Profile: Retiree Peter Ahlheim Busy in Butler

Stephen Mangione Friar News

Peter Ahlheim waters the plants at St. Anthony Friary. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

This is the first in a series of profiles of the Province’s retired friars, featuring those making a difference in their communities through varied hobbies, activities, and interests.

BUTLER, N.J. — Since the summer of 2008, Peter Ahlheim, OFM, has been living at St. Anthony Friary, the retirement house in northern New Jersey. But don’t think that he’s spent the past nine years watching the many species of birds that reside on the grounds. Actually, he has – but that’s only in his limited spare time.

Despite entering his tenth year of “retirement,” Peter’s workload at St. Anthony Friary doesn’t reflect someone who has slowed down to smell the roses. That’s because Peter spends much of his time planting the roses – and doing other gardening, landscaping, and grounds-keeping work from spring through fall, and taking on interior projects and tending to things that need fixing year round.

Less than five minutes into a recent interview with Peter in a small conference room at the friary, it’s evident that this octogenarian wouldn’t have retirement any other way.

“It may be a retirement house, but I wasn’t looking to retire when I got here!” he said.

In fact, after a quick visual survey of the grounds upon his arrival, Peter made a mental note of the projects begging for his attention. He also noticed some things that could use a little sprucing up as he was given a tour of the interior of his new home on that first day.

His eye – and his passion – for maintenance, landscaping and grounds-keeping work certainly wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

From the time Peter made his first profession in the summer of 1966, he spent all but one of the next 42 years in maintenance or grounds-keeping at his assignments. He served in both positions for 35 years at Holy Cross Parish, a once Franciscan parish and formation house in the Clason Point section of the Bronx, N.Y.

While at Holy Cross, Peter also voluntarily served as the groundskeeper for the Poor Clares that lived near the parish. That’s when his gardening and landscape design skills started to blossom – although his first introduction to the Lord’s bounty came while toiling in the vegetable garden at the pre-novitiate house in Croghan, N.Y.

Welcoming Grounds
Peter couldn’t wait to roll up his sleeves and put his creative touch on St. Anthony Friary.

“The trees and shrubbery were overgrown and needed a lot of work,” recalled Peter, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Although they make for time-consuming and sometimes back-aching work, Peter continues to remain up for the tasks. He is particularly proud of the beautifully manicured and welcoming grounds that greet visitors and provide a comfortable and peaceful environment for the friars in residence.

To most people, two empty concrete urns sitting on top of a pair of rotting tree stumps are just that – empty urns and rotting tree stumps. But Peter’s eye for design saw great potential in the eyesore. For five weeks, despite limping around on a broken toe, he “chopped away a little each day” by hand until the stumps were gone. He then leveled the terrain, repurposed the urns with flowering plants, and placed crushed stone as a ground cover.

In another project, he converted outdoor space into a rustic memorial garden in memory of Leon Ristuccia, OFM,  a friar who was beloved by his brother friars and the parishes and communities he served during his 72 years of profession.

Peter makes repairs outside Butler’s retirement house. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

Peter’s handiwork is also found throughout the five-story residence, including the third-floor chapel, where he utilized his interior design talents to make it brighter and more inviting. He put to use his carpentry skills to construct a new altar, cutting down a much larger altar that he found in storage, eliminated the midnight blue drapes, and painted the two niches behind the altar to match the hues of the icons of Saints Francis and Clare.

“When I see a project that needs to be done, I take care of it, no questions asked,” says Peter, whose design skills and creativity have also made him the resident holiday decorator at Christmas and Easter.

Robert Frazzetta, OFM, guardian of St. Anthony Friary, who arrived at the Butler friary with Peter and two other friars at the same time, says there isn’t anything that Peter cannot do.

“While most people might concentrate on one or two particular talents or interests, Peter’s skills are far more eclectic – from copying the works of numerous master artists, to spending a week cutting out two massive tree stumps – roots and all – on the property,” Robert said.

“Peter and I lived in-community for many years in the Bronx,” he added. “I have watched this incredibly gifted individual share himself in the most subtle ways. All of the brothers in the house appreciate the many ways he serves through his creations, the beautiful environment in the chapel and throughout the halls,” said Bob, adding, “Now, if there was only something he could do to help his beloved New York Mets!”

Late Bloomer
Probably like some of the perennials he has planted, Peter was a late bloomer to his Franciscan calling.

Peter landed employment in the aviation industry after graduating from the Academy of Aeronautics in 1954. He enlisted in the U.S. Army after being laid off from his job, completing basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey before being stationed at Fort Benning, on the Alabama-Georgia border, where he was assigned to the helicopter division because of his aeronautics background.

After his stint with the Army, he worked for a private sector company that specialized in government military contracts. The lay-off bug struck again, but Peter, 29 years old at the time, was fortunate to find a job at the New York Telephone Company, where it turns out the Franciscans would soon be calling.

It so happened that a co-worker who had befriended him, and who was a Secular Franciscan, inspired Peter to “give the Franciscan friars a try.”

Fifth Floor ‘Gallery’
Since he spent much of his Franciscan life outdoors maintaining the grounds at various facilities, bird watching has always been one of Peter’s hobbies. He has a “life list” to prove it, with scores of species checked off that he has observed. It is a pastime that connects to another of his passions.

Despite having no formal training, Peter is quite the artist. Although those who see his works for the first time suggest they are gallery quality, he is humble about his artistic prowess.

“I look at myself as a painter who has an artistic sense,” said Peter – which is why he was reluctant at first to the suggestion of displaying his work at the retirement house.

Peter stands in front of some of his paintings displayed on the fifth floor. (Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Thomas)

“When the guardian of the house saw my paintings, he suggested that we frame and display them in the hallway on the guest floor for all visitors to enjoy,” added Peter, who uses one of the guest rooms on the fifth floor to paint on a no-frills, makeshift easel that he created with a piece of excess plywood from a maintenance project.

Peter’s art can be found in rooms and common areas throughout the friary. In fact, the walls of the long corridor on the fifth floor offer a gallery-like setting from end-to-end, displaying Peter’s extensive series of bird paintings titled “North American Birds: A Study in Acrylics.”

Among them are the Golden Crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Rufous Hummingbird, Marsh Wren and Blue Jay – 80 on display, representing only half the number of bird paintings in his portfolio.

When he took an interest in painting, he created on canvas what he knew best – birds, which became the subject of his early works.

Although he dabbled in watercolors, Peter prefers using acrylic paint because acrylics dry much faster than watercolors, “which poses different types of challenges, so you have to know how to use them,” he explains.

While his God-given talent, coupled with the tips he picked up from self-taught instruction programs on PBS channels, got him started, the Poor Clares – as they did with his landscaping skills – played a role in Peter’s artistic development.

While waiting for their new house to be built in upstate Wappingers Falls, N.Y., the Poor Clares lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., where an architect gave the sisters three seascapes as a gift for their new home.

“They were so beautiful that I wanted to copy them. It gave me the confidence to pursue another painting theme besides birds,” he explains.

Peter soon started copying works of other artists, and to date, he has painted a dozen works of Dutch post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh and two works of French Impressionist Claude Monet, most of which warm the walls of his gallery-like room at the friary.

Peter and his feathered friend, Patches. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

One bird whose portrait isn’t displayed on the fifth floor is Patches, a year-old cockatiel that resides in Peter’s room. Painting Patches hasn’t made it yet to Peter’s to-do list. But perhaps he will get around to that project when he retires.

— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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