Religious Brothers Day Highlights Workers

Jocelyn Thomas Friar News

When Catholics around the world marked the feast of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1, religious communities also celebrated their religious brothers – a commemoration that was instituted internationally as “Religious Brothers Day” in 2017.

St. Francis and companions receive approval of the primitive Rule from Pope Innocent III in this painting by Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337) in the upper church of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. (Photo courtesy of Frans Vandewalle and Flickr)

In addition to honoring St. Joseph, the feast day is an opportunity to remember the brothers who have come before us, and those who are retired or still working in the vineyards of the Lord, according to the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The Brothers Think Tank, an informal group comprised of representatives from religious organizations, encouraged all communities to commemorate the day through prayer, video, and social media posts that celebrate the life and vocation of brothers.

“On Religious Brothers Day, we recognized the brotherhood that we all share,” said Basil Valente, OFM, vocation director for Holy Name Province and a solemnly-professed brother since 1992. “As Franciscans, we are all brothers. We celebrated our fraternity – and though this day is mainly intended for communities of religious brothers, in Holy Name Province everyone is a brother.

“Francis intended for us to serve as lesser brothers and this day recognizes that,” added Basil, who lives at St. Francis Friary in New York City, where, as in many other places, the friars observed Religious Brothers Day.

Holy Name Province’s roughly 50 professed non-ordained friars have held assignments through the years as cooks, groundskeepers, and tailors, as well as chaplains, teachers, and administrative professionals. They work throughout the Province’s locations from New England to Florida. Like others in past years, several Province members provided comments about their lives as brothers.

Brian Belanger, OFM – Loudonville, New York
The New Hampshire native is director of Siena College’s Center for International Programs. Stationed at Siena for 20 years, Brian professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1999 and his final vows in 2002.

This day reminds us of the dignity of work. It is an opportunity to remember that everyone’s role is important. It’s especially relevant at this time, during the coronavirus pandemic when so many people have lost their jobs. As we’ve seen, when work is taken away, life is a challenge. I recall how Rom Chinetsky, OFM, who lived here at St. Bernardine Friary for many years – and who died recently – would use St. Joseph Day to celebrate workers. It was a day for him to commemorate workers with cakes and pies. In years past, more brothers were laborers, but the line of distinction between brothers and priests is less strong than it was in the past.

My uncle is a Xavierian brother, so I am aware that the Franciscan response to Religious Brothers Day is a little different than that of other orders – because, in the Franciscan Order, we are all brothers. The wonderful thing about being a brother on a college campus is that young people see us as Franciscans, rather than as priests or brothers. Students do not seem to see the distinction. On campus, we are all in this together. The celebration of this day is really about being brothers rather than about the canonical distinction – and my 20 years at Siena have been very enjoyable because of this fraternity.

Fred Dilger, OFM – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The North Carolina native is a member of the St. Francis Inn Ministry team in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and a member of the Provincial Council. Fred professed his first vows in 2005 and his final vows in 2009.

I love life. I feel fortunate that life has turned out what I wanted it to be. Being a brother is wonderful. Imagine someone saying you can spend all of your life on your passion. As friars, we are not bothered by outside distractions. We don’t have a household to worry about. The world is our household and people are our family. I live with four friars – which is considered a relatively large group. Everyone is different, but we have a common mission.

The pandemic has brought us even closer in our mission because our work and service to the poor have increased. As a friar, I am in a position to do more. As a member of the Inn team, I take part in the planning and executing of meals, similar to a household. We’ve never missed serving a meal since the Inn opened in 1999. We are blessed to be part of people’s lives – and I feel especially fortunate going on my 14th year here.

I love the idea that we live where we work. I feel lucky to be a brother because of the strong and consistent prayer life that we have as Franciscans. Each morning, we try to fill ourselves with patience and understanding. We are not social workers. As religious, our role is to help people know they’re loved. We try to show our guests that they are loved. My goal, and the goal of all of the Inn team members, is to provide consistency and compassion to our guests. In a sense, the Inn is like the sun and we all kind of circle it.

The fabulous thing about friars is that we are all brothers, with some men choosing to be ordained. Whatever you can give is wonderful. I feel a lot of freedom because I don’t have the responsibility of sacramental ministry. The Franciscan charism is that we are all able to contribute what we can. Our work is our life. It’s not a job. We get to do what we love. With the support of brothers, we are never alone.

Karl Koenig, OFM – St. Petersburg, Florida
A Philadelphia native, Karl is retired and lives at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg.

I am glad to know we have Religious Brothers Day. It helps me realize that being a Franciscan gives a person a lot of opportunities. When I look back over my life as a friar, two experiences stand out. One is the time that I spent in Peru in the 1980s. While there, I helped organize a union for houseworkers, who were people that did domestic work. This was a big accomplishment. I was able to help and influence a lot of people who worked as cooks, housekeepers, and in other positions. A lot of homeowners were financially well-off professionals. Workers would come to early Mass and later were permitted to go at other times. Another big thing was establishing a primary school.

The second experience that stands out is my time in Camden, New Jersey, at St. Anthony Parish. Using my experiences from Peru, I had the opportunity to start a support group for people mourning their deceased family members. My knowledge of Spanish was critical in getting this off the ground so quickly. I was so pleased that the group continued when we Franciscans withdrew from the parish. At both places, I feel as if I was able to leave behind some positive things. Both experiences were excellent. I realize that I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to do these things if I weren’t a brother.

Richard McFeely, OFM – Ringwood, New Jersey
Richard, a native of Long Island, New York, professed his final vows in 1976. He serves as the Province’s regional liaison to friars living at three nursing homes.

I see my vocation as being a brother to all. It is a way that I can share Christ’s message of love and hope to people. Being a Franciscan brother has been a very positive experience. As I think back over the years, one of the happiest times of my life was when I was stationed at an intentional community in East Boston, Massachusetts, where we followed the concept of living simply. With roughly 10 to 12 of us living in the fraternity, the emphasis was on prayer and community life. I found it to be a time of peace and joy. This concept of the community was designed by the late Maurice Swartout, OFM. The guys there did various jobs – and near the end, most of us worked for the local parish across the street. The experience exemplified the feeling of brotherhood, which is what the Franciscan Order is based on. For the past 20 years, after first going to the friary in St. Petersburg, I have been working mainly with senior friars doing caregiving work, which I have found very satisfying.

Kevin McGoff, OFM – Bel Air, Maryland
Kevin, who made his simple profession in 1990 and solemn profession in 1994, is the director of music at Margaret Church in Bel Air, where he has worked since November 2019.

The thing I like most about being a Franciscan brother is the shared sense of common purpose. I know that wherever I go, to any friary, there are basic assumptions that are shared through our common vocation and life. In other words, a friar doesn’t need to start over, vocationally speaking, each time he makes a move to a new ministry; the relationship with the Province and the Order that began long ago continues and grows with each new placement.

Living on my own, as I currently do, does not leave me with many opportunities to contribute to the common life of a friary community. That is a challenge that I try to meet by visiting my home-base friary as often as I can and trying to bring whatever gifts I have to bear on the short periods of time that I have with the brothers.

Juan Turcios, OFM – Chicago, Illinois
Juan, a native of El Salvador, professed his first vows in 2004 and solemn vows on Aug. 22, 2009.

As a Franciscan brother, there are several elements that make my life fulfilling and joyful – but the greatest are prayer and fraternity. As Christians, we are called to pray for each other and with each other. Prayer, in private and in the community, always helps me to realize my personal connection with God Almighty and my connection with my brothers. During difficult times, prayer has always been my anchor. Prayer helps me to concentrate and provide a sense of routine in my life. I will call prayer to the first half of my life as a Franciscan brother.

I live in a community of six friars. One of the things I love about my fraternity is our dinners together. We take turns cooking during the week – and at the table is where we share the other half time of my life as a friar. At the table, we share within the conversations our challenges, dreams, and joys. It is there that we arrive at the end of our school day or workday to share with each other and, at the same time, to listen to and support each other as brothers and friends on the journey. I have very much enjoyed the nearly 20 years that I have been a Franciscan brother.

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