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Franciscan friars offer a place of faith, family in the Bronx
When the governor of New York issued a stay-at-home order in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the South Bronx opened their doors wide before shutting them tight for four months. Thirty regular overnight guests at the St. Anthony Shelter for Renewal became full-time residents. Priests, brothers and lay volunteers who staff the shelter and do neighborhood outreach hunkered down in the adjacent St. Crispin’s Friary. And Clare, a stray cat, had the good fortune to find a Franciscan welcome in the paved courtyard that separates the old stone buildings.
The Melrose neighborhood of the South Bronx is a challenging place in the best of times and has more than its share of poverty, joblessness, crime and addiction.
“Even outside of COVID, it’s an intense place,” said Father Pierre Toussaint, a friar at St. Crispin’s. “People are fighting for their lives and livelihoods. During the shutdown, you had five people quarantining in two-room apartments. Some businesses in the neighborhood closed, and others struggled to remain open.”
“I asked the Lord for peace and reprieve. I can only do so much, but the Lord can do much more,” he said.
Father Pierre said his prayer life was more intentional after the pandemic started.
“Communally, it was hyper-focused and intense. I also had a sense of thanksgiving for access to the Mass and Eucharist that so many in the Church did not have,” he said.
Life in the friary also changed with the shutdown, he said. “You stick 8 or 9 guys in a house and tell them they can’t go anywhere and it will get intense,” he said. “We got to know one another in deeper ways, and it was challenging, but we’re better for it.”
Father Pierre said the primary goal of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is to work and live with the poor and evangelize as brothers. His regular assignment is with elementary school students in a youth program at the friars’ compound, located at the site of a former archdiocesan parish. With the stay-at-home order, Father Pierre pivoted to 10-15-minute virtual home visits via Zoom with the young people and their families.
“I’d ask how it’s going, see if the parents needed any help and offer prayers for people they knew with COVID. We’d end with a prayer. And every other Saturday, we had a Eucharistic adoration via Zoom and the youth would send their intentions,” he said.
Although he was able to switch to socially distanced outdoor home visits when restrictions were lifted, Father Pierre said his relationships with the students and their families grew stronger during the shutdown.
“When you suffer with someone or share something traumatic with them, it forms lifetime bonds. We might not have anything to give them, but we reached out and furthered our relationship with them,” he said.
‘That’s where you find Christ’
The friars work at the margins and describe a certain “Holy Ghetto-ness” that allows them and their colleagues to understand and use contemporary language without watering down the love of God. “We say God can stand up to our fears,” Brother Joachim Joseph said.
“God calls us to relationship with him, and if it’s a relationship, then it is about every aspect of life, including job and studies. God cares about every aspect of our life,” he said.
COVID caused people to be afraid and to think about the end of the world, Brother Joachim said. “People came to realize what’s truly important. When you come face to face with death, something changes.”
“God didn’t cause the pandemic, but the reality is we’ve all been asking for greater unity — and the world has been unified in suffering. And that’s where you find Christ. Suffering is where people ask the big questions,” Brother Joachim said.
‘We call each other brother’
The friars invite missionary volunteers and young men discerning a vocation to work with them at the St. Anthony Shelter. Brother Joachim said they are drawn by the call of St. Francis and want to work with the poor. “Especially now, young people are so socially conscious. They want to enter more fully into the lives of the impoverished and enter more deeply into the Catholic faith,” he said.
They are also drawn to the fraternal life, said Father Pierre. “A lot of youth today experience loneliness. They want to be a part of something that gives them a sense of belonging,” he said.
“St. Francis said, ‘God gave me brothers.’ We call each other ‘brother,’ and [the volunteers] know they are loved,” Father Pierre said.
Youth and young adults — ranging from age 7 through the late 20s — find a home in the Church through a variety of programs run by the friars.
“When they enter the doors, we want them to know they will always have a place here into adulthood. Keeping relationships with people is important. The point of Christianity is to bring people to Christ,” Father Pierre said.
Brother Joachim was a youth minister at St. Crispin for many years, including in 2000, when Father Pierre came on a youth retreat. He served in Nicaragua and New Mexico before returning to the Bronx.
“We’re not supposed to get too attached in our assignments, because heaven is the ultimate goal, but it’s difficult when you’re talking about relationships,” he said. “The most difficult part of moving to Nicaragua was being totally detached from here. It actually hurt more to leave my family here than when I joined the friars,” he said.
“One of the beautiful things about coming back is seeing children from the program married and baptized in the Church,” Brother Joachim said. “They really do become family.”
“It’s not just to work with the poor but to be with them, walk with them on their journey and be a light in the darkness,” he said.
In a serendipitous illustration, Brother Joachim crossed the friary’s driveway after speaking with Our Sunday Visitor. A young man beckoned him to the chain-link fence that defines the property’s perimeter. The man asked for help to reach a friar who formerly ran the youth program. The visitor wanted to let him know that his brother, a former member of the program, was killed in the neighborhood the previous night. Reaching through the fence, Brother Joachim took his contact information and promised to give it to the friar.
During the shutdown, only one of the guests left the shelter, and he returned after the facility reopened with its normal schedule. None of the guests contracted COVID, although four friars and two volunteers did. They have since recovered.
And 12 weeks after the stay-at-home order was issued, Clare had five kittens. On a late summer day, Father Luke Joseph sat on a shady bench in the courtyard before the noonday communal prayer. He cradled each kitten in turn in his lap to apply eye drops gently with a cotton ball. The kittens then returned to wrestling happily with their siblings. All have been adopted, and Clare, sporting a simple blue collar, has found her forever home with the friars.
Beth Griffin writes from New York.