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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Franciscans of Primitive Observance

Small group of monks, nuns brings prayerful, ascetic mission to New Bedford

By Bill McNamara, Standard-Times correspondent
Staff photos by Hank Seaman
Article originally published in 1997

These Franciscans are a group with no baggage. Literally.

They own no radios, televisions or other worldly possessions. Meat, sweets and snack foods are not in their diets. They sleep on the floor and rise in the middle of night to pray. The men's gray habits are their only wardrobe, the big cowls marking them as Capuchins. They have no mode of transportation other than their feet. And they operate with no budget; there's little to account for besides spiritual formation and growth.

Most of their hours, day and night, are spent praying and toiling for the spiritual welfare of the populace.

The seven Franciscan Friars of the Primitive Observance, along with seven Capuchin Recollect Sisters, are radical by today's material standards. Even by the standards of their own larger Franciscan order, the reform group is extreme in its strict bond to an ascetic way of life. Direct ministering to the community is a minor part of their mission.

Invited to SouthCoast two years ago by Bishop Sean O'Malley -- himself a member of the Capuchin (reformed) division of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) -- the New Bedford-based group of monks and "nunks" are fashioning one of the strictest religious communities in this region and perhaps in the Western world.

Clearly, the 14 monks and nuns would prefer prayerful anonymity to any public notice of the self-denial characterizing a lifestyle that hearkens back to their mendicant founder, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226).

They would rather "turn the other cheek" than look to the lens of a camera or submit to a news interview. (Their superiors, Father Pio Mandato and Sister Theresa May, spoke respectively for the friars and sisters.) They do it now -- the media thing -- at the behest of journalists who believe that more general awareness and understanding of their vocation can have exemplary effects for the community.

The monks themselves would rather think of those spiritual advantages accruing without benefit of publicity but they are all for mutual acceptance and understanding. Indeed, from the time of St. Francis, the Franciscans have been notorious for their jollity, sociability and human relations.
As Father Pio observes, "They have been the authentic Christian humanists of Western society."
Most people who do come to know them and to confront their radical way of life react with shock to the degree of renunciation practiced by the young women at Mother of God Convent on Bullard Street and the young men at Immaculate Conception Friary on Rivet Street, north and south ends of town respectively. (It wasn't a deliberate strategy to keep them apart.)

"I was just stunned when they told me how they lived," said a woman whose household was visited by two of the friars. "They have nothing, not even a radio to turn on for a little music. That seems a bit extreme to me, but they don't seem to mind at all."

Asking not to be identified ("I'm not a critic. I don't want them to think of me as a critic"), the woman said it shook her up to see how dependent society has become on more and more material possessions. "And maybe that's their message. It's a good one but, goodness, denying themselves the pleasure of switching on some music in their life strikes me as a drawback."
She recalled that "they loved the music our radio was playing while they were here; they kept commenting on it."

That's it, says Father Pio. They pick up their arias and overtures and birdsong as they make their rounds of the community, as did St. Francis. Music and other pleasures of life they don't have to make room for in their own cubicles.

"God provides," says Father Superior who has been a Franciscan priest for 12 years.
He and his fellow-reformers in New York sought out Bishop O'Malley when they felt ready for reorganization. After "much dialogue" over the course of about six months, the invitation arrived from the Fall River diocese. Again with the help of the bishop, the friars found a temporary home on Kempton Street, New Bedford, until about a year ago when they moved to Rivet Street and went to work on serious renovations. (The diocese is supporting the group as it gets established.)
There are two priests, Father Pio and Father Pat, who joined the community here in New Bedford. Four friars are studying for the priesthood. Brother Joseph, who was in his final vows at the New York community of Capuchins, will remain a lay brother. An expert carpenter, he led the renovation project.

Reception in the neighborhood has been "very positive," according to Father Pio. "We've gotten to know a lot of the families, kids especially, and more and more people are coming to the door for confession or for spiritual guidance. But we try not to take over any parish responsibilities. We want to complement their work. We often refer people to the parish."
Their ministry involves preaching, conducting missions and retreats, and working with young people.

"Being a small, young community," says the group's leader, Father Pio, "we each have to wear a lot of different hats. We still spend a lot of time perfecting our constitution, going back to the founding principles and to the Capuchin reforms in 1536. The cross is always there. Our willingness to struggle through it is the key to growth."

Above all, says Father Pio, "we have to protect our contemplative life, but we do it in the marketplace. How to respond charitably? We don't want a revolving door, but we do want to respect people's dignity."

A day at the friary goes, more or less, like this: 2 a.m., night vigil, office of readings; 6:30 a.m., morning prayer together followed by an individual hour of prayer and solitude; 8 a.m., Mass; then class, study, work, etc.; noon, midday prayer and recollection, pickup lunch; afternoon work and study; 4:45 p.m., evening prayer in common, followed by one hour of silent eucharistic adoration; 6 p.m., supper (the monks take turns preparing and serving), recreation, followed by Compline (the evening prayer), the rosary and, finally, the Grand Silence (close of the day, normally around 9 p.m.)

1 comment:

RMBUNGE said...

Many years ago I (along with many others) helped friar of the Primitive Observance build a friary in San Marcos, Nicaragua. I was impressed by their piety. When I left Nicaragua, My family and I were honored with a farewell mass at their friary in San Marcos. I treasure their witness to Christ in my heart, think about and pray for them often. We were really blessed by knowing them.

Mary Help of Christians, Ora pro nobis.