A curious band of barefoot men robed in floor-length tunics have piqued the interest of their neighbors in Fort Wayne, Ind. And that’s just what they hoped for.
The Franciscan Brothers Minor, an evangelical apostolate, follow the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, who, after experiencing a religious conversion, renounced his patrimony and stripped himself of all worldly possessions to follow the way of Christ. Each of the brothers has chosen to shed his own form of earth-bound wealth in the present-day consumer-driven culture to bring the Word of God to their neighborhood.
The apostolate was founded in Pennsylvania by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, then bishop of Harrisburg, Pa., and now bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, at the request of Franciscan Father David Engo in November 2009. Since its move to Fort Wayne in March, the nascent community has found a home in the former rectory of St. Andrew Parish, now known as Our Lady of the Angels Friary. The parish had been closed since 2003.
The apostolate, consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has grown to include a dozen men. They live an inspiring yet remarkably austere lifestyle immersed in poverty, obedience, chastity and prayer.
Total reliance on God
The radical penitential lifestyle chosen by these men may not appeal to everyone. The barefoot brothers wear coarse woolen tunics all year-round, use unfinished wood furniture constructed by a postulant, have no televisions or computers and only take nourishment from community food donations. The friary is sparsely decorated with crucifixes, images of the Blessed Mother and saintly statues.
Because the brothers don’t hold traditional jobs or raise funds, they earn no money as they serve the community, in accordance with their vow of poverty. They rely, said Father Engo, on God’s providence and the generosity of the community. It is not unusual for a neighbor to appear at the friary door with three dozen eggs for the brothers. Father Engo told OSV the brothers trust that God will provide, and any food donations that are in excess of their weekly needs go to the hungry of the community.
“We are a witness of the life of poverty and show the poor they can trust in God,” he said.
Amid the spartan life these men have chosen, the driving force is prayer. In imitation of St. Francis, the strict adherence to prayer includes praying the Divine Office seven times each day, two daily Eucharistic holy hours and communal Rosary after night prayers. Prayer, Father Engo said, is where the Franciscan Brothers’ ministry begins.
As their patron before them, who was called by God to “rebuild my house,” the brothers have begun their spirited evangelical efforts to rebuild the Catholic community in the neighborhood and around the diocese. Each brother shares his deep devotion to God through participation in Bible study, door-to-door evangelization walks, parish missions, confirmation and youth retreats, catechesis with the neighborhood children, Saturday devotions and Mass, and serving area parishes any way they can.
“We want to bring back the Catholic identity to the neighborhood,” Father Engo told OSV.
Not only are the brothers rebuilding the heart of the Church, but they have harkened to God’s call by literally restoring a place of worship as well.
With the assistance of a diocesan priest who offered his carpentry skills in exchange for communal prayers for a new school principal, the brothers labored in the summer heat to transform St. Andrew’s dilapidated church building into a sacred space that has become a spiritual haven for many neighborhood Catholics.
Though the church is open for Mass and prayer events, Father Engo is clear it’s not a parish, but an oratory. “We wanted to open it as a place of prayer. Then we’ll direct the people to the local parishes,” he said.
Serving the servants
The brothers, who range in age from 19 to 40ish, each play a specific role in the community. Brother Chase Michael is the newest addition, having arrived only three months ago from Florida. A recent convert to the Faith, Brother Chase Michael has found a sense of belonging as a postulant.
“I feel God is calling me to live this austere life. You sacrifice much, but God gives you more,” he said. “I find joy and life in sacrifice.”
He is passionate about the evangelical essence of this apostolate with its door-to-door efforts. “I have a great need to bear witness to Jesus and spread the truth of the faith,” he told OSV.
Brother John Paul Mary Mother of the Divine Redeemer is a novice in his second year of discernment with the Brothers Minor. Brother John Paul can testify to miracles in life as he continues to follow his desire to serve God after emerging from a coma at the age of 6. He holds catechism classes for the neighborhood children amid the backyard football games.
After profession of temporary vows, he hopes to enter seminary next year to eventually become an ordained priest. But not all novices choose to study for the priesthood. Many take the permanent vows of the Franciscan friar.
Of his commitment to the Franciscan community, Brother John Paul admits it’s not always easy. “You’re always dying to self,” he said. “You can’t do it on your own strength. You have to rely on God to pull you through.”
Others in the community include Brother Andy, who coordinates kitchen activities, Brother Solanus, who heads the nursing home ministry, and former punk rocker Brother Felix, who serves as tailor. “This community is a fraternity of brothers living together in brotherhood, serving each other with great humility, according to the Spirit,” Father Engo told OSV.
For these humble men, less is more as they live up to their name — the Franciscan Brothers Minor — which depicts their lesser stature.
“We don’t run hospitals, parishes, soup kitchens — but we serve at these places,” Father Engo said. “It’s healing with people one-on-one — we are the servant of servants.”
Kay Cozad writes from Indiana.
On the Web
For more information on the Franciscan Brothers Minor, visit www.franciscanbrothersminor.com.
In the Spirit of St. Francis (sidebar)
In their radical detachment from worldly goods, the Franciscan Brothers Minor in Fort Wayne, Ind., are living in the mode of St. Francis of Assisi, lovingly called Il Poverello, or Little Poor Man, whose feast day is Oct. 4.
But this beloved saint didn’t always lead such a virtuous life. In fact, Francis spent his early years as a pleasure-seeking, popular leader of Assisi youth. This changed dramatically in 1202 when Francis joined in a campaign against a rival city, Perugia. Captured in battle, he spent a desolate period in prison. After his release, he found life quite unappealing, his unease only increasing after enduring a lengthy illness. He took to prayer and worked among the poor. One day, however, he encountered a leper and turned away, repulsed by the man’s grotesque appearance. Stopping himself, Francis gave the man some money and then kissed him. While on a pilgrimage to Rome, he gave his clothes away to some beggars and spent a day begging for alms before St. Peter’s.
When Francis returned home to Assisi, he prayed at the church of San Damiano and heard a command from the crucifix, telling him: “Repair my house, which is virtually ruined.” To pay for the repairs in the church, he sold bales of his father’s cloth, along with the horse dragging them. When his father went to the bishop to demand the money back, Francis stripped off his clothes, saying that they too belonged to his father. Henceforth he dressed in a coarse woolen cloak tied at the waist to commemorate the cloak given to him by the bishop to cover his nakedness.
He spent the next period rebuilding with his own hands the church of San Damiano. In 1208, while he worshipped at Mass in the nearby town of Portiuncula, he heard the Gospel passage from Matthew in which Jesus sent forth his disciples and decided to set out to preach. He soon acquired considerable notoriety and companions.
For them and the others who gathered about him, Francis composed a simple rule of life, called the regula primitiva . This rule he took to Rome in 1210, where he won approval for it from Pope Innocent III. So was begun the Franciscan Order. Its members practiced rigorous asceticism and extreme poverty, relying upon alms for their sustenance as they wandered across Italy to preach. Under St. Clare of Assisi, a second order of Franciscans was launched in 1212. By 1219, when a general chapter was held, there were 5,000 Franciscans at the meeting.
Francis went to Egypt soon after to preach to the Muslims and met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil at Damietta, Egypt. Upon his return to Europe, he found the order deeply troubled by irregularities and various crises. He reluctantly accepted the fact that a revision in the order’s rule might be needed. Pope Honorius III approved the new rule on Nov. 29, 1223. From that time, Francis left the affairs of the order to others, withdrawing from the world. On Sept. 14, 1224, while praying in the hermitage on Mount Alvernia in the Apennines, Francis received the stigmata. He died two years later, at Assisi, on Oct. 3. He was canonized in 1228.
— Adapted from OSV’s Encyclopedia of Saints