This is the second in a series of profiles of friars commemorating the 25th and 50th anniversaries of their profession in 2021. Michael Jones, OFM, was featured in the March issue of HNP Today.
NEW YORK CITY – When he began his year as a postulant with Holy Name Province in 1994, it wasn’t the most dramatic step taken by Steven Patti, OFM, in his journey toward religious vocation. That came the year before, when Steve resigned from his job at a publishing company and left his family and friends in suburban Boston to join the Province’s Franciscan Volunteer Ministry – taking the last open position as a lay volunteer minister at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in what was at the time one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
“I had this sense of wanting to do something different, something in service to others,” recalled Steve, who attended a retreat in 1993 at the St. Francis Retreat Center in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, that would change the trajectory of his life.
It was there that he first learned about the FVM program, prompting a chain reaction that resulted in a 12-month commitment at St. Francis Inn and subsequently sparked his decision to join the Province. That journey has led to Steve marking his 25th anniversary this year as a professed Franciscan friar.
“Twenty-five years of profession? How can that be? You must be mistaken – ah, but no!” said Steve, mixing wit and feigned disbelief when contacted for this interview.
It was an unlikely course for someone who at the time was living just outside of Boston, comfortably employed for more than four years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from Northeastern University, about 20 miles from Burlington, Massachusetts, where he was raised with two younger brothers.
“Quite a big leap for me,” admits Steve, who has been serving as a parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish on West 31st Street in New York City since last September. “I went from growing up in suburban Boston – with fenced yards, manicured lawns, and well-kept homes – to an old industrial neighborhood in Philadelphia beset with poverty, prostitution, and drug-dealing.”
But it was the eye-opening change that he needed in his own life. “It gave me a picture of what the world really looks like. It’s a culture that we sometimes don’t want to see,” said Steve, recalling his first visit to St. Francis Inn before making his final decision. Michael Duffy, OFM, a longtime team member at the Province’s soup kitchen, picked him up at the airport.
“He asked me if he should take the highway or the back roads,” said Steve, who opted for the latter. “We exited I-95 not far from historic Independence Hall and drove north through what they call ‘the badlands’ – entire sections of the city practically in ruins. What a contrast between downtown Philadelphia, the birthplace of America, and neighborhoods of broken-down row houses. What did that say about who we were as a country?”
Seeing the World Through Franciscan Lens
Despite the contrast in his own upbringing and geography, he felt at home at the Inn. “Getting to know the guests, listening to their stories about what they did before and how they got there, was amazing. Some lost their jobs, others suffered from addiction. I realized that any one of us could be them,” said Steve, who is among four HNP friars commemorating major anniversaries of their profession in 2021.
Steve also cited the influence that the team of friars, nuns, and volunteers had on his decision to join the Province. “It is a great community that rallies around their ministry. This is good and important work – and as time went by, I realized that this was the kind of life that could draw me to the Franciscans,” he said. He was also attracted to the way Holy Name Province sees the world.
“I grew up in a confining church that said the world and culture were bad, and that the only good thing was the Church. I could never quite accept that because I was always drawn to music, movies, books, people, and places. That’s the way the Province sees the world – it sees culture, countries, languages, people, and events through the lens of the Gospel and the life of St. Francis. Through its many ministries, the Province sees the dignity and goodness of the human person – and that feels expansive and freeing,” said Steve.
“Being part of a fraternity that pushes us out into the world can be energizing and fun, and also difficult at times,” he continued. “In all of my assignments, I have found friars to be supportive and encouraging – especially when I had to stand before two separate congregations and explain that the Province and friars were leaving their parishes. During these past 25 years, I have met and formed friendships with many friars. It’s been great to be part of this larger group.”
At the conclusion of his FVM year, while attending a retreat for all volunteer ministers, he decided to enter the Province’s postulant program in 1994. He was received into the Province in June 1995 and spent his novitiate year at St. Francis Chapel and City Ministry Center in Providence, Rhode Island, where he professed his first vows as a friar in 1996.
Steve, who has a master of divinity degree from Washington Theological Union, made his solemn profession in September 2000 at the church on 31st Street, where in May of the following year he was ordained to the priesthood. He completed a one-year internship in preparation for profession at Holy Name of Jesus Parish on the Upper West Side – his introduction to parish ministry, which has become the hallmark of his friar life.
During the period June 2001 to July 2012, Steve served for two years as parochial vicar at St. Paul’s Parish in Wilmington, Delaware; eight years as associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina – where he also was chaplain at a nearby federal correctional facility – and one year as pastor at St. Mary Church in Providence.
In 2012, he was assigned to where it all began – St. Francis Inn, which was a pleasant and perfectly-timed reunion since he was coming from the recently completed and difficult task of HNP’s departure from the church in Providence. Two years later, in summer 2014, he was assigned to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, North Carolina, as pastor and guardian.
While in Raleigh, he also served in chaplaincy ministry for the incarcerated on Death Row at a local prison. “It was one of the most profound ministries of my 25 years as a friar – getting to know six inmates, not as the culture typically views them, but as men who were thoughtful, curious, and open to change, and who spoke often about forgiveness and mercy,” said Steve, who also on occasion joined a group of parishioners that would drive 40 miles to Louisburg to bring food to seasonal migrant workers from Central America.
Although he has enjoyed all of his parish assignments, his eight years at Immaculate Conception in Durham were among the most memorable of the past two-and-a-half decades. He was ordained just short of two years when he arrived at the multicultural urban parish in 2003.
“It was a growing community that attracted people from all over the country. The parish was involved in the life of the city and partnered with other faith communities,” said Steve, who also served for six years (2014-2020) as a mentor to Province friars solemnly professed under five years, a group known as SPUFY. “Parishioners and friars were vocal about the issues of the day. You felt the energy when the church was filled to its 1,000-person capacity. I still keep in touch with many of the people there.”
Inspired by History of the South
Steve has always been fascinated by history – perhaps from growing up in a Boston suburb 10 minutes from Lexington and the Battle Green, where the first shot of the American Revolutionary War was fired. When he arrived in Durham, one of the first things he did was explore historical Civil War sites. But there was something else that made living in the South special – “being close to places that were involved in the civil rights movement,” according to Steve, who referenced the former F.W. Woolworth building in Greensboro’s historic district that now serves as an international civil rights center and museum commemorating the 1960 sit-in staged by young African American students after they were denied service at the store’s segregated lunch counter.
“There is a powerful and haunting sense of presence when you walk into the Woolworth building, and when you’re walking on grounds in the South where slaves suffered and lost their lives. Driving through the countryside and seeing Confederate flags gave me the feeling that the Civil War still lived on,” said Steve, who added, “This always stirred reflection about the role of the Church in seeking out peace amid signs of division.”
He continued, “I found that the history of the South could be a great source of preaching and who we are called to be. I could tell the stories of the civil rights movement, connecting them to the Gospel and how we are called to live the Gospel message in a hostile world.”
In addition to his pastoral responsibilities since arriving in New York City last year, Steve has been helping with the St. Francis Breadline, serving as a presence to hundreds of guests and handing out sandwiches and other food at the crack of dawn five or six days a week.
“It brings me back to my days at the Inn, meeting hundreds of people, not knowing where they’re coming from or where they’re going, but feeling connected to their lives. These face-to-face encounters are a nice way to begin the day – moments of almost sacramental grace on the street,” said Steve, who spoke of a daily guest named Larry, who arrives after most of the line has dissipated and points to the exact sandwich and cake that he wants without uttering more than a gentle ‘okay’ as each item is presented.
“The Breadline is like this – a bunch of small stories of people who emerge from the shadows, some dealing with physical and emotional illness, others homeless or just hungry. In that brief moment, we provide nourishment that helps carry them through the day,” he said.
Steve is grateful for the opportunity of many encounters and shared experiences that have nourished his pastoral ministry through the years. During a trip to Morocco in 2018 with a group of Raleigh parishioners, for example, he met four friars who spoke about being Franciscan in a country that is 99 percent Muslim.
“That encounter offered insight into what it was like to be a minority Christian in a Muslim country – a reminder of what Francis of Assisi experienced when he met the Sultan in Egypt,” said Steve, who used another excursion with Raleigh parishioners – a Habitat for Humanity trip to El Salvador in 2019 to build a concrete house for a family – to speak about anti-immigration issues.
“When meeting the people, we felt the heaviness and the sense of a country that had suffered much violence. We visited the tomb of St. Oscar Romero, the church where he was assassinated, and the small apartment where he lived. At a time of anti-immigration sentiment, I spoke at Masses about this powerful encounter with the people of El Salvador,” said Steve, who has made parish trips to Assisi and La Verna in Italy and is particularly drawn to the latter for its calming wilderness.
Steve’s connection to nature – which is very Franciscan – began long before he became a friar. His family was fortunate to have a second home, a lake house in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where they would spend time skiing, hiking, and enjoying the rivers and lakes.
“I have always found beauty in nature, just as St. Francis was drawn to the outdoors,” said Steve, whose other interests include reading fiction, history, poetry, and spirituality/theology, going to the movies, and rooting for hometown sports teams like the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots. He also enjoys a leisurely afternoon at art museums in New York and Philadelphia.
“Seeing a 12th century stone arch from a ruined church in France, or a 17th century Rembrandt portrait of Christ keeps my world big and makes me feel connected to history, culture, and other people. It’s important to be in touch with beauty, art, and nature,” he said.
Perhaps it was those hikes among the burst of autumn colors, or nature’s reflection on the pristine lake, in the White Mountains that planted the first seeds and have now flourished into Steve’s 25 years of Franciscan ministry.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Recognizing 2021 Jubilarians, Remembering Those Who Died in 2020” — Jan. 20, 2021, HNP Today
- “Raleigh Parish Bids Farewell to Franciscans” – Sept. 14, 2020, HNP Today
- “Franciscan Volunteer Ministry Welcomes Applicants” – June 10, 2020, HNP Today
- “In El Salvador, Answering St. Francis’ Call to ‘Rebuild My House’” by Steven Patti, OFM – June 18, 2019, HNP Today