PHILADELPHIA, PA. – In exploring religious vocation, Aaron Richardson, OFM, knew what he was looking for – to grow deeper in connection with others through a life of service, and to minister alongside members of a fraternal community. After volunteering for a week at St. Francis Inn in 2014, he discovered that both were possible with the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province. He came full circle since that life-changing experience, returning to the soup kitchen in June 2020 to serve a yearlong internship in preparation for his solemn profession.
“Working with the poor is a priority for the Franciscans – and that was very appealing to me. That first experience at St. Francis Inn was a revelation – the service and compassion for the guests, the fraternity shared by the friars, the life of prayer. It was a very welcoming community. I didn’t want to leave when the week was up,” said Aaron, who is among a group of three friars from HNP scheduled to profess final vows this month.
When he arrived for the start of his internship year, Aaron was excited about the prospect of reconnecting with the friar community, volunteer staff, and guests at St. Francis Inn. He was also looking forward to incorporating his recent experiences as a retreat facilitator at a mission center in Chicago, where he led groups of suburban high school students on weekend service trips to urban ministries. But his arrival at the Inn coincided with the global pandemic.
“As they say, ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men.’ The pandemic changed the way everything was done at the Inn,” Aaron said in a phone interview from Philadelphia – noting that although the soup kitchen has never missed serving a meal during the COVID-19 crisis, the team had to adapt to a very different set of operational procedures. In addition to functioning without its usual army of volunteers of area residents and overnight and weekend groups from churches and schools, the most glaring change was the switch from restaurant-style service to grab-and-go bagged meals handed out to guests who lined up daily at the courtyard door.
Meeting God on the Sidewalk
Despite the challenges, Aaron found strength in fraternity with the team of friars, religious sisters, and four ministers from the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry.
“We got through this together with one another’s help. It has been a great joy to be around this community,” said Aaron, who also relied on his creativity and a personality that “adapts and finds a way to make things work” – traits he honed while working at a dinner theater in stage set construction and as an actor after graduating in 2008 from George Mason University in Virginia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Among Aaron’s tasks was preparing meals at least twice a week, enabling him to show his creativity and versatility in the kitchen. “In times of need – and especially during this pandemic – the people of God are very generous with food donations. There is always the challenge of creating different meals, but once in a while we have to figure out how to use an unfamiliar ingredient,” said Aaron, noting that “little moments of satisfaction” are rewarding – a guest raving about a meal or an interaction that reveals God at work. “But a big part of what animates what we do at the Inn is our belief that Christ can be seen in every guest. There is constant opportunity to meet God, to find Him and learn about Him through our guests.”
One of those connections with God came in an unexpected way – on the sidewalk outside St. Francis Inn after someone set fire to a pile of rubbish. Aaron was clearing the debris when a man he recognized as a guest of the Inn grabbed a broom – unsolicited – and joined him in the clean-up.
“I knew that he kept to himself and spoke very little English. We simply made eye contact. I guess he felt bad when he saw me doing this unpleasant job,” said Aaron, noting that the open sores on the man’s hands didn’t deter him from helping. But it wasn’t until quiet prayer in the chapel that Aaron thought about the sores and realized it was an encounter with Christ.
“These are the kinds of realizations that keep me going – seeing Jesus in others. I was out there doing something that I really didn’t want to do. That man could’ve easily kept walking, but something inside made him stop,” he said.
Tapping into Creativity
A few months later, with the dining room still closed because of COVID-19 restrictions – and guests still forced to pick up meals in a courtyard whose pavement’s only décor was traffic cones and caution tape serving as line markers – Aaron tapped into his creative days in theater to spruce up the courtyard and reinforce a spirit of community among the guests, albeit not the joyful and welcoming environment they were accustomed to in the dining room.
“We wanted to make the courtyard more inviting, so we gave it a bit of a facelift – replacing the cones and tape with more stylish stanchions (like those used at restaurants), and livening up and beautifying the area with large planters. The guests really appreciated what we did,” he said.
During the holiday season, Aaron and another team member set up a table at the entrance of the courtyard, where guests were asked to decorate a paper ornament that was then laminated and placed on a Christmas tree displayed outside the Inn. Inspired by the guests’ enthusiastic response and display of talent and creativity, the ornament project morphed into what has become an ongoing initiative.
Aaron constructed an 8-by-12-foot chalkboard – which debuted in the courtyard on Jan. 25 – designed to engender communication among guests who are all too eager to leave encouraging messages, inspiring words, and expressive images. Aaron says this community canvas has brought back the Inn’s relational dimension.
“It’s a living piece of art that allows guests to express themselves and connect with one another. Some of the creations and drawings are amazing in their detail, but the simple and personal messages – ‘We Love You, St. Francis,’ or ‘Bob Loves Eva’ – are just as beautiful. It’s another way of providing guests with what they need – and they appreciate the opportunity to connect in this way,” said Aaron. “These little unexpected things, which probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the pandemic, have helped us find our way through this difficult time.”
Michael Duffy, OFM, who has been a team member at the Inn since 1987 and who served as Aaron’s supervisor over the last year, said that Aaron and his creative concepts have been a wonderful addition.
“Aaron entered the ministry with full gusto as soon as he arrived, providing insight and contributions to the way we serve, help, and love our guests. He has helped us through the many challenges of the pandemic, counter-balancing the loss of personal interaction with ideas like the giant chalkboard, on which guests leave amazing positive messages and beautiful art,” said Michael.
“His efforts lifted everyone’s spirits and were a great asset during the restrictions. Aaron’s gentle presence is appreciated by the team as well as the people we serve,” Michael added.
For Aaron, fraternity has been special in many ways, particularly in the lived example of the friars. “That’s what attracted me to the Franciscan fraternity – when I saw how friars were living their lives, I wanted to emulate that. It’s the way I want to live in the world,” said Aaron. “Being Franciscan means being accepting and joyful. Our fraternity is a joyful one, and our Province is a welcoming breath of fresh air for those who need it – and wherever we go, God is already there.”
The internship year has pulled together his entire formation, according to Aaron, who says it has affirmed his desire to share his gifts with the Franciscan fraternity and the people it serves.
“I never thought that making a yard look nice and constructing a community chalkboard would be part of my service. But I have learned that being a friar means using your talents and experiences and that we are called to service in many ways. Everything in my life has fit together. It all points to what I am doing now and will be doing beyond solemn profession,” he said.
At the time of this interview, Aaron had just returned to the Inn from a month-long solemn profession retreat at Mt. Irenaeus in Western New York. “It was reinvigorating – nice to step away for a little while in the middle of nature’s beauty and to think not only about the past year but the whole experience of formation and the people I have encountered along the way. On a spiritual level, it allowed me to embrace the vows I will be making and all of the emotions that this commitment entails,” said Aaron.
“Solemn profession means the freedom to embrace and deepen my commitment to the Franciscan brotherhood. There is a sense of freedom in being able to live these promises as authentically as possible, and to trust that when I am asked to go somewhere, it’s because that’s where I need to be, that’s where we need to be,” continued Aaron. “I am living authentically who God created me to be – living in relationship and prayer with God, others, and all of creation.”
Impact of Grandfather’s Death
Aaron is one of three siblings whose mother was a pediatric nurse and whose father, after serving in the U.S. Navy and later in the Naval Reserves, was an aerospace engineer. Aaron was born in Long Beach, California, where he attended the same Catholic grade school as his mother. The influence of his family’s faith and active roles in their church communities was apparent – from his father serving as a coach in a Catholic baseball league, to his maternal grandparents attending daily Mass. In his senior year of high school – where he had played football as a freshman and sophomore – his family moved from the West Coast to rural Fredericksburg, Virginia. Aaron adapted to the culture shock and not knowing anyone, by joining the drama club, an interest that he continued in college.
In addition to set construction, his acting work in theater included roles in dramas and musicals such as “Oklahoma,” Agatha Christie murder mysteries, and “A Christmas Carol.” He later switched jobs, moving from the stage to an office position with a government contractor. But the passing of his grandfather in 2011 was a turning point in Aaron’s life.
“I had fallen away from the Church, but going back to southern California for my grandfather’s funeral and seeing the packed church – all of these people who came to bear witness for him – I suddenly felt this desire for a sense of community and wanting to be connected,” said Aaron. “I went back to church and found it very life-giving, making great friends. I wanted to share this experience and be more active in service alongside others. In contemplating religious vocation, I knew I wanted to be in community and live a life of service.”
His introduction to the Franciscans was at the parish of relatives in Huntington Beach, California. He saw something special about Franciscan life and contacted the HNP vocation office. After the one-week encounter at St. Francis Inn, he went to Camden, New Jersey, for an extended weekend visit to experience friar ministry in a poor urban parish.
At the Inn Another Year
Aaron joined the Province in 2014, living his postulant year at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, before beginning his novice year in 2015 at the St. Francis Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wisconsin, where he also professed his first vows one year later. In 2016, he was assigned to the St. Joseph Interprovincial Post-Novitiate formation house in Chicago, where he began his studies for a master’s in divinity degree at Catholic Theological Union and served in local ministry – including a community center called Port Ministries, where he taught English-as-a-Second-Language classes to Mexican immigrant parents, worked at an after-school program as a homework tutor, and made the rounds on a bread truck giving out sandwiches and spending time in conversation with the poor and marginalized. This followed ministry work as a postulant at a skilled nursing facility in Washington, D.C., and as a novice at a thrift shop and food pantry in Burlington.
Aaron will remain at St. Francis Inn for another year, through summer 2022, before returning to Chicago to complete his master’s degree at CTU toward the pursuit of priestly ordination. He has placed his studies on hold for a year because although his internship has been fulfilling, Aaron says the pandemic limited him to doing only a fraction of what he had hoped to accomplish and experience.
“With COVID-related restrictions lifted and the Inn reopening to in-person dining, the return of volunteers and being able to interact with guests is invigorating and energizing,” said Aaron. “My conversion – my decision to join the Franciscans and Holy Name Province – happened here. I am grateful to the Province for allowing me to experience a little more of this before I move on to pastoral ministry.”
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
Editor’s note: Information about joining the Franciscans can be found on the BecomeaFranciscan section of the Holy Name Province website.