This is the third 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. The most recent featured was Charles Gilmartin, OFM.
BUTLER, N.J. — Throughout his 52 years as a Franciscan friar, ministries involving people that need the most help have always seemed to find Vianney Justin, OFM. Only one thing has changed since his arrival in July 2016 at St. Anthony Friary in North Jersey. Vianney is now finding the people – and living in a retirement residence hasn’t slowed him down in the least.
This sprightly septuagenarian doesn’t consider himself retired – which explains a schedule that is as fast-paced, demanding and full as the life he has spent serving the poor, elderly, homeless, spiritually and physically malnourished, along with addiction-afflicted in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pa., Boston, Mass., and Buffalo, N.Y., and abroad in Bolivia.
“When I got here, I researched where I might be able to do some ministry work. I looked at different programs – what they did and who they served,” Vianney explained during a recent interview.
With a quick look at his assignments over the past five-plus decades, it seems hardly coincidental that Vianney gravitated to programs like the food pantry at St. Mary’s Parish in nearby Pompton Lakes and Eva’s Kitchen in Paterson, the town where he was born and raised.
In the past, Vianney has served as a member of the team at St. Francis Inn, the soup kitchen in the City of Brotherly Love; as food service manager of a family shelter and volunteer at a Salvadoran refugee program in Beantown, and he has contributed time at a soup kitchen and nurse at a prison infirmary in the nation’s capital.
His current volunteer work at Eva’s Kitchen, a half-hour drive from the Butler friary, has brought him full circle to his childhood roots. Nestled in a four-block campus in downtown Paterson, the multi-faceted program – which feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, and provides health, substance abuse together with social services – is located across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where Vianney attended Sunday Mass with family members when he was a toddler. He is now part of a team at Eva’s Kitchen that serves lunch to hundreds of homeless.
At the St. Mary food pantry in Pompton Lakes, his volunteer ministry requires some old-fashioned muscle. When he’s not stocking the shelves with canned goods, cereal, pasta, bread and other groceries donated by local supermarket chains for the hundreds of struggling families that descend on the facility every Saturday, Vianney is rolling up his sleeves, along with other volunteers, and unloading trucks filled with boxes of donuts, cakes, and cookies donated by national baked goods manufacturers.
“It’s very gratifying to know that the families coming to the pantry leave with bags of nutritious food. The pantry is blessed with the generosity of food distributors and supermarkets,” said Vianney, who turned 75 this year.
Serving sustenance for the body and soul is something that Vianney has been doing in one form or another throughout his entire life. He honed his kitchen skills during his formation years.
“I guess everyone liked my cooking,” he quipped. What was supposed to be two weeks turned into a four-year assignment as a chef and baker. During most of his nearly 14 years at St. Patrick’s Friary in Buffalo, N.Y., Vianney’s culinary skills were put to the test at a local convent, whose sisters would provide hospitality to families and individuals — from as far as the West Coast — that were visiting relatives and friends incarcerated at the nearby Attica state correctional facility.
When Vianney wasn’t whipping up his specialties of lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, and homemade soups, he would double as chauffeur – transporting mothers, wives, and children on the 40-minute drive to and from the correctional facility for visits with their sons, husbands, and fathers.
Vianney has also a talent that he isn’t shy to talk about – dumpster diving, which he perfected when he was in Washington, but has since abandoned “because it’s a young man’s game,” he quipped.
“We would literally dive into the dumpsters of restaurants and food warehouses to pick out discarded potatoes, carrots, lettuce, peppers and just about anything else we could find – then haul them to a soup kitchen in a beat-up Volkswagen bus,” Vianney recalled.
“It was perfectly salvageable food that just needed to be thoroughly washed. I think being a nurse prepared me for the foul odors, slime and whatever else we encountered in those dumpsters,” he said.
While in Buffalo, Vianney, for many years, also provided one-on-one spiritual counseling and gave inspirational talks at a facility for individuals with addictions and mental illness. Many leaned on him for support even upon advancing to the after-care phase of the program.
Although Buffalo and Butler are separated by 400 miles, Vianney maintains a long-distance ministry, spending many hours on the phone with individuals he has helped through the years – providing a familiar voice, comforting words and encouragement to those in recovery from addictions.
“It’s amazing how many have stayed in contact. They tell me how their life is going, problems they may be having – and they’re interested to hear what I am doing in New Jersey. Hopefully, whatever words I have to offer to provide them with continued guidance and strength,” Vianney said.
He recounts success stories with enthusiasm and heartfelt emotion – for example, individuals transforming their lives, from drug addiction and living on the streets, to earning college degrees and helping others escape poverty and addiction.
Vianney has always maintained compassion for the elderly, whom he served at community centers in Boston and Buffalo, and those whose lives he continues to touch from afar. Although the list has dwindled considerably in recent years, more than 100 senior citizens receive a special correspondence from Vianney – who periodically mails a packet of the popular Brother Juniper comic strip, which is based on the life of one of the original followers of St. Francis of Assisi.
“Some respond with thank-you notes for putting a smile on their face. They are most grateful that someone is thinking about them, and that they aren’t forgotten,” he said.
These touching stories and Vianney’s devotion to providing long-distance ministry and continuity in spiritual direction to the elderly, afflicted and those in need comes as no surprise to Joseph Nangle, OFM, who compared Vianney to Fr. Solanus Casey, OFM Cap., who is being beatified this month. The former Provincial Councilor and executive director of the Franciscan Mission Service, who like Vianney, spent years working in South America, says that “walking with Vianney during several periods of his life” provided a deeper appreciation and realization of Vianney’s Franciscan essence.
“All of Vianney’s life speaks clearly of that eminently Franciscan virtue, the preferential option for the poor. Vianney is beloved by all whom he encounters. It wasn’t unusual to see him greeted by street people,” Joseph recalled of the 15 years he spent with Vianney in Washington, D.C.
“Vianney also touched countless souls in what those around him might consider menial work,” Joe wrote in an essay last year after reading the newsletter’s profile story celebrating Vianney’s half a century as a friar.
“He had great skills as the maintenance man for the community’s two rickety row houses in inner-city Washington. I often marveled at how he kept a roof over our heads seemingly with duct tape and glue, which he actually so often creatively used in a variety of maintenance challenges,” said Joe, adding, “I give thanks to God that I have had the grace to witness a part of his dedicated life, and I am extremely proud to be his brother.”
Caring for Fellow Friars
Vianney’s nurturing ways, along with his kindness and compassion, undoubtedly have much to do with his work in health care. He received his degree in licensed practical nursing in 1967 from St. Francis School of Nursing in Olean, N.Y. – education that was put to good use throughout his ministries.
Some of those ministries have included providing geriatric care at the friary on the campus of St. Bonaventure University in western New York; tending to the incarcerated at the infirmary of a prison in Washington, D.C.; serving as director of a parish health clinic and hospital in Bella Vista, a small town on the San Martin River in Bolivia, where dealing with landslides, militants and droughts was as commonplace as delivering babies and using the same surgical gloves for multiple operations; and working with the Missionaries of Charity — the order of religious women founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta — at the Gift of Peace and AIDS/HIV Hospice in Boston.
One of his most joyful newfound ministries at the retirement house is being able to help his brother friars – which includes driving and accompanying them to their doctors’ appointments, and providing his nursing care skills to Karl Koenig, OFM, during his recuperation at Holy Name Friary in nearby Ringwood, N.J.
Vianney has never forgotten how fellow friars helped him regain his health after two hospitalizations. “If it wasn’t for the friars, I may not be here today. It’s the least I can do now for my brothers,” he said. “God has been good!”
— Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations executive based in Westchester County, N.Y.
- Beatification of Solanus Casey, OFM Cap.
- “Retiree Peter Ahlheim Busy in Butler” — Oct. 24, 2017, HNP Today
- “Province To Sell St. Patrick’s Friary in Buffalo” – June 15, 2016, HNP Today
- “Vianney Justin Marks 50 Years as a Friar” – March 25, 2016, HNP Today
- “Remembering ‘Brother Juniper’ Cartoonist” – Nov. 11, 2009, HNP Today