Stephen Kluge Marks 25 Years as a Friar

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This is the first in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their 25th and 50th anniversaries of profession in 2020.

Steve Kluge (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

RALEIGH, N.C. – When he looks back on his 25 years as a friar, Stephen Kluge, OFM, recalls the two most important decisions of his life – the first, when he left Holy Name Province midway through novitiate, and the second, when he returned eight years later.

Despite his vocation journey having its share of twists and turns, God posted a few signs along the way – a ham sandwich, a theme park, a group of high school students, and a pair of nuns – to help get him across the finish line.

Serving as parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh since February 2015 – and as one of HNP’s regional vocation directors for the south for more than two years – Steve is among a group of friars marking 25 and 50 years since making their first profession of vows. In June, the Province will honor this class of jubilarians with a special Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City.

Early Life
The eldest of five children, Steve’s early contemplation of religious vocation was clearly the influence of growing up in a faith-filled family in Point Pleasant, New Jersey – where his father, a convert to Catholicism and manager of an industrial production facility, and devout stay-at-home mother were active at their Conventual Franciscan parish.

Although he kept his thoughts about religious life to himself, apparently someone other than the Holy Spirit noticed. While attending St. Rose High School in Belmar, Steve was a volunteer religious education teacher for elementary age school children. A nun – Sr. Frances Gervase, SSJ – stopped him in the hallway with these four words: “You have a vocation.”

“I turned several shades of red and didn’t know what to say. When I got home, my face was still red; my mother thought someone slapped me. I didn’t want to talk about it, so I just kept it to myself,” Steve recalled. “But Sr. Frances recognized something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. She was a prophet in my life.”

He went on to attend St. Francis College in Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1977 with a bachelor of science degree in elementary education and landed a job as a 4th-grade teacher at a Catholic grammar school in New Jersey. Still unsure about his lot in life, he left the classroom and took a retail job – a second short-lived endeavor when the store went out of business, but not before a co-worker pointed him towards yet another career.

Steve changed gears and took a job as a nurse’s aid at a state psychiatric hospital in Marlboro, where he worked in a ward that consisted primarily of elderly Alzheimer’s patients.

“When I look back, it was my time caring for the ‘lepers,’ people from which most others kept their distance. But you form a bond when you take care of other people, especially those who are helpless,” said Steve.

A Ham Sandwich and a Bump in the Road
The experience awakened thoughts of religious vocation that had been lying dormant since his high school days. This time, Steve answered the call. In July 1984, he was accepted into the Franciscan postulant program and reported to Holy Cross Friary in the Bronx, N.Y., which, at the time, was the Province formation house for men contemplating Franciscan life.

Steve Kluge (left) after the Provincial ordinations in 2010 with Sr. Kate Murphy and friars, (from left) David Phan, Paul O’Keeffe, and Michael Reyes. (Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Thomas)

The decision to choose Holy Name Province over the diocesan priesthood and other Franciscan Orders, such as the Conventuals and Capuchins, came down to a meeting over a ham sandwich, says Steve – half-jokingly – with Gerald Carr, OFM, and Richard Trezza, OFM.

“I visited the Capuchins in New Jersey – they were the Italian ‘chapter’ of the Franciscans. The lunch was delicious, but I couldn’t see myself eating spaghetti every day,” Steve explained. “The ham sandwich made me feel at home like I fit in – and for the record, when the pastor of my parish, a priest who happened to be a good friend of the family, was surprised I didn’t talk to him about my intentions, I told him he should’ve invited me to lunch!”

After completing his 12-month postulancy, Steve was midway through novitiate when he began having second thoughts about religious life – mainly, he says, “because I didn’t know what my gifts and talents were at the time.” He left the novitiate in 1986 and returned to the identical job he originally had at the state psychiatric hospital.

“Some people thought I was a plant for the state (regulatory agencies), and one person didn’t realize I was gone that long, thinking I had been on vacation,” he said.

It was a short second stint at the hospital and an even shorter stay in a hospitality position at a Florida theme park – where he was in 1987 when John Maganzini, OFM, the vice-principal of Holy Cross School in the Bronx who had been his spiritual advisor during novitiate, contacted him about an open 5th-grade teaching position. Steve jumped at the opportunity and taught 7th- and 8th-grade classes as well for the next seven years.

“During that time, I felt as though God was speaking through John – that God was calling me back to the Franciscans and wanted me to be a friar,” Steve said.

Apparently, he needed more than words – he wanted a sign from God.

Make That Two Signs
Then one day he was asked to give a reflection at a school Mass before the student population went on Christmas break. Afterward, there was a party in the gymnasium, where he remembers standing under a basketball net and silently bargaining with God.

Steve at a workshop at St. Joseph Parish in Anderson. (Photo courtesy of the HNP Photo Archives)

“If you want me to come back, give me a sign – that’s what I told God – and just as I spoke those words, a group of 8th-grade girls (who knew his background), ran up to me [out of the blue] and said, ‘Mr. Kluge, you’re just like Br. John. You have to go back.’ Then they ran off and I said to God, ‘That was a really good sign, but just to be sure, give me another one,’” Steve said.

Moments later, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, who also taught at the school, approached Steve and told him that if he didn’t go back soon, he would be completing novitiate at a retirement home. “I told God, ‘wow, you really got me there. Okay, already, I’m going back,’” he said.

“But it was also a matter of timing. I knew by then what my talents were – and teaching was one of them,” he added.

He returned to the Province’s novitiate in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1994 and made his first profession of vows in June 1995. He continued post-formation at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, before professing his final vows in September 1999 at the church on 31st Street – where he also was ordained into the priesthood in May 2001.

When he re-entered the Order, his plan was to be a teaching brother at Catholic grammar schools. But the deeper he got into post-novitiate formation, the more he wanted to study theology. While earning his master of divinity degree from Washington Theological Union, he volunteered at a local hospital and St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring.

Ordination Becomes Clear
While spending three summers during post-novitiate formation in pastoral ministry – one summer at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston and two on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, Steve experienced what he described as “this nagging feeling about being ordained.” While at the LBI parish, he preached once a week at daily Mass at St. Francis of Assisi in Beach Haven – after which parishioners would tell him how much they enjoyed his homilies.

For Steve, every homily is a teaching moment because “it leads us to the table of Communion. The scriptures aren’t dead stories because Jesus Christ is alive. A good homilist ties homilies to life. Homilies should make a critical correlation between our faith and our lives. They’re not just empty words. It has to be alive. This is one of the reasons I decided to become ordained,” he explained.

Steve Kluge with then-Governor Chris Christi (Photo courtesy of the HNP Photo Archive)

After spending two summers on LBI, it was like a homecoming when he received his first assignment in June 2001 as parochial vicar at St. Francis Parish.

“It was an easy transition. I was a known commodity and it was a welcoming place. Fraternal life and all its incarnations weres wonderful there,” said Steve, adding, “To me, that’s the key and certainly the fraternal aspect of Franciscans – a good life in the home where you can laugh, have a serious discussion and argue without holding rank.”

Before anyone thinks that ministry in a shore community is a walk on the beach, think again. “It was hard work, especially during the summer season, with four churches and three very distinct populations of year-round residents, summer residents, and vacationers,” said Steve, who was stationed at the LBI parish for 13 years, seven of them as the pastor, including when Super Storm Sandy ravaged the island.

“It was nearly four months before we assembled as a congregation for Mass at a diocesan church in nearby Manahawkin. I stopped off at St. Francis to pick up the San Damiano Cross because we were allowed back onto the island,” Steve said.

Francis on the Go
When the music for the entrance hymn began and the cross stood tall in the procession down the center aisle, Steve was sobbing. “I told the congregation that the storm was a blessing – because as damaging as it was, it reminded me of how much I loved and missed them. There were a lot of moist eyes in the church that day.”

He created St.-Francis-on-the-go when people were being let back on the island – an effort on the part of the friars and parishioners through which they dropped by homes and businesses, delivering bottled water, snacks, and words of encouragement and compassion as people were rebuilding.

In 2014, Steve moved south, where he served briefly as guardian and pastor at St. Joseph Church in Anderson, South Carolina, before his current assignment at St. Francis in Raleigh, where he also serves as spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscans and ministers to the parish’s spirituality group for men.

“It’s gratifying to see laypeople living the Gospel with greater consciousness. Here at Raleigh, they are involved in all sorts of beautiful ministries – they feed the poor, provide hospitality and serve at peace and justice events,” he said.

Although he decided to go the pastoral route instead of a teaching ministry, Steve has always found ways to use his teaching gifts. He has led retreats at the Franciscan Renewal Center and Dominican Retreat House, both in Pennsylvania – which he says taps into his teaching skills differently, by presenting the faith in a way that enables people to connect it to their daily lives.

Inspirational Friars
Steve said several friars have been inspirational role models, setting the bar to levels to which he has aspired during his ministerial life. Among them are the late Andrew Giardino, OFM, the guardian at the novitiate in Providence who was an example of caring for the brothers with simple acts of kindness; Paul Osborne, OFM, a model of contemplation who showed him the importance of daily sustained prayer; Andrew Reitz, OFM, the pastor when he first arrived at LBI who taught him about sacrifice in pastoral ministry and listening to people with an open heart and mind, and Bill Bried, OFM, described by Steve as one of the best homilists he has ever heard and who taught him the importance of homily preparation.

Friars who made solemn vows in 1999 (from left: Scott Brookbank, John Gill, and Steve Kluge) with the Minister General Giacomo Bini. (Photo courtesy of The Provincial Annals)

Even the many friends he has made in the Franciscan fraternity and at the parishes and ministries where he has served during these past 25 years are unaware that Steve “pretends” to be a poet.

“I have written more than 100 poems of a religious nature – some of which have been published in the Raleigh parish’s Sunday bulletin. Parishioners have told me that they laminate and post them on their refrigerators. You can’t get more honor than that when you’re pretending to be a poet,” he said, noting that his goal for 2020 is to either find a publisher or self-publish his works into a book.

The interview ended with a story that captures what Steve believes makes Franciscans unique – and epitomizes how he has modeled his two-and-a-half decades as a friar. When he was interning at St. Francis, a Pennsylvania woman vacationing on LBI asked him to hear her confession.

“She was crying and appeared very distraught. I told her I was not a priest and asked her why she was so upset. She told me that she couldn’t recite the act of contrition in Latin, so the priest at her hometown parish refused to grant her absolution. Of course, I immediately got Andrew (Reitz) and he made it right for her,” Steve said.

He later sat on the beach contemplating his future as a friar. “I realized the woman was the best reason yet why I should pursue ordination, so she and others wouldn’t have to be turned away and treated badly. Until then, I was asking, should I be ordained? – when I should’ve been asking, how can I best serve the people of God?” Steve explained.

He added, “No one was afraid of St. Francis because he embraced everyone. Being open to the mystery of the human person, being kind and welcoming, and – like St. Francis – showing God’s love and mercy to everyone you meet – that’s what makes me proud to be a Franciscan.”

— Stephen Mangione, a writer based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today,