This is the third in a series of profiles of Holy Name Province friars who in 2015 are marking major anniversaries as Franciscans. The previous article featured Xavier De La Huerta, OFM. Thomas and the other jubilarians commemorating 50 and 25 years of profession will be honored by the Province in June.
RINGWOOD, N.J. — It was not the influence of a religious family or a neighborhood parish that drew Thomas Ennis, OFM, to the Franciscans half a century ago. He credits a connection he made with a famous Franciscan priest for inspiring his vocation to religious life.
The Williamsport, Pa., native was in the Navy when the captain of the destroyer on which he was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea during the Cuban Missile Crisis invited him to see St. Padre Pio, OFM Cap., who was speaking in Italy.
Thomas, who is celebrating 50 years as a friar, remembers it well. “It was Valentine’s Day in 1956,” he said, when the two saw Pio, famous for bearing the stigmata. Tom became taken with the Capuchin friar and, when his ship returned to Boston, he sought out the Franciscans at St. Anthony Shrine. “The rest is history,” he added.
The friendly friar, known for his sense of humor, asked HNP Today to “come back in another 50 years,” when he was recently interviewed at Holy Name Friary in Ringwood. Thomas has lived in the Province’s skilled nursing facility since 2006.
Cooking and Caring for Others
Tom said he has had a happy and fulfilling life. His ministry has been defined by caring for others: either looking after elderly or sick friars, or cooking at St. Francis Inn, the Province’s soup kitchen in Philadelphia.
Before joining the Franciscan Order, Tom, who was never confirmed as a boy, was part of a confirmation class of 600 adults at Holy Cross Cathedral in South Boston, Mass.
He was received into the Order in 1964 in Lafayette, N.J., and professed first vows there at age 30 on July 15, 1965. He was assigned to Holy Name College in Washington, D.C, where he looked after the refectory, the friars’ dining room. Tom felt at home there, since his father had owned and worked in restaurants, and he grew up in the food business. He spent 1967 to 1968 at St. Francis College in Rye Beach, N.H., before he was assigned to St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., to serve as the assistant infirmarian at the Provincial infirmary.
Tom liked his 11 years at SBU, mostly because it was out in the country and he had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania. One year after he began his assignment at SBU in 1968, he professed solemn vows in his hometown.
His next assignment, in 1979, was to the Province’s St. Petersburg, Fla., friary to care for the elderly friars there. But after a year, Tom asked to return north because he didn’t enjoy the hot weather.
He moved to Philadelphia in 1980 to cook for the guests of St. Francis Inn, a ministry he performed for 36 years until retirement. Tom arrived a year after the Inn opened, and thoroughly enjoyed his time there, especially working with his brother friars and with the volunteers. He became close with William DeBiase, OFM, and his classmate Patrick Sieber, OFM, who often visits him in Ringwood. Photos of Pat’s nieces and nephews decorate Tom’s wall of memorabilia. The impressive collection includes snapshots of Inn volunteers, statues of Mary, St. Francis, and St. Therese the Little Flower, and a stuffed dog.
Advocating for Environment
One photo, in particular, stands out. It shows a younger Tom, kneeling with his head down at a protest of a nuclear power plant in New Jersey. Tom participated in many similar protests over the years, for which he was arrested more than 25 times.
He prefers to focus on the good memories — singing as part of a choral group on the steps of the White House for the country’s bicentennial in 1976, living with more than 100 friars over the years at the Inn, and working with hundreds of volunteers.
While he says he’s not much for movies or television, Tom said that he enjoys singing karaoke in the friary recreation room “if I can remember the words.” He still has a good singing voice, and fondly remembers the choirs and singing groups in which he sang first tenor.
He likes the social events at the Ringwood friary. Tom takes part in recreational activities and a rosary group, and is often the first to sign up for outings to restaurants. The former cook said he appreciates a good meal.
Still a follower of Padre Pio, Tom likes to introduce others to the saint, and calls this work his “retirement ministry.” With the help of friary staff, he sends to family and friends monthly mailings containing information about Pio, along with a calendar, a prayer card, or a printout. He is also fond of Chief Joseph, a Native American, he read bout while at Holy Name Friary and often mails out information onhim. Tom is happy when people phone to thank him for the mailing or send a letter in reply.
“I like to keep letting people know the truth,” said the soft-spoken brother, who may be Holy Name’s non-official expert on Padre Pio.
Tom was one of 10 children, four of whom died at birth and, today, only his 92-year-old brother remains.
The jubilarian would like to be remembered as a happy friar who helped the needy and those with whom he lived. “And that I enjoyed my ministry and was honored to be part of Holy Name Province.”
— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and contributor to HNP Today.