what God has to say about those problems.
What makes St. Francis Counseling Center different, said Berwick, is its spiritual affiliation in the tradition of St. Francis. “The main thing we tend to do is to provide hope; to give people solace and comfort.” Referencing the Prayer of St. Francis, Berwick said that the Center strives to be an instrument of peace.
In this, the Center succeeds, she said, as many people find St. Francis Church and its ministries are a sanctuary from the world. “It’s here that they get relief, they get comfort, and they realize that they’re not alone, and their struggles are human.”
In his counseling work, Robert often assures people that they are not alone. When people are mad at God or doubt his presence, Robert smiles and says, “Welcome to the club. You’ve got a lot of company.”
A Partnership with the Church
“The Counseling Center ties in wonderfully with the confessional and spiritual direction ministry at the church,” Robert said. With confession at St. Francis Church during the day, there are many opportunities for people to talk to priests about their problems. Often, he said, people are referred from confession to the Counseling Center and Spiritual Direction.
The connection to the church is also a good partnership, said Berwick, as ideas for programs and services come from the friars, and many of the Center’s participants attend services here.
For example, the Center’s recent job support group was suggested by St. Francis Church pastor Jerome Massimino, OFM, who found himself talking with many parishioners who had lost jobs. The six-week support group offered guidance and tools to help participants develop an action plan.
Another popular program, “My Parents are Older Now: A Workshop for Children of Aging Parents,” was suggested by Jerome to help address the needs of parishioners. The workshop discussed how to care for parents, the limits of an adult child’s response, dealing with role reversal, and how an aging parent affects sibling relationships. The workshop is taking place March 4 to 21.
In addition, the Center offers workshops on anger management, Berwick said. “A lot of people want this type of workshop. We should give it weekly, but it is given once or twice a year.” The stresses of life, she said, make it hard for people to chill out and calm down. “We need to undo perpetual stress,” she said.
“Coping with Holiday Depression” and “Healing the Wounds of Shame” are also well-attended programs. There is great pressure today to be a perfectionist, said Berwick, and when people cannot attain the high standards, they often feel shame and guilt. “This is a very complex issue.”
Perhaps the best thing about the Counseling Center, said Robert, is that it exists. “We’re always available, and people feel free to discuss their problems in a safe environment.”
“People that seek out counseling are courageous, they are showing a sign of health. They want to be better, and stop blaming others for their problems.”
— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.