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Peter Chepaitis Marks 50 Years as a Friar

Peter Chepaitis and Sr. Anna Tantsits of Bethany Ministries find many ways to share the Gospel message. Here, they use puppetry to tell the story of how St. Francis tamed the Wolf of Gubbio. (Photo courtesy of Peter)

This is the second in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The first featured Paul Bourque, OFM. The 2018 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored in June during a special Mass that will be celebrated in New York City.

MIDDLEBURGH, N.Y. — His journey of religious vocation has been the polar opposite of conventional. But Peter Chepaitis, OFM, would like to think that his ministerial life of living among the marginalized and proclaiming the Gospel in a contemplative and collaborative pattern of prayer has been modeled after the Franciscans’ patron, St. Francis of Assisi. In many ways, it has.

Peter calls home a modest apartment in a beige-colored, multi-family frame house on the side of Railroad Avenue in Middleburgh that’s considered the poor section of town – and where he leaves empty deposit bottles on the front porch for an elderly neighbor who once knocked on his door, while he was leading a weekly prayer group, to ask for a roll of toilet tissue.

Hospitality is at the core of his ministry – not by its standard definition, but rather in a communal sense by welcoming people into prayer group communities and those seeking spiritual direction. The people he prays with and does faith-sharing exercises with in these group settings range from professionals and immigrants, to recovering addicts and formerly-incarcerated persons.

“This is where I am supposed to be,” Peter said during an interview in his living room, whose walls feature religious relics that included a striking, hand-painted San Damiano Crucifix.

The apartment, one of whose bedrooms he uses as an office, serves as home base for Bethany Ministries – a contemplative prayer and collaborative preaching ministry co-founded by Peter that includes missions, retreats, interfaith prayer services, and weekly prayer group and monthly Franciscan spirituality group meetings.

A ministry that operates outside conventional structure and is headed by a friar living singly – he originally lived in a trailer-home hermitage – not surprisingly, wasn’t embraced the first time Peter presented the concept of Bethany Ministries to the Provincial leadership. Even Peter admits that he wasn’t certain where Bethany Ministries would lead when it was approved after his second presentation to HNP leadership.

“There was no blueprint or point of reference. I had to learn what God was calling me to do, and they had to see that this could work. We had to make a road as we walked it. It’s still going strong more than 20 years later because it has been built on the pillars of the Franciscan spirit,” Peter said.

Peter is grateful to former Provincial Minister Anthony Carrozzo, OFM, and Daniel Lanahan, OFM, who was the leader of Franciscan Ministry of the Word in New Jersey, for supporting his vision of Bethany Ministries.

“Holy Name Province has given me the freedom to find new ways to live the Gospel. The friar community has always been so accepting and supportive,” Peter said.

Peter frequently incorporates music into his ministry. (Photo courtesy of Peter)

Bringing Retreats to the People
Like Bethany Ministries, Peter hasn’t slowed down as he celebrates 50 years as a professed Franciscan friar this year.

Bringing Bethany Ministries to the rural town of Middleburgh in Upstate New York was no coincidence. Peter’s history with the area dates back to his childhood, growing up 45 miles away in Hudson, and later when he attended Siena College in nearby Loudonville.

It was June of 1995 when Peter, upon returning from a sabbatical, began collaborating with a group of laity and religious that partnered with friars in Ministry of the Word (which he had been a part of since 1992) to discuss new ways of presenting prayer and scripture. Among the members of this group was Sister Anna Tantsits, IHM, from the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scranton, Penn.

Peter and Sr. Anna shared the same approach to collaboration in proclaiming God’s Word – and together they founded Bethany Ministries, which is built on prayer, proclamation and hospitality.

“We bring retreats and missions to parishes. We have shown that ministry can be collaborative, that men and women can minister as peers – an approach that has stretched people to a greater openness to women in ministry,” Peter said.

He spends much time on the road providing retreats and parish missions that include weeklong, weekend, one-day and multi-day programs, trekking from Maine to California and Mississippi to Canada. Hobbies will have to wait until he retires, because any down time is spent preparing for the next mission, as well as leading weekly contemplative prayer group meetings and monthly Franciscan spirituality group meetings.

In addition to helping with ministry at Roman Catholic parishes, there is a significant ecumenical component to Bethany Ministries. Peter may find himself preaching to the congregation of a Lutheran church that is in between pastors, or leading a Catholic and Lutheran collaborative ecumenical mission, or giving a retreat for several different religious denominations. He has even participated in tent meetings hosted by an ecumenical minsterium of Schoharie County..

“There is a Jewish saying that means ‘the healing of the world,’” says Peter. “If we who believe in God don’t act like God is Father to all, and if we can’t talk to each other, how can we say anything to the world that’s falling apart? Without this kind of collaboration at the grass roots, what hope do we have for the survival of humanity?”

Peter sorts through the contents of his trailer-home after the area was devastated by Hurricane Irene. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Anna)

The Great Flood (That Saved Bethany Ministries)
Life hasn’t been without its challenges, none more daunting than in 2011, when Peter was considering throwing in the towel on Bethany Ministries because it was becoming increasingly more difficult to sustain financially.

Things took a turn for the worse about a week after he returned from a retreat with the Poor Clares, a contemplative order of nuns, in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. The wrath of Hurricane Irene struck Middleburgh, raining down devastating loss on its residents, including Peter and Bethany Ministries.

Irene showed no mercy on the trailer-home in which Peter was living, and with the exception of the San Damiano Crucifix and religious artwork – which were mounted above the five feet of muddy water that flooded the interior – Peter lost the contents of his home including all Bethany Ministries materials.

“It was the most profound, real Gospel poverty that I had ever experienced,” said Peter, who, although living in borrowed lodgings, was essentially homeless.

But then a small miracle happened.

The Province’s insurance covered the contents of the trailer-home, and donations began pouring in from people who didn’t want to see Peter and Bethany Ministries uprooted.

“We didn’t realize that so many people knew about Bethany Ministries, and that we were present in their lives in so many ways,” said Peter, who later found his current apartment in Middleburgh.

“We became so connected to the community because we were going through the same hardships and rebuilding process that everyone else was going through. That’s when I most felt like a follower of St. Francis. It was the connection to humanity through poverty and humility,” Peter said.

Peter’s Siena College graduation photo, taken in 1967.

Family Influence and Early Franciscan Life
When looking back on Peter’s history as a Franciscan friar and his early life as well, there is evidence that Bethany Ministries was always tucked away somewhere in his subconscious, awakening a little more at each step of his vocational journey.

The oldest of five children seemed destined for religious vocation, growing up in a devout Catholic family in the small city of Hudson, and serving as an altar boy and choir member at the Church of St. Mary, where he also attended the parish’s grammar and high schools. His mother served on the parish council and his father coached the high school men’s basketball team to six championship titles in nine years.

Peter was an average kid who loved trout fishing and shooting hoops, until one day when he was in fifth grade, a thought popped into his head that he shared aloud with his mother.

“I told my mom that I would like to be a priest. She responded, ‘Take out the garbage!’ The subject never came up again,” he recalled – that is, until a weekend retreat at a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Mass.

“The monks would chant during the liturgy, then it would get very quiet after Communion, and I just knew at that moment that I was going to be a priest. The Franciscans were my choice because I was inspired by the friars at Siena, especially their concern for the poor and social justice issues,” Peter said.

While a student at Siena, Peter headed a tutoring program that was part of the college’s volunteer services. Besides helping academically struggling youngsters from an economically depressed suburban Albany community, he served as a big brother to a deeply troubled teenager whose life he helped to place on the right track.

After he graduated from Siena in the spring of 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in French and a minor in philosophy, Peter was received into the Franciscan Order on July 14 that same year at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he received his habit and made his first profession in July 1968.

He went on to make his final profession on June 19, 1971, at St. Francis Church in Manhattan. Peter was ordained on Aug. 26, 1972, at his hometown parish of St. Mary in front of a large crowd of family and friends. “It was a proud moment,” he said – and, for the record, his parents were overjoyed about his vocational choice!

After receiving a master’s degree in sacramental theology at the Washington Theological Union – then called Washington Theological Coalition – in the nation’s capital in 1972, Peter went on to receive a master’s in pastoral liturgy from the University of Notre Dame.

Peter performs with Gabriel Del Mastro (left) and Kevin Kennedy (right) in 1973 at Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Peter)

Music to His Ears
His first stop was Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, N.Y., where from 1972 to 1977 he taught French, religion and music. His fondest memory of Timon was directing the school’s annual musical production.

Peter came from a family blessed with music and teaching talents – his mother was an elementary school teacher with a wonderful singing voice, and his father, besides being a chemist by profession, was an accomplished violinist who played with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. His father taught him music and how to play the violin.

Peter was particularly proud of two major breakthroughs in the school musical: getting members of the football team to be part of the cast, and breaking the stereotype of the male-only stage crew. “Our stage crew was made up of girls and boys, and we had athletes singing and dancing on stage,” Peter said.

He started a new tradition at Timon – taking the entire cast and crew on a weekend retreat to unwind after the final curtain. It was so powerful an exercise that many students, with whom Peter has kept in contact through the years, have told him that they are practicing Catholic adults because of those retreats.

In 1977, he left Timon for a new assignment at the Province’s house of prayer – then located in the building that had once housed St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y. – as coordinator of prayer liturgy. A year later, Peter moved with the house of prayer when it was relocated to St. Joseph Friary in Warwick, N.Y. He spent the next nine years there with what he describes as “one of the best fraternities” of his ministerial life.

“It was a retreat house without a formal program that kept alive the spirit of prayer and devotion. Sometimes we would take our prayer and faith experience into communities by doing retreats,” said Peter, who praised the pioneering efforts of Juvenal LalorOFM, as a founding friar of this Franciscan House of Prayer.

While in Warwick, Peter became involved in National Marriage Encounter, an interfaith version of marriage encounter. Trained by a Jewish couple he had met in Callicoon, the trio began teaching interfaith prayer and ministry for married couples to others around the country – an exercise that moved National Marriage Encounter more toward being a truly interfaith ministry, he said.

Peter has collaborated with Jewish and Muslim representatives in marriage encounters and has coordinated religious services for national conferences. His interfaith work with marriage encounter was yet another thread that was subtly connecting him to the eventuality of Bethany Ministries.

Peter plays the violin, accompanied by Joe Doino on the piano, during an event held while Peter was stationed at St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of Peter)

Back to School
In 1987, Peter was assigned to St. Bonaventure University as a member of the campus ministry team – and immediately put to work his creativity and passion for scripture and music in a way that would awaken and nurture the spirituality of college students. The result was a monthly classical Mass in a quaint, seldom-used former seminary chapel on campus that he says “kept students in touch with the great classics of liturgical music and the beauty of the liturgy.”

Peter left campus ministry in 1992 for St. Joseph Friary in East Rutherford, N.J., where he was assigned to Franciscan Ministry of the Word – a ministry in which friars travel in pairs to give retreats and parish missions. His work with Ministry of the Word intensified his burning desire for contemplative prayer and collaborative proclamation of the Word. But it was a life-changing experience during a sabbatical that finally brought the seed of Bethany Ministries to full bloom.

While at Taize in France in the mid-1990s, he came upon a local tradition in which the community would commemorate the Passion of Christ every Friday with veneration of the Cross, approaching on their knees. Since his knees weren’t in the best of shape, he decided to slip away from the crowd. But he suddenly had second thoughts – “as though the Spirit grabbed me by the neck and pulled me back,” Peter recounted.

Then he realized what he was being asked to do. A week earlier, he had visited a persecuted Christian Arab village in the Middle East. “The Lord wanted me to place their burdens on the Cross – and from that moment I knew that I had to focus on interfaith ministry,” he said, which is a major component of Bethany Ministries.

Although this life-altering experience pushed him off the edge, he credits the influence of the late Anthony Fedell, OFM, who preached at his first Mass, for the direction that his ministerial life has taken.

“His homily provided a roadmap for what my ministry was going to be. He said to always gaze contemplatively on the Lord in prayer,” recalled Peter, words that he has lived by in all of his ministries. “I still read that homily from time to time.”

Peter and his profession classmates reunited in 1993 at the Jersey Shore. (Photo courtesy of Peter)

Importance of Fraternity
Despite living singly, Peter has never lost sight of fraternity because many friars have had a profound impact on his life, among them Gabriel Del Mastro, OFM, with whom he collaborated on one of his first retreats; Christopher Keenan, OFM, who created the sabbatical program that changed Peter’s life, and Benedict Taylor, OFM, who started Project Create in Harlem, N.Y., to transition young African-American men from drug and alcohol abuse to wholeness and employment.

Illustrating the importance he places on fraternity, Peter was inspired at the 1999 Chapter to establish the Emmaus group, a fraternity that would give friars living singly in their ministries (as he was) the opportunity to meet several times throughout the year and maintain a strong connection to Franciscan communal life by sharing meals, insights, stories and faith experiences. The group continues to meet, but is now called the “faith sharing fraternity” since many participants include friars who are living communally.

Peter sums up his 50 years of profession using a metaphor of something that he incorporates into all missions and retreats – his love for music.

“I have lived creatively in the tension between prayer and activity, and community and solitude. It’s like a violin string. It doesn’t make a sound unless it’s under tension – 66 pounds to be exact. It has to be tuned to the right tension to make the right note. My life as a friar is the constant tuning and re-tuning to the melody and harmony of the Gospel,” Peter said.

Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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