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Serving bowls of soup to the hungry.

Friars of Manhattan

Jamal Huleatt

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When I told the cab driver my destination, he peppered me with questions. For starters, what was a friary – something most people identify with medieval times – doing in the middle of Harlem? I found out when I arrived at St. Joseph Friary, a red brick building on West 142nd Street. “Every community must have a particular purpose,” Father Gabriel, the friar responsible for St. Joseph, explained, “and this community’s vocation is to serve the poor. How could we serve those in need if we were not living among them? Our presence here gives dignity to those who need our help.”

The friars and postulants living at St. Joseph Friary belong to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an order founded in 1987 by eight Capuchin friars. Concerned by increasing secularism and wealth among the Capuchins, they sought to emulate Francis of Assisi, who spent his life helping the poor. Following his example, they left behind their personal possessions and started looking for people who needed help. From their beginnings in a troubled South Bronx neighborhood, they have grown to around 130 members, with friaries on three continents.

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal living at St. Joseph open their doors every Thursday to share a meal with the hungry. At eleven o’clock, men and women trickle in off the street and find their way down the narrow hall to the dining room. Once everyone is seated at the wooden tables, a gray-robed friar blesses the food and the soup is served. “It is Folish soup,” Father Gabriel explained, handing me a bowl, “because it was made by a postulant from France, and another from Poland.”

As we ate, Frank, an older man, was eager to talk. After growing up in Harlem, he’d worked on and off as a security guard, making minimum wage. Now, he said, he lives by himself, sometimes on the streets. “I come to the monks whenever I need some food. I know they’re always gonna be here to help. They’re the only good thing in this whole area.”

Across the table from us, another man, Steve, had finished his soup and joined in: “I love coming to see the brothers because they are so hardworking and funny. They pray for people, they visit people, and they are not afraid to live here with us.” When I asked Steve why he thought the friars gave up their former lives to live together in Harlem, he replied, “All these brothers are here because they want to do God’s work and be his messengers. If they weren’t here, who would visit us?”

The guests at the soup kitchen were unrestrained in their praise for the friars. They pointed out that volunteers at most soup kitchens travel home to richer, safer areas. By contrast, as Harlem residents, the Franciscans are very much a part of the community they serve.

Father Gabriel serving lunch at the Thursday soup kitchen in St. Joseph Friary, Manhattan. Father Gabriel serving lunch at the Thursday soup kitchen in St. Joseph Friary, Manhattan.

Photograph by Jamal Huleatt.

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Franciscan friars, who take their vow of poverty quite literally, are perhaps best known for their austerity. Their simple sandals, signature gray habits, and beards make them easy to spot in any crowd. Even the friary’s cars must be modest. When I asked Father Gabriel if giving up one’s phone, credit card, and car keys to become a friar is difficult, he said the vow of poverty is the easiest to keep. Friars become accustomed to a simple lifestyle, he said, and material possessions cease to have much attraction after a time.

The hardest rule, according to Father Gabriel, is obedience. As he put it, “conforming your whole will to Christ” is not easy in a culture that holds independence in such high regard, and in a city where every billboard and shop window encourages you to be yourself. By joining the community of friars, these men are making a choice to let the Holy Spirit guide their lives. Yes, letting go of the steering wheel is hard, Father Gabriel suggested, but the reward – having brothers who can help guide you – makes it worthwhile.

The friars at St. Joseph also take a vow of chastity, opting to remain celibate so that they can serve God more fully. Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19, and Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth form the basis of this vow. In 1 Corinthians 7:37, Paul writes that “if a man has the willpower not to marry and decides that he doesn’t need to and won’t, he has made a wise decision” because “an unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him.” Because they don’t have spouses or children, the friars have more time to pray, visit people in need, and serve the poor. According to Father Gabriel, giving up marriage has also given him what he calls “spiritual fathership” in the lives of couples he counsels at a nearby church.

A friar counsels a woman on the sidewalk

Photograph © 2014 FOCUS. Reprinted by permission of The Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

When I asked Father Gabriel why the friars live together in a community, rather than spread out among those they seek to serve, he pointed out that they are not called to live as hermits, but rather they live together to help each other. It would be difficult, he suggested, to maintain the Franciscan life of prayer, service, and poverty without support. Indeed, the friars’ lives are intensely communal. From the time they enter the friary as postulants, they spend most of their day together. Religious classes, mealtimes, and recreational activities are all seen as chances to encourage and serve one another. By living and praying together, the friars enrich each other.

Of course, living in such close quarters is not always easy. I asked Brother Rufino, the friar in charge of the postulants’ education, if tensions ever arise. He responded with a story from his time as a postulant, when he was put in a group with a brother he couldn’t stand. Incapable of seeing eye to eye with this other postulant but unable to avoid him in the small friary, Brother Rufino prayed that they would be put in different houses. After bringing the conflict to God, Brother Rufino was suddenly able to see this man as a brother, and they learned to love each other. Still, God humored his request, and they were placed in different houses after being confirmed.

After spending a day among the friars, one ceases to view them as indistinguishable in their beards and gray-hooded robes. Yes, they seek to become one body in Christ, and they all feel the same call to serve the poor, but they each have a unique journey that brought them to the Franciscan Friars. Father Gabriel’s parents, for example, were Palestinian refugees who, after a stretch in a Jordanian refugee camp, traveled to America. They worked hard to give their children a brighter economic future than they had experienced. Imagine, then, their dismay when their son announced his intention to reject the American dream and live a life of voluntary poverty. But Father Gabriel, as part of the friary, is doing work he loves in a community of brothers who, like him, heard a call from God and answered it.

As Saint Francis himself did some eight hundred years ago, today these friars provide comfort and support to those in need, in the heart of New York City and beyond.


Learn more about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal at www.franciscanfriars.com.

Franciscan Friars of the Renewal serve Folish soup to the hungry. Franciscan Friars of the Renewal serve Folish soup to the hungry.

Photograph by Jamal Huleatt.

Contributed By Jamal Huleatt

Jamal Huleatt, who graduated from high school in 2015, is volunteering at Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York.

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