A Community of Service
When St. Francis Village, a faith-based retirement community, opened in 1965, about a dozen retired Franciscan friars lived in the friary there. Six years ago, when Father Bob Sieg, OFM, became the full-time chaplain, there were nine friars, then five, and last year there were only three.
So, after 53 years, the Order of Friars Minor (OFM) has closed the Maximilian Kolbe Friary at St. Francis Village and has recalled the remaining friars to locations offering the community life that is a vital part of Franciscan spirituality.
Two of the remaining three friars, Father Tom Fox, OFM, and Father Albert Haase, OFM, left for new assignments in August. Fr. Sieg leaves St. Francis Village in October.
Fr. Sieg explained that in addition to “living a simple lifestyle of care and love in the spirit of St. Francis,” the friars also are called to live, work, and pray in community with other friars.
As the number of friars dwindled to a fraction of what is customary for an authentic community, “we lost the family and community aspect of our lives, and we have to get back to that,” Fr. Seig said. “The focus must be on community.”
He said the order plans to close about 10 Franciscan friaries.
Over the years, the Franciscan Friars cared for the spiritual needs of St. Francis Village residents by offering daily Mass, Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and even Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).
“We are very much like a parish, though it’s not a canonical parish,” Fr. Sieg said.
Though most of the friars were retired, Fr. Sieg said “they wanted to keep on doing things — to be of service. This is not a nursing home, so when they did come here, they wanted to be involved in various ministries.”
Fr. Sieg said the retired friars also “helped out in a number of parishes in the diocese … wherever there was a need.”
Sharon Bubel, a Secular Franciscan who has lived at St. Francis Village for three years, said she appreciated that the friars also offered Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament every Friday and a special blessing for the sick and elderly once a month. She said Fr. Sieg also was active with the AOK (Acts of Kindness) group, which met monthly to determine if any of their fellow residents had a short-term need they could address, such as a ride to medical appointments.
“That is very Franciscan,” she said. “There are two qualities that make this a very Franciscan place: peace and love. That’s what St. Francis was all about. And the friars really exemplify that. It’s their loving and caring demeanor, but also their willingness to serve.”
David Tolson, executive director of St. Francis Village, agreed. “Their whole spirituality is very giving and self-sacrificing. It’s not about what they have. It’s about what they give,” he said.
Tolson explained that Secular Franciscans established St. Francis Village to provide affordable retirement living for Secular Franciscans and retired Franciscan Friars from across the country.
“But, it never quite worked out to be just Secular Franciscans because here in the Southwest, there weren’t enough to make it economically possible,” he said.
Tolson said St. Francis Village was the vision of Father Philip Marquard, OFM.
“He saw that low income people had Section 8 housing and other benefits. The well-off people really didn’t need it, and the ones missing out were the middle class. So he wanted this to be affordable for the middle class,” Tolson said.
Though the original intent was formation of a Catholic community, St. Francis Village also opened its doors to non-Catholics and the friars ministered to them as well.
“I think that’s really what God intended,” Tolson said. “Our Catholics and Protestants get along great out here.”
Currently about 40 percent of the community’s 500 residents are Catholic and 60 percent are non-Catholic. Eighteen residents are Secular Franciscans.
Fr. Sieg said when he moved to Texas from St. Louis, he expected a warmer climate, but soon discovered the “great warmth” of St. Francis Village residents.
“The warmth of the people here is just so wonderful,” he said. “There’s a spirit of faith and love and care for one another.”
Tolson said to maintain the spirit of St. Francis, the search to replace the friars began by talking with other Franciscan orders, retired priests from other orders, and with Bishop Michael Olson.
“Everything we do here goes through the bishop. He’s been extremely helpful to us,” Tolson said. “We would love for retired priests to come out here to live.”
“But it’s really about trusting God’s will,” he added. “It’s His plan if we don’t get in the way. . . . He’s taken care of this village for over 50 years, and this place continues to be very blessed.”