This is the third in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their 25th and 50th anniversaries of profession in 2020. The second featured Scott Brookbank, OFM.
HARTFORD, Conn. — There is no hesitation from John Gill, OFM, when he’s asked about the first time that religious vocation came calling. It dialed him up on two occasions, but he didn’t seem to get the message right away.
While attending LaSalle Academy, a high school run by the Christian Brothers in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, John – along with the entire student body – would sit through an annual assembly during which the brothers spoke about the order’s founder and the virtues of their ministry and religious life.
“It wasn’t until my senior year that I fully absorbed what they were saying. I always saw them as academics, but that’s when I realized they were more than just teachers. I was intrigued by the type of life they led,” John said.
Round two of religious rumblings happened when he was at a weeklong service trip during winter break as a second-year student at Providence-based Rhode Island College.
“Although spirituality wasn’t the focus of the trip, a priest and nun were there giving talks about social justice,” John said. “The priest was not only part of a religious community, but he also had a full-time job as a community organizer. I thought that was unusual and very different than the more traditional religious who I grew up with in my parish. It really opened my eyes to vocation.”
But John wasn’t ready to go all-in on religious life just yet. He graduated from Rhode Island College in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree, and two years later earned a master’s degree, both in social work. A job hunt in Washington, D.C., led to a non-profit community center, where he served as a social worker for nearly six years until 1993, when a life-changing decision brought him back north, to the Province’s postulant program at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx.
“I liked social work, but I felt like something was missing – that there was something else I should be doing. With the help of some friends, I started looking into religious life, which was the influence of the Christian Brothers – and the priest and nun who spoke about social justice,” said John, who this year is celebrating his 25th anniversary since professing his first vows as a Franciscan friar.
The Providence native is among the friars who will be honored later this year at a jubilarian Mass in celebration of their 50th and 25th anniversaries of their profession.
Although he had never met a friar and knew very little about the Franciscan Order, John was drawn to the fraternity whose social justice advocacy for the poor, marginalized and immigrants is central to its mission – coincidentally, the same subject that jarred his thoughts of religious vocation during the social justice presentations of the priest and nun during his college service trip.
“The deep commitment to social justice, and the resources that the Province puts behind our efforts in social justice advocacy issues, is an aspect that distinguishes Holy Name and the friars from other religious orders,” said John, who is stationed at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford where he serves as a parochial associate in a number of pastoral ministries.
“Social justice advocacy is connected to a unique aspect of being a friar – the sense of acceptance, that Franciscans accept and embrace all people, especially the marginalized. This is part of every friar’s life and can be found at all levels of the Province,” he added.
John said that it isn’t about advocacy itself – “it’s good and vital work, but a lot of others are doing it well, too” – but rather, how the friars are doing this work.
“This is a very much hands-on ministry. We are doing our work close to the people, not at a distance – and that’s a unique Franciscan trait,” said John, who speaks from the experience of 17 years on the front lines of ministering to the homeless and poor as part of the team of friars, women religious, and volunteers at St. Francis Inn – the Franciscan soup kitchen that has been operating for 41 years in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“What always struck me at the Inn was the focus on the team and the collaborative way that we ministered without a hierarchal structure. There was something very life-giving about that, probably because it is our lifestyle as friars – living a very simple life among the people we serve every day,” said John, whose more than a decade and a half at the Philadelphia food ministry was his first assignment after he professed his solemn vows.
Switching Gears and Careers
The middle sibling of five children, John was raised in a traditional Roman Catholic family. His father, Paul, owned a home improvement contracting company, while Elizabeth, his mother, was a registered nurse. John, who attended parochial grammar and high school, was active in the youth ministry program of his local parish.
Once he switched gears from a career in social work to religious life, John decided that the Franciscans would be a good fit. He spent the first half of the postulant program at Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx before completing his postulancy in 1993 in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. He returned to his birthplace in June 1994 when he was received into the Order at St. Francis Chapel and became a member of the first class of the Providence novitiate.
After professing his first vows at the nearby St. Peter and Paul Church in June 1995, John spent the summer in Peru with half his classmates (the other half went to Bolivia) to learn Spanish and experience the culture and Franciscan missions.
John spent the next three years in formation at the post-novitiate house at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, during which time he studied at Washington Theological Union, where he earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry in 2000. Prior to that, in June 1998, he was assigned to a one-year internship at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina, in preparation for his final vows – which he professed in September 1999 at St. Francis Church on 31st Street.
During post-novitiate, in addition to being a full-time student at WTU, he worked in a Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program assisting a social worker and attorney in their advocacy for immigrant families. He also performed summer ministries at St. Francis Inn and in clinical pastoral education at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“Those experiences helped me understand what it means to be a Franciscan in ministry,” said John, whose internship year in Durham included parish ministry with the youth and young adult groups, social justice committee, and adult faith formation, as well as pastoral ministry at Duke University Hospital.
Example of Service
While many friars have also made an impact on him since he joined the Province, John singled out Michael Duffy, OFM, the longtime team member at St. Francis Inn and guardian of Juniper Friary in Philadelphia where John lived for many years.
“His commitment and fidelity to working with the poor has been an amazing example of service. His work and ministry embody the spirit of being a Franciscan,” said John, whose pastimes include leisurely reading and long walks – and visiting coffee shops for the java and the vibes.
John says he never expected his first assignment as a solemnly professed friar to evolve into a 17-year stint, but from the moment in 2000 that he arrived at St. Francis Inn to become the newest Franciscan team member, he knew that was where he belonged.
“That feeling became even stronger as time went on. I felt a certain comfort level because of the summer I had spent working there. I always welcomed the new challenges and changes at that ministry,” he said.
In 2006, John played a major role in launching the St. Francis Urban Center, a program that focused on social services for the guests who came to the Inn for meals.
“It was a constantly evolving effort, at first making referrals to city agencies and non-profits, and then becoming a housing resource. It was a way to offer more services and respond to people beyond their food and nutritional needs,” said John, who helped operate the center with volunteers and three other staff members until 2017, when the program was suspended.
John said that the move to the Hartford parish in 2017 initially was “challenging,” having to adapt to a pastoral environment after spending 17 years at an intense service ministry. His ministerial assignments at St. Patrick-St. Anthony, coupled with his openness to change – which he says is part of being a friar – helped in the transition.
At St. Patrick-St. Anthony, John works with the adult religious education program (R.C.I.A.), immigration and other social justice programs, and outreach services like the sandwich ministry and winter clothing closet – in which volunteers prepare sandwiches for daily distribution to the homeless, down-trodden, and blue-collar and hourly wage workers, as well as giving out coats, hats, gloves, scarves, and sweatshirts donated by parishioners.
“As friars, we don’t take over, we let the people make decisions. I see my role as providing support and guidance,” John explained. “I am always amazed at the generosity of people who give their time and resources in so many different ways.”
Although St. Patrick-St. Anthony is not a traditional neighborhood parish because of its location in downtown Hartford, he says there is a deep sense of people wanting to be involved in service – much like John and his brother friars in the Franciscan fraternity.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “St. Francis Inn Receives Peace Award” – May 17, 2018, HNP Today
- “On Inaugural Religious Brother Day, 10 Friars Share Joy of Their Vocations” — May 10, 2017, HNP Today
- “Michael Dufy Marks 50 Years as a Friar” – Feb. 10, 2015, HNP Today