WILMINGTON, Del. – When three friars were scheduled to depart from parishes in downtown Wilmington, where Holy Name Province had announced earlier this year its intentions to withdraw from these ministry sites, the pandemic upended plans for a farewell Mass and catered banquet for Paul Williams, OFM, pastor of St. Joseph’s, and Rodolfo Ramón-Cabrera, OFM, pastor, and Paul Breslin, OFM, of St. Paul’s. But parishioners got creative when it was time to exchange goodbyes with the trio of friars.
They decorated their vehicles with balloons and colorful handmade banners and signs and tossed gifts and cards into curbside baskets during drive-by parades the weekend of Sept. 12 – sounding their horns and giving shout-outs from open windows to the friars, who stood outside their respective churches soaking in the heartfelt expressions of appreciation and gratitude offered by their congregants.
“This outpouring meant so much to me and all of the friars. It was a very delightful event, acknowledging that my time, energy and service to the parish have been graciously received and deeply appreciated. It was also a tribute to the friars who served before us, and to the Province’s three decades of presence in the parishes,” said Paul Williams, who served as pastor of St. Joseph’s since 2013.
In addition to the curbside farewell at both parishes, approximately 60 families from St. Joseph’s Parish attended a virtual Zoom party to thank Paul and reflect on what his pastoral leadership meant to them.
“It was quite humbling and emotional for me – listening to everyone speaking from their heart. It brought tears to my eyes,” said Paul, whose congregants created a remembrance book of photos from the curbside farewell and virtual party.
Sadness and Gratitude
Rodolfo expressed similar sentiments about the parishioners at St. Paul’s.
“With feelings of sadness, and at the same time with enthusiasm, I have nothing but gratitude to God and this beloved parish community for the opportunity of the past three years to serve as pastor of St. Paul’s. Working together, we achieved the unity necessary for building and sustaining a community of faith, and meeting the challenges of these difficult times,” said Rodolfo, who is now stationed at St. Peter Claver Church in Macon, Georgia.
“I will always carry in my heart gratitude for the sincere friendship and support of parishioners and all of the groups that I worked with,” he added.
Disappointment and anxiety among parishioners over the friars’ departure from Wilmington were understandable, according to Paul. “I had similar emotions because I had gotten to know so many people over the years,” he said, noting that St. Joseph’s is in good hands with the new diocesan pastor, who has announced that the friars will be invited back to Wilmington for a formal farewell Mass and celebration in autumn 2021.
Paul also said that the parish’s future is bright because of the influx of families and young people in recent years who are coming not only from other communities in Delaware, but also from Pennsylvania and Maryland. “They want to be part of the faith community we built at St. Joseph’s,” said Paul, who also served as guardian of the St. Paul Friary.
Welcome and Compassion
Parishioners and staff members were eager to share their reflections about the friars. Longtime St. Joseph’s parishioner Jean Toy credits the friars for bringing her and her husband back to the Church.
“We were bereaving parents who had lost our child. We didn’t lose religion, but we put it aside for eight years. We resumed going to Mass when the Franciscans came to St. Joseph’s. Their homilies and compassion brought us back to the Church – and for that, I will always be grateful,” said Toy, who volunteered for 13 years at the friar-run Franciscan Center in the heart of downtown Wilmington, and served the parish as a lector and Eucharistic minister.
“I have to admit – my heart sank when I heard the friars were leaving. Franciscans are a different breed. They welcome everyone. Their caring and compassion helped me realize that we are all created equal. They were very important in our lives and I will always cherish their camaraderie,” said Toy, who also served in prison and fundraising ministries, and started a support group for formerly incarcerated men and women.
Loretta Young, a parishioner of St. Joseph’s since 1992 and a member of the friary office staff since 2005, said the parish fell in love with the friars from the moment they arrived.
“They came here with unique gifts, but all of the friars had one thing in common – they accepted everyone, no matter what level you were at in your faith. They had a way of bringing people together. They created simple opportunities, like Bible study and scripture classes, to grow our relationship with Christ,” said Young, who serves as the parish’s office manager.
“Personally, the friars made me a better Christian and helped me focus on outreach ministry. They made me look outside the four walls of our parish to help others in the broader community,” continued Young, who said the farewell celebration was supposed to take place in the parish’s fellowship hall, whose renovation – including a state-of-the-art kitchen and accessible restrooms for the physically challenged – was completed under the steady leadership of Paul Williams.
Timing Was Difficult
Paul says leaving St. Joseph’s in a time of pandemic was difficult and challenging.
“We did not see anyone for months, and when we celebrated our first public Mass on July 4, only 15 people attended. The numbers remained low because of people’s continued reluctance to gather in groups. The drive-by parades and virtual party were a wonderful send-off, but the saddest part about leaving was not being able to say goodbye to everyone in person, and embrace the people who were part of your life for so many years,” said Paul, whose final liturgy on Sept. 13 was posted on the parish YouTube channel.
“I used the opportunity to thank parishioners for accepting me into their parish and making the stay at St. Joseph’s one of my happiest times in ministry,” said Paul, who is now assigned to St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland.
St. Joseph’s was established in 1889 to minister to the large African-American population in downtown Wilmington. After running the parish for more than a century, the order of the Society of St. Joseph handed the reins to Holy Name Province in 1993. Paul Williams succeeded pastor John Frambes, OFM, who was preceded by Barry Langley, OFM, the first pastor when HNP assumed ministerial leadership from the Josephites.
The friar presence at St. Paul’s, the predominantly Hispanic church located about a mile and a half from St. Joseph’s, dates back nearly 30 years. Wilmington was also home to HNP’s novitiate from 1999 to 2013. In addition, the friars operated the Franciscan Center, once an urban ministry in the heart of the city that provided outreach to the poor, immigrants, and homeless.
Administration of St. Joseph’s and St. Paul’s was returned to the Diocese of Wilmington by the Province, which announced its decision in January to withdraw from nine fraternities-in-mission as part of its Fraternal Ecology process.
Young said the shock of the friars leaving the parish may have been blunted in Wilmington – as opposed to what other ministry sites experienced – because the withdrawal of the Franciscans has been a gradual one over the years, first with the closure of the Provincial novitiate, and then the Franciscan Center.
“Although the news was initially devastating because we didn’t want to let go of the friars, we accepted that things change and recognized that friars take a vow of obedience. They have moved on to other places where they are needed, but Franciscan values and the presence of the friars will be felt well beyond their departure,” Young said.
– Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Wilmington Parish begins 150th Anniversary Celebration” — Sept. 9, 2019, HNP Today
- “St. Paul Community Marks Quarter Century of Franciscan Presence” – Dec. 9. 2015, HNP Today
- “Wilmington’s St Joseph Parish Marks 125th Anniversary” — Oct. 20, 2014, HNP Today