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Raleigh Parish Bids Farewell to Franciscans

Longtime parishioner Gladys Whitehouse gives a blessing to the friars.

RALEIGH, N.C. – With gratitude and prayer, the parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Church bid farewell to the Franciscans last month, ending 33 years of pastoral ministry by the friars.

They said good-bye and thank you at an Aug. 30 Mass and in a presentation that recognized every friar who served at St. Francis of Assisi since 1987, when the Province assumed administration of the Raleigh parish.

Although approximately 75 people were in church for the 9:30 a.m. Sunday liturgy – far fewer than the number of parishioners who would’ve attended if pandemic-related capacity restrictions weren’t in place – many others watched the live-streamed Mass online.

Despite the occasion being one of transition and departure, the day was a nice one, said Steve Patti, OFM, who served as pastor since 2014.

“I celebrated the Mass, and in my homily, I described the history of the parish and highlighted stories about St. Francis,” said Steve, who recalled details about the opening of the original church in April 1982 by a Jesuit priest, and the contributions of the Franciscans in subsequent years

Steve said the friars were grateful to parishioners for sharing life with them for more than three decades.

“Though the farewell was not what anyone could have expected pre-pandemic, given the circumstances it was the best we could do and it went extremely well,” said Steve.

For Stephen Kluge, OFM, who was stationed at the parish for more than five years, the pandemic, oddly enough, may have softened the departure.

“We didn’t have a normal weekend [of Masses] for the last five and a half months of our ministry there – and that was strange. In a way, because we had not seen people in person for so long, it was almost as if we had already left,” said Steve, who added, “The farewell was beautifully simple.”

After the Mass, the parish presented a three-part farewell, which included two gifts to each of the current friars, a piece of original music composed for the Province, and a blessing.

Jim Sabak, Steve Patti and Steve Kluge stand behind the gifts they received from the parish — a box and a book of memories. (Photo courtesy of Diogenes Ruiz)

Online Farewell
The friars withdrew from St. Francis of Assisi Parish because Holy Name Province decided to reduce the number of ministry sites it serves. The Province made the announcement in January that it was withdrawing from a total of nine ministry sites, also known as contemplative fraternities-in-mission, as part of its Fraternal Ecology process.

A display of photos of the 21 friars who served through the years at St. Francis of Assisi was posted on the parish website. They include David McBriar, OFM, the first Franciscan pastor who arrived in 1987; Dan Kenna, OFM, who oversaw the opening of The Franciscan School in 2000; and the most recent pastors, Steve Patti, and Mark Reamer, OFM, who served from 2004 until 2014.

The website provides a detailed history of the parish and describes the profound impact of the Franciscans. It features recollections by friars and laypeople, lay empowerment and the meaning of Franciscan charism, friars’ presentations, the opening of The Franciscan School, the formation of ministries for the incarcerated, the LGBT community, fundraising for expansion of facilities, and the launch of the preschool program and Francis Fest.

“With gratitude and prayer, we celebrate the Franciscan friars who have ministered with us over the past 33 years,” said the website’s Friar Farewell page. “We commemorate all they have been for us and all they have brought to us and pray God’s blessing on them as they continue to serve the least among us.”

The web page also contains a collage creatively showing words that parishioners relate to the Franciscans.  The online tribute will remain on the parish website as part of its history.

“The beautiful thing about this parish is that the Franciscan spirit is in their marrow,” said Steve Kluge. “The people are so open and filled with hospitality.”

Pat Kowite, a founding parishioner and organizer of the friar farewell, said that the Franciscans elevated the parish into a faith community that always welcomes anyone who comes to its doors. “They reached beyond our doors to serve the marginalized, going further than what was expected. Catholics who never felt welcomed in our faith found a home at St. Francis,” said Kowite.

“Catholics who wondered if they wanted to remain in our Church found new purpose. Catholics who had never gone beyond attending Mass on Sundays found avenues for living their faith at St. Francis,” she continued. “Catholics who never heard of justice and peace found the hidden jewel of our faith at St. Francis. The Franciscan friars welcomed us all and called us forth.”

As the date of the Province’s withdrawal approached, “emotions ran high throughout the Catholic community of St. Francis as we prepared to say farewell to the wonderful friars of Holy Name Province,” said Diogenes Ruiz, a parish staff member. “In the blink of an eye, a tumultuous 2020 began as we received the news that the Franciscan friars were being withdrawn from many of the parishes they served – and that our parish was among them. Then March rolled around and the realities of COVID-19 hit us all, as parish life changed abruptly from in-person to virtual.

“We are grateful and blessed to have had such a wonderful group of Franciscan friars lead our parish,” said Ruiz, communications coordinator at St. Francis. “They have touched so many lives here. They lifted us up individually and as a community of faith. They have been Christ for us, and they will remain in our hearts always.”

Delayed by Pandemic
The pandemic affected the preparation for the departure of the friars. It was initially meant to take six months, but it stretched to nearly nine months after the outbreak of the coronavirus.

But the friars’ departure eventually took center stage during the summer when parishioners planned a fitting tribute to Steve Patti, Steve Kluge, Jim Sabak, OFM, and all HNP friars who served the parish.

Plans for the farewell began in January, but took many twists and turns because of social distancing and other restrictions that evolved with the pandemic. The organizing committee, headed by Kowite, originally planned a traditional barbecue and community day of family events for May.

“Including everyone was an important aspect,” Kowite said. “Inclusion extended not just to the members of our faith community, but also to the friars who have served at St. Francis of Assisi in the past. We have said many good-byes over the years, but never to all of the friars at the same time – and never to Holy Name Province.”

While they initially tried to adapt the barbecue and day of events to the safety protocols of COVID-19, developing information on the fast-spreading pandemic made it apparent that it would not be held the way originally planned. Even the Province adapted by delaying the departure date of the friars. That’s when plans changed to a virtual celebration.

Virtual Greetings
Instead of having friars, past and present, joining the festivities, the friars sent short video reflections, which are available on the parish website. Parishioner-created videos are also posted on the website. Portraits of all the friars, along with casual snapshots of the friars and parishioners, were displayed at the parish Fellowship Hall. Since the space is off-limits to public gatherings, the photos also became part of the Friar Farewell web pages.

One of the video productions, Legacy, was written by long-time parishioner and staff member, Beck Cawley, while another, a musical version of Psalm 23, was produced by Ruiz and Eugene Taylor.

“The beauty of the online Friar Farewell is that more parishioners could spend time reminiscing and hearing from friars and others. We hadn’t thought of it that way when we began, but it was a wonderful bonus,” Ruiz said.

Kowite said each of the current friars were presented with a box filled with farewell messages – “the voices of our parishioners,” she said – and photo memory books of their time at the parish.

Many parishioners had a hand in the creative farewell – including a team of woodworkers and an artist that created the wooden memory boxes, and another parishioner who worked on similar memory books for one of the parish’s Assisi pilgrimages. As a sign of the times, the photos included screen shots of the comments that parishioners posted online thanking the friars for their homilies and prayers.

“The gifts we received – the boxes and books – are wonderful keepsakes,” said Steve Kluge.

As a gift to HNP, James Wahl, the parish’s director of music and liturgy, composed an original song, The Praises of God, and parishioner Judy Barton created a framed presentation piece with the music. The hymn is based on the prayer of the same name that Francis wrote at the request of Brother Leo.

During the farewell after Mass, long-time parishioner Gladys Whitehouse gave a blessing to the friars.

“I know we have to be open to the changes that are before us,” said Kowite, who served as a staff member of the parish for 29 years before retiring in 2016. “Our Franciscan roots are deep. They will not disappear. I know they will grow into new plants with new fruits.”

Based on the heartfelt comments she received from more than 150 parishioners involved in planning the Friar Farewell, everyone involved in the project expressed genuine enthusiasm.

“What I now realize is that this was more than saying good-bye to the Franciscan friars,” Kowite said. “It was closure – an important part of any farewell.”

The parish’s Sept. 6 bulletin includes Steve Patti’s farewell homily, as well as introductions to the parish’s two new priests.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: In recent months, the friars have also departed from communities in Athens, Georgia; and Greenville, South Carolina; as well as Colonie, New York; New York City; Wilmington, Delaware; and Wood-Ridge, New Jersey.

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