A Final Farewell to my Friars
“Your upper lip is covered with sweat.” My wife Margaret was right. And it was an honest sweat—not related to our ten-block walk from Grand Central Station to West 31st Street in Manhattan, nor to the coat and tie I was unaccustomed to wearing after years of “Florida casual.” No, I was breaking a bit of a nervous sweat because we were the first to arrive at one of the most unusual social gatherings or reunions of my life. And while I was surprised and delighted to be invited to this rather exclusive event, I was also reliving years of my life that were directed from the very building I was now seated with my wife.
* * * *
Back in 1961, as an eighth grader in Buffalo, I applied for entrance to the Franciscan Order’s minor seminary in Callicoon, New York, about three hundred miles from my home. I would never return home as a resident again, and the implications of that relocation for my relationship with my family in my old age are something I still mull over from time to time. Specifically, I was enrolling in Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor, which embraced the East Coast of the United States at that time as well as missions in Brazil, Bolivia, Jamaica, and Japan, to name several. When I showed up on the doorstep of the minor seminary, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary [or, to the old locals, “Aroma Hill”], Holy Name Province had something about one thousand friars. My freshman class in September 1962 was certain we would add significantly to that number. However, of the 75 of us who entered in ‘62, about half a dozen would survive ten years to solemn profession and two more years to ordination.
All told, I was associated with Holy Name Province for 27 years, from 1962 as a high school freshman to 1989 when I withdrew from the Order after serving four years as a college chaplain and eleven as a parish pastor in locations staffed by Holy Name Province. In those years I met and interacted with some amazing men—some with significant burdens of public responsibility, and others who served out of the limelight in caring for the poor and enriching the internal life of friaries. And while I would eventually come to question my vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood, I never for a moment regretted that I had chosen to become a priest in the Franciscan tradition.
The decision to leave the Order was complicated. I had just turned 40 and running out of religious, personal, and idealistic steam, complicated by alcohol and, as I learned later, depression. I was not an easy man to deal with then. But the direction of my Province was struggling too; the provincial at the time was taking no prisoners, either, when the matter of my future circumstances came up for discussion. I flew up on an early morning flight to talk about my future, fortified by several little bottles of Pan-Am scotch. By 2 PM I had left the provincial’s office heading back to Newark Airport. That was that—no invitation to make a retreat, get help, etc. I cried on the flight back to Orlando. It was not the way one wants to leave, nor to remember the institution that had shaped my life for over a quarter century.
A year or two later, after I had been in AA for a while, a classmate by ordination left the order and looked me up in Florida. We agreed to meet in the parking lot of the Tampa Bay Bucs stadium, of all places, and proceeded to a four-hour lunch where we compared notes on our departures and discovered that he, too, was pretty much told to hit the bricks. [I have forgotten his reasons for leaving, but he had the brains to ask for some money to get on his feet.] Then, twenty years later, when my blog “The Catechist Café” had been running for a while, I was contacted by a third former friar—younger than myself--whose departure around the same time had been troubling for him, too.
I decided to write to a succeeding provincial and talk about what had happened years before. I knew him from my days in Callicoon and remembered him with considerable respect. Within a few days I received a handwritten letter of condolence with an admission that “those had not been the best of times.” It was enough for me; I was happily married by then and established in my mental health practice. I was happy that my old community had righted itself as it faced the challenge in the face of declining vocations, age, and the general drift of Catholics away from the Church.
It has crossed my mind from time to time, though, that those of us who left the Order in the late 1980’s and beyond were going forth at a time when the province truly needed us. Perhaps this is why my provincial was so angry with me. Were I still a friar today, at age 75, my good health and experience would still be in high demand in any number of ways had I tended to sobriety mental health care, and a “reset” of my relationship with all the friars in my province. Had I stayed, I could have helped with the transition to the new alignment of American Franciscan provinces. On the other hand, I probably needed to leave the Order to respond to forces that were exceptionally healing, specifically my marriage, my new line of work as a therapist and a college instructor, and my work with the Diocese of Orlando which welcomed me into catechetical diocesan teacher training after I was granted laicization. [My laicization, by the way, took only three months—an unheard-of brevity. My Canon Lawyer told me that all the friars in my formation program had left the Order and the Vatican drew the conclusion that I was inadequately formed or trained for vows and orders.]
Flawed friar that I was, I still pray and meditate on the friars’ experience every day. I reflect long and hard on my life with the friars and pray for them. I need to add one piece of history as Holy Name Province is shredding its documents for the national consolidation. There are minutes from the 1985 Congressus, the post-chapter meeting with the Vatican visitor, to assign new superiors, that state I was selected to become the guardian of our provincial flagship at 31st Street in Manhattan. I was 37 years old and currently building a church outside of Orlando. When Father Dave McBriar gave me the news on the phone, I started to cry, and I wailed, “David, I’ve never been to 31st Street. I don’t even know where the bathrooms are!” Mercifully, the offer was rescinded with the proviso that I fly to 31st Street every month as a member of the personnel board. I did eventually learn where the toilets were, too.
* * * * *
I have been following the negotiations over the past few years to consolidate all the United States Franciscan provinces into one national body, the Province of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. I can only imagine the disruption for the friars. Most of them, I would guess, are around my age, a time of life when you would like some peace and quiet and predictability. Oddly, when I was a seventh grader, my mother pushed me toward the friars for, among other reasons, her belief that the friars take good care of their elderly members and that I would not go into old age alone. Unfortunately, circumstances over the last generation or so have put enormous strain on my old province to maintain the quality of life of the senior friars. The province used to operate several nursing care facilities, but the cost of such ventures became prohibitive, and some friars have been relocated to private care facilities to meet special needs.
I am not privy to the negotiations between the six provinces on such matters as what ministries and friaries will stay open and which will be closed. If I were living in my old province today, I suspect I would wonder about what my future life might look like, particularly if I have been settled in a city or community for many years and enjoyed a fruitful ministry there. In short, my old province has a lot on its mind. For that reason, I was totally surprised to receive an invitation to a Mass and Dinner scheduled for September 17, 2022, at St. Francis Friary in Manhattan. The event was called “The Final Farewell” and invitations went out to as many formerly solemnly professed friars as possible who had left the order.
The invitation stated that we could bring “spouses or partners,” a remarkably graceful way to go about this. My first reaction was one of surprise—how can the province, with so much on its mind, find the time to reach out to its former confreres. My second reaction was a touch of anxiety—I had left the Order in 1989, a long time ago and, as I noted, under strained circumstances. What brought me some comfort was learning that one of my best friends from seminary days, Bobby Hudak—we go back to that opening day in September 1962—would be attending with his wife, so I would not be alone, so to speak. [Many of my closest Callicoon friends today left the formation program before solemn vows, so the invited group was small.]
Margaret and I were greeted at the street door by two friars I did remember from years past. One of them escorted us to the chapel where the 4 PM Mass would be celebrated. Margaret and I sat alone in the chapel—me with my sweating lip—until the rest of the guests and the resident friars at St. Francis began drifting in. Bob and I and our wives were the only guests from my class, but we started to mingle, and I remembered about half of the fourteen former friars. I am guessing that many of you have found yourselves in gatherings where you are torn between attempting to be inclusive with some of the guests who know few people and catching up with folks you knew many years back.
The liturgy was celebrated by Father Kevin Mullen, O.F.M., the Provincial of Holy Name Province. Father Kevin and I go way back; he was a freshman in high school when I was a college sophomore at Callicoon. Later, he was a senior at Siena when I was a newly ordained chaplain there. [I reminded him that he worked on my clean-up detail after meals at the seminary, and that I made him everything he is today.] He strikes me today as the kind of leader who will get the friars over the hump into their new consortium. As long as I have known him, he combines religious idealism with humor and practicality. If I may borrow a quote applied to a bishop in the northeast, “he does not die with every death.”
There were about thirty of us in attendance seated in a circle around the altar. There was no singing, but there was a devotional spirit that lifted my soul. Kevin gave a brief but heartfelt homily in which he acknowledged that people in the province have been hurt in the past. But he smiled later and said to us, “we [the friars] are not dying.” He spoke a message of hope about the men under his care. At that moment I realized how invested in my province I still am. The thought occurred to me that in my own situation as a friar, my province got the lesser half of my life, and my wife got the healthier me. In fact, twenty-five years of marriage has taught me how I should have lived with my brother friars.
Kevin suggested that we close the Mass by singing “Salve Regina.” It has been a lot of years since I sang that, and I was amazed at how easily it rolled off everyone’s tongue. After Mass the bar was opened, and I had an opportunity to chat with Father Tom Walters. He and Kevin are seminary classmates, and he, too, was on my dining room crew. Later I had a moment with Joe Silvoy. When I went to Washington, my order’s major seminary, Joe introduced me to high school retreat work, a ministry I thoroughly enjoyed during my five years in D.C. We spent a minute trying to name all the schools and parishes that contracted with us for retreats.
When we sat for dinner, we found a table for Bob and me and Margaret and Louise, where we could catch up at least to some degree on the past forty years or thereabouts. The last time I had seen Bob to talk to was at an IHOP near the campus of the University of Georgia; in 1987, I believe. We were attending a regional meeting of friars in the South. I would be remiss if I did not highlight the food and hospitality provided by the resident friars at 31st Street. The guardian of the friary is Father David Convertino, yet another young Callicoon lad several classes behind me.
We said our goodbyes around 7:30 and Margaret and I caught a train at Grand Central Station for the hour commute to Croton-on-Hudson, where we were staying with my in laws. When the train rolled out of New York, all I could say to Margaret was how overcome I was with the whole thing. I don’t think I said ten words on the train home. I was so glad that Margaret was invited; it gave her a slice of the first half of my life.
God bless the friars!
9/22/2022 09:23:10 pm
Tom - I know David McBriar well, and Bob as well. They both came to celebrate the liturgy with Dignity, at a time when diocesan priests were not permitted to do so. Later David moved to my parish from one in Durham. The Franciscans have done much to aid in my faith journey. I love when there are big overlaps in the Venn diagrams of my life. I’m so glad you had this profound remembering!
10/5/2022 11:32:17 am
10/14/2022 09:08:03 am
I was looking up Brother Bruno and connected with your post. I was at St. Joseph's at the same time onky I was in the 2ndcgrade at Holy Cross School in Callicoon and every week the nuns would walk us up the hill to attend Mass. I made my first communion there. Fond memories of the beautiful church and seeing so many of you at the seminary and of Brother Bruno. That was 60 years ago.
4/9/2023 01:03:51 am
The Brew Master
4/9/2023 03:44:38 pm
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