Bronx-based Franciscan Friars of the Renewal bring Catholic presence to the streets of Fort Worth

By Jerry Circelli

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

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Brother Seámus Mary Laracy, CFR, leads a thankful afternoon prayer for the people served at St. Benedict’s Mission in Fort Worth.

As the rising sun casts a temporary amber glow over the drab, weathered buildings on Fort Worth’s near East Side, dozens of people make their way to the small St. Benedict’s Mission house on Cypress Street, just south of Lancaster Avenue. They wait for its door to swing open, eager to be greeted by the smile of thick-bearded religious men, dressed simply in gray hooded robes, open-toed sandals, and twisted-rope belts, each adorned with a crucifix.

These are the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, based in the Bronx, New York. They are here to help spread God’s love in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of North Texas.

Inside the house, in the company of the friars, are basic comforts ­most people take for granted —­ air conditioning, running water, soap, a clean restroom, sandwiches, fruits, nuts, desserts, milk, hot coffee, tea, and juices.

That is not why, however, 200 people will way make their way here this day.  There are other locations nearby where they can take respite, find food, and seek shelter. They come to St. Benedict’s Mission for a different reason.

“Oh, it’s not about the food at all,” said Angela Richardson, who is often among the first at the mission door to greet the friars and about 10 Catholic lay volunteers. “It’s about meeting people and sharing the love of God, and just being a family. We have to be a family and take care of each other out here.”

Known as “Angel” to those around her, because of her strong faith, she added, “This is a spiritual experience. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we’re here, so everybody can experience the love of God.”

Proudly wearing three religious medals and a rosary around her neck, Angel said she is not Catholic — yet. “But, I’ll get there,” she promises.

It was precisely for this reason that the Diocese of Fort Worth’s former shepherd, Bishop Kevin Vann, sought a Catholic presence on the city’s near east side. He contacted the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx about five years ago and received assistance in the form of four friars to serve the poor in Fort Worth.Like the others who come to the mission, Angel looks to the friars for hope and support in this area where many of the city’s poor and lonely gather on the eastern fringe of Fort Worth.  “I just feel so blessed,” she said. “It’s the peace. … In the morning, when [the friars] do the Scripture readings, it gives me focus for each day.”

It was welcome help for an area with the unenviable distinction of being ranked 15 among the 25 most dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S. by Neighborhood Scout in 2010. The organization, basing its findings on FBI data and local law enforcement statistics, reported that the chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in the area was one in 10.

Frank Jeffery, a 53-year-old blind military veteran, who somehow makes his way alone to the mission with a walking stick and an old pack slung across his back, has survived these streets for several years. “I’ve been here before the friary was here,” said Frank. Thankful for the friar’s mission house, Frank explained, “If it wasn’t here, maybe some days I wouldn’t eat.”

Frank said the friars have focused on a needful part of the city to carry out their mission. “They don’t work in the Sundance Square area downtown, you know what I’m saying?” said Frank. He added that the friars selected a location “where there really are problems.”

Even if it’s just for a cup of coffee, some food and fellowship with people who know his name, St. Benedict’s Mission offers Frank some welcome relief from the rest of the world outside its walls. “Other than that,” he said, “the streets are the streets.”

Another regular visitor to the mission is a young man named David Smith, who simply goes by “D.”

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Volunteer Denise Zahrah is prepared to serve the guests at St. Benedict’s Mission with a smile.

Just seeing the friars walk by, said D, “gives me so much positivity.” Inspired by the friars, D said he has learned to turn to Scripture for valuable lessons in life, especially regarding patience and self-control.

“For example … ‘You reap what you sow.’ It just tells me that the way I treat other people, it comes back to me. I mean every single day that I walk down these streets, I begin to notice the blessings that have come to me based on the way that I treat other people,” D said.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Brother Seámeus Mary Laracy, D pointed to the friar and said, “I really respect the advice that he gives me, 100 percent, because it has helped me so much.”

D continued, “The smile that I present here and there is based on the confidence this man has given me.” The friar, he said, “let me know from the beginning, that you cannot just depend on God to do every single thing for you in your life. You have to make an effort to do something.”

D said that before he got to know the friars and began to listen to them, it was sometimes difficult for him to truly hear God’s message. “I was thinking my life was just so distant from the Scriptures in the Bible — his Word. But after I started studying more and more, I’ve seen how the Scriptures are not very distant from me, really. They have become closer and closer to me. I am living those Scriptures at this moment.”

To that, Br. Seámeus responded with a positive, “Amen.”

D then continued, “When I become upset, I tell myself to be the better person and walk away from a misunderstanding. … I have learned that the more patient I have become, the stronger I have become. Patience and strength, I have learned, come together.”

Reflecting later in the day on the compliments given to him and his fellow friars by D and others, Br. Seámus said, “It’s very humbling, very beautiful. Those are nice little gifts the Lord gives you to be part of his life.”

Father Pio Marie Hoffman agrees. A friar for 14 years, he served at shelters in the South Bronx and Harlem before arriving at St. Benedict’s Mission in Fort Worth three years ago.

Angela Richardson finds peace and focus in the presence of friars and volunteers at St. Benedict's mission. Angela is pictured with Fr. Pio (left) and Br. Seámus.

At the Texas mission, Fr. Pio explained, the friars live out their vows, pray, and carry forward an apostolate that calls for them to serve the homeless and to preach.

Upon arriving in Fort Worth and initially working at local homeless shelters and other missions, Fr. Pio said the friars quickly discovered their special calling in this area. It was not to duplicate the efforts of social service organizations that were already providing food and shelter. Instead, it was to freely give something else that was lacking in many lives.

“No one is starving on East Lancaster, because people show up and give food all the time,” Fr. Pio said. “But they are starving for humanity; they’re starving for dignity; they’re starving for human attention. So we don’t do much here other than love them. You want to be Jesus to the poor and find Jesus in the poor. That’s really it.”

One of the many volunteers who assist the friars by preparing food, serving it to mission guests, and sharing love and hospitality is Rich Duszynski. He said he has always been impressed with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal community and how they live humble lives in serving Jesus and the poorest among us.

Until eight months ago, the closest Rich had ever gotten to the friars, however, was admiring their work around the world via special EWTN television broadcasts.

Then a friend invited him to travel to St. Benedict’s Mission to take a look at what was going on inside its doors.

Upon entering the mission, Rich was taken aback by what he saw. Inside were steady streams of people passing through, being served food by the religious men he had come to admire. It was an environment, he recalled, filled with love, compassion, and true caring for fellow human beings.

“I was like, ‘Wow! These are the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal!’” Rich recalled, still excited about that first encounter with the friars in Fort Worth.

“The next day I volunteered here,” Rich said. “For a Catholic, this is unbelievable. This is so Catholic. And with the friars here, you can just feel it. The food, the love, the prayer — it’s just such a wonderful place. Being with these friars and serving the people here is just absolutely wonderful. This is a great place.”

See Also

Who are these Gray Friars?

Friars-Full-Standing-BUTTON.jpgThe Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal was started in 1987, by eight Capuchin Friars who worked for personal and communal reform in the Catholic Church. They sought a return to the roots of Franciscan life. Today, these “Gray Friars” — known for their simple gray habits and the humble, joyful life of a Franciscan — have grown to include more than 120 religious brothers serving at nine friaries in the U.S., four friaries in Europe, and two friaries in Central America.

CFR-Mission-Prayer-BUTTON.jpgAs the rising sun casts a temporary amber glow over the drab, weathered buildings on Fort Worth’s near East Side, dozens of people make their way to the small St. Benedict’s Mission house on Cypress Street, just south of Lancaster Avenue. They wait for its door to swing open, eager to be greeted by the smile of thick-bearded religious men, dressed simply in gray hooded robes, open-toed sandals, and twisted-rope belts, each adorned with a crucifix.

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