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Sustaining Fraternity During Pandemic

This is one of several articles published in HNP Today about how friars and partners-in-ministry are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others were about creative ways to provide Masses remotely and intensified outreach ministry work around the Province.

Chats from afar, virtual get-togethers, two-to-a-table at mealtime, spaced-out movie nights, rearranged prayer seating, and taking turns in the kitchen – these are just some of the ways that friars throughout the Province are creatively sustaining and strengthening their fraternal life while adjusting to sheltering in place, like all households across America, during this pandemic.

The Franciscan core component of the fraternal community has become even more central – and perhaps more tested than ever before – as friars support one another and maintain their spirits in these unprecedented times, yet while practicing social spacing at their friaries.

Ministering virtually, via Zoom, Skype, and other digital technology, to congregations, parishioners and those seeking spiritual counsel has meant friars being around the friaries 24/7 and spending more time together.

Friars say they are getting used to new routines and trying different things – such as lively recreation-room conversations that require shouting because they’re seated so far apart, the birth of new hobbies and pastimes, and enhanced culinary skills. Many believe that this new normal of the past two months has strengthened their fraternal spirit.

Several friars are using digital technology to connect for informal and theme-focused conversations.

A number of friars have been joining the online Zoom call of friars around the province. (Photo courtesy of Barry Langley)

In mid-March, not long after government officials issued shelter-in-place guidelines, Barry Langley, OFM, of New York City, set up a weekly Zoom video chat that has attracted participants from around the Province.

“They’re not meant to be formal and there’s no agenda. This is just a casual and helpful way for friars to catch up, share information about our ministries, let each other know how we’re doing personally, how we are making ourselves available and new ways we are doing our ministry, and just about anything else that comes up in the course of conversations,” explained Barry, who arranged the first chat on March 14 and said the get-togethers have seen some repeat participants and others for the first time, from Florida, Upstate New York and the New York metropolitan area, including Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM.

“It was good to have Kevin join us for most of a session. At one point, when everyone was sharing a story or information about how things were going at their friary, Kevin said it felt like we were in the rec room having the conversation,” recalled Barry, who has dubbed the Zoom chats “Saturday Night Rec” because its format resembles conversations that happen spontaneously in friary recreation rooms.

“The name makes it inviting to friars. It’s not just another Zoom ministry-related or business meeting. The subject matter is dictated by the flow of the conversation,” Barry added. “That’s what happens in our rec rooms, so that’s what should happen in these chats. They provide a time and ‘virtual’ place where we can support each other, socialize, or simply just sit back and listen to the conversation.”

Jud Weiksnar, OFM, who lives in Buffalo, New York, is delighted that Barry has arranged the Saturday Night Rec chats.

“Since I don’t live in a large friar community, I appreciate these ‘gatherings’ and hearing stories and sharing the joy, hope, grief, and anxiety of my brothers,” said Jud, who noted that he has also enjoyed Zoom calls with some of his classmates.

“I know that some people are feeling Zoomed-out, but for me, Zoom calls take on a different tone when they involve only friars,” said Jud, who thought he was on Zoom call overload with four in a single day, until he heard that Dan Horan, OFM, who works at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, recently had 26 in one week.

Guardians ‘Meet’ Every Sunday
Another friar Zoom initiative, which launched on March 22 and is more formal in nature, takes place every Sunday afternoon among the guardians of the Province’s large houses – St. Anthony Friary in Butler, New Jersey, St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, St. Francis Friary in New York City, St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the friaries on the campuses of St. Bonaventure University and Siena College.

“It’s been very helpful for us to ‘get together’ and discuss what each fraternity has been doing in their house regarding precautions and pandemic protocols. We share ideas for community building during this time of coronavirus quarantine, and also discuss any other issues that arise and how we can better serve our brothers in each of these fraternities,” said David Convertino, OFM, guardian of the friary on West 31st Street.

“These gatherings have given me a great sense of brotherhood in the Province, which has been very helpful to me personally,” added David.

“It provides a good sense of community. People are finding ways to be in touch,” said Robert Frazzetta, OFM, guardian of the Butler friary and, like David, is a member of the Provincial Council.

Increased Camaraderie
The results of an informal survey of Province friaries from Massachusetts to Florida found that friars are staying positive. Guardians cited increased camaraderie, and new practices and schedules to keep friars safe and houses sanitized.

“Friars here are managing the ‘new normal’ pretty well. We miss the thousands of visitors and our staff and neighbors, but we have our fraternity and it is sustaining us,” said Frank Sevola, OFM, guardian of St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street. “We moved our prayers and friar community Mass to the large first-floor church so we can social distance. Dinner is now served in shifts so that just two friars sit at a table.

“We no longer use the staircases because it would be a big undertaking to sanitize them daily, so we take the elevators, with two friars allowed at a time. Friars are staying home unless they must go out, and the younger friars are picking up medication at the local pharmacy and running errands to places like the post office for our older friars,” Frank continued.

“Friars are on board with the need for distancing, and when we see each other even from afar, you can feel the fraternal spirit. The dining room gets quite lively even with just 12 friars – two at each table – when they start talking to each other across the room, sometimes with everyone involved in the same conversation,” said Frank.

Tony LoGalbo, OFM, vicar at the Shrine, added, “We are required to use latex gloves whenever obtaining food or using utensils in the kitchen area. We still gather for the evening preprandium with appropriate distancing, where we share what we are watching on TV, or films, and theatrical presentations that we are streaming.”

In Loudonville, New York, Mark Reamer, OFM, guardian at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary, said the friars on the Siena College campus have adjusted their practices to accommodate the heightened need for safety and sanitization.

“Though there is more of an intensity to life, everyone seems to be responding well,” said Mark, who noted that early in the pandemic, he and the friars met with health professionals to discuss changes and new protocols, as well as actions to administer if a friar was required to quarantine.

Mark said that hand-sanitizer dispensers have been installed at entrance doors, and half the number of chairs were removed from the chapel and dining room to create adequate spacing. “Meal routines are a little different, particularly the way meals are served – and in the kitchen, we don’t touch food, and the silverware is wrapped,” he said, noting that follow-up house chapters have helped clarify and refine safety practices, which include sanitizing the friary three times daily.

Turning his attention to those on the frontlines and Siena students, Mark, who serves as vice president for Franciscan mission at the college just outside of Albany, said, “I feel for all those who are working hard, especially healthcare workers, and also for the college seniors who are missing out on the traditional end-of-the-year activities. On a personal note,” he added, “I am unable to see my mother, who I normally visit once or twice a month at a residence that is obviously not allowing visitors.”

Serenity at the Mountain
In Western New York, Dan Riley, OFM, said the atmosphere at Mt. Irenaeus feels like “it did in the old days” before the Mountain attracted hundreds of retreat guests.

Kevin Kriso, OFM, one of four friars who lives at Mt. Irenaeus, said they are “doing pretty well” as they focus on their prayer lives and maintaining the expansive grounds of the Mountain.

“There’s a lot to keep us busy here. Definitely, no one is bored. We have realized that this time is an opportunity to go deeper into our prayer lives. We have been taking more quiet time and at supper, we are enjoying each other’s stories,” said Kevin, a native of Long Island.

“We are also getting to projects that we had been unable to do because of busy schedules. Our volunteer service day – which is our spring clean-up of the property – was scheduled for April l4, but it had to be canceled. We have been doing tasks that the volunteers usually do – raking, hauling debris, and gardening,” explained Kevin, who said that a scheduled trip with Dan to Laverna, Italy, also was canceled.

At the St. Francis Friary in New York City, the friars have made a number of adjustments to their communal life – reorganizing the settings of their prayer and meal environments to create larger space for distancing, and arranging get-togethers to balance their days with some joy. On Friday nights, the friars celebrate with a different theme and a special preprandium. On Saturdays, a friar makes dinner and the group watches a movie. They recently took in a Zoom presentation by Ken Himes, OFM, a professor at Boston College, about “New Trends in Moral Theology.”

The friars at 31st Street decided at a house chapter how practices would be modified to accommodate guidelines and recommendations for staying healthy during the pandemic. For example, San Damiano Hall, located on the first floor of their building, was divided in half, with one side being used for daily Mass and morning prayer. Everything was transferred from the friary chapel and chairs are spaced apart to follow protocol. For meals, the friars now eat dinner in shifts so that fewer people are in the dining room at the same time. A communal meeting is also held every Tuesday morning.

“Generally, the guys seem to be doing well. We are fortunate to have a patio and be able to go outside for fresh air. The silver lining in this is that social distancing has brought us together. People have more time to be together. Several friars have volunteered to go to the drugstore to pick up medication and other necessary supplies, so that way only a few friars leave the building,” said David Convertino.

In Butler, Robert Frazzetta said that daily life has not changed much for the retired friars living at the New Jersey friary. “Most friars at St. Anthony have fairly quiet lives. We pray and have our meals together, but are sitting far apart,” said Robert, noting that Kevin Cronin, OFM, and Tom Hartle, OFM, have been most affected because they are usually on the road giving missions and retreats, all of which have been canceled.

“Personally, my life is very different from pre-pandemic days because I have never had so many meetings – all virtual, of course,” he said.

Fraternal Life Further South
In Maryland, the community of Holy Name College has seen the routines of its members and the friary revised in several ways, with friars and postulants hard at work to ensure a healthy and fraternal community.

The dining room at Holy Name College. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Grudi

“Since 20 men live at the friary, we go to great lengths to maintain social distancing protocols and keep a clean house, said Tyler Grudi, a postulant and member of Holy Name Province. “Instead of meeting all at once for liturgy, we stagger prayers and Masses in separate groups and rotate the groups each week. Preprandium and meals are more spread out than before to avoid overcrowding the dining room.”

Tyler continued, “From Tuesday through Thursday, the postulants would normally have ministry. Unfortunately, almost all of our ministries have closed down. But that doesn’t stop us from working in the community and around the friary,” he added, noting the words of guardian Walter Liss, OFM, who often says that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Some postulants are working around the property, performing such tasks as power washing and chopping wood. Other postulants are making bagged meals and delivering them to families in need. For some, these meals are the only daily sustenance that their children get.

“These people are beyond thankful when we show up with these meals. They tell me that they don’t know what they would do without meals. Providing this food is essential,” said Juan Luis, a postulant and member of St. Barbara Province.

“We also recognize the importance of fostering fraternity in our own community during these troubling times. In place of weekly adoration, we postulants join together for faith sharing and spend some time in reflective prayer with the real presence of God in the Gospels,” he said.

Postulant Kevin Hamzik, added “Though the pandemic has certainly shaken up daily routines here at Holy Name College, we find strength in God and in our brothers to help us through even the darkest days. Even though we are farther apart, we are closer together.”

In Triangle, Virginia, Henry Fulmer, OFM, guardian of St. Francis of Assisi Parish-Friary, reports that the fraternal spirit “has picked up quite a lot” during this health crisis. “We have found support in our fraternal community – which we all need at this time,” he said.

The friars in Triangle share community time at a distance. (Photo courtesy of Henry Fulmer)

Each evening, the four friars at the northern Virginia friary catch up on the day’s news before dinner – and because they are home more, says Henry, there is more conversation and daily interaction, as they have been watching movies together twice a week, which encourages more dialogue.

The friars have also increased their communal prayer for healthcare workers and first responders, especially those from families in the parish. Because of this social-distancing lifestyle, they are being creative and doing things in new ways.

The three friars who are ordained priests — John Alderson, OFM, Ignatius Harding, OFM, and pastor John O’Connor, OFM — go to the church during weekdays to give reflections. Henry mostly works in the office and takes the many phone calls from parishioners looking for guidance or seeking ways to help the parish food pantry and other outreach programs.

The quartet of friars, says Henry, is fortunate to have a cook who prepares and drops off their meals for the week every Monday. “We are also blessed to be able to walk the grounds. Guys in some friaries cannot do that as easily,” he said, adding that he and Ignatius are going to figure out how to play dominoes.

Testing Their Culinary Skills
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Jim Sabak, OFM, guardian of St. Francis Parish Friary, said the daily routine has not changed much in the house.

“We are still gathering for morning prayer, we still have preprandium and dinner together on weekdays. On Monday afternoons, we set aside time to gather together as a way of checking in on each other, to see how this is affecting our own lives and what ministry has become for us in the midst of the pandemic. This has been very helpful because it shows us that no one is carrying the burden of this pandemic alone,” Jim said.

“We’re even in the habit of cooking for each other on the weekends – well, trying to cook. That’s a real change of pace because we would go out for dinner, or have dinner on our own in different ways, after the late Mass on Saturdays and Sundays. The new way has been a great experience of fraternal sharing and joy,” Jim said.

He and Mike Watson, principal of The Franciscan School, have been videotaping morning prayer – which would normally be prayed at the beginning of each school day in the courtyard of the lower school – and post-morning prayer shorts that are being posted on the school Facebook and YouTube pages as a way of staying connected to the students and their families.

“It is very odd and a little disconcerting to have this large parish campus empty of people and activities. It reinforces that without the faithful, a parish is just buildings,” Jim added.

In Tampa, Florida, Zach Elliott, OFM, guardian of Sacred Heart Friary, says fraternal life is more intimate than in the past. “We seem more attentive to prayer. Also, we are cooking together and I think we are all learning to cook better. The meal collaboration feels positive and helps our spirits,” said Zach, one of three friars at the downtown parish.

Zach Elliott in his beekeeping outfit. (Photo courtesy of Zach)

“What’s most challenging is the unknown. But it helps to know that parishioners are appreciative of the Masses that we are offering online. We’re not in crisis, but simply trying to live in the new normal. We are all healthy – thank goodness,” said Zach, who has started a new project – beekeeping, which he says has the benefits of being a hobby and potential fundraising, since he plans to sell the harvested honey at the parish gift store.

In nearby St. Petersburg, Florida, Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, vicar of St. Anthony Friary, said that the retirement house “feels in solidarity” with so many people around the world practicing some version of staying at home. Kevin has noticed that friars are using hand-sanitizing dispensers installed throughout the house and are careful to avoid handshakes. Metal banisters, guard rails, and doorknobs are regularly cleaned with antiseptic.

“We have reduced the number of staff in the friary, although everyone is being paid, and we now have a policy of no guests – which is an odd sight because our friary is known for welcoming visitors and guests, including hosting many discernment weekends here,” Kevin said.

“The average age of the friars in our house is the early 80s, and most have underlying conditions. The friars left the house before the pandemic only for doctor visits,” explained Kevin. “So government restrictions have not affected our lifestyle much. As a rule, we are a stay at home lot. We pray for protection and for an end to the virus – and we take this occasion to wish everyone health and well-being.”

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

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