Answering God’s Call

Jan. 13-19, 2005
Answering God’s Call
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” These words of St. Francis of Assisi are put into practice by the men and women who serve in the Franciscan Northside Ministries (FNM) –– an evangelization and outreach program based in Syracuse’s Northside community.

David G. Allen, ministry director for giving for FNM, explained their mission: “The Franciscans are committed to revitalizing the neighborhood in an effort to serve the people and bring them peace and reconciliation.” He talked about the Franciscans’ re-purchase and plans for the former Assumption School. Currently, the building is subsidized housing for low-income families. The Franciscans will continue that use, but their goal is to create a safe environment that will stabilize the neighborhood. The Assisi Center, a few doors down from Assumption Church, provides educational programs and social opportunities for the Sudanese community and general population. The first floor community room is used for meetings, classrooms and social activities while the second floor houses the Lost Boys Association. “Friar Phil Kelly has attended educational summits to see what gaps we can fill as opposed to duplicating services,” explained Allen. “He’s met with city school personnel and BOCES about the refugee resettlement program. The whole thing about collaborative ministry is the strength of collaborating –– to focus on the needs of the people.”

One of those most basic needs is being met at the Assumption Church food pantry, which provides food for up to 280 people monthly. The sandwich program also provides close to 8,000 sandwiches each month. Sister Stella Maris Zuccolillo, OSF, director of the Assumption food pantry, has seen a tremendous increase in the number of people she serves. “Many people who come for a sandwich ask for extra food,” said Sister Stella Maris. “They ask for a meal to bring home to their children.” Through the help of area businesses and Assumption parishioners, Sister Stella Maris is able to run the programs without asking for parish funding. “Grant funding and large monetary and food donations enable us to meet the needs of the people,” she said.

Sister Stella Maris has worked as pantry director for nine years. “My desire as a Franciscan was to work with the poor,” said Sister Stella Maris. “This was my home parish. When the job opened up, I called the pastor at the time, Father Ray Yudin, and asked for the job. He said, ‘The clouds have opened up and you’ve come down from them.’ He couldn’t believe it. He was very happy to get me.” The FNM also offers legal services and free medical services for the uninsured. More than 13 attorneys provide free legal services once each week. The clinic is open two nights per week and run by eight volunteer doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners. The clinic also offers chiropractic and optometrical services and a monthly pulmonary clinic. Social programs such as “Soup and Scripture” on Wednesday afternoons and a Peace Camp, where children learn peace-making activities, are also offered.

Sister Dolly Bush, OSF, works with Sister Stella Maris. Like Sister Stella Maris, she is right where she wants to be. “This seemed like an opportunity to be creative and to work with the other sisters and friars. We had no idea when we started this, what it would turn into.” Sister Dolly, director of the FNM, joked that her degree in restaurant management has served her well at the food pantry. “Religious life has given me a lot of opportunity to see what I can do –– to grow,” said Sister Dolly. But she credits the success of the food program to the volunteers and contributors. “The only way the Northside Ministry is sustained is through donations. The generosity of people is amazing.”

Both women agree that entering religious life has brought opportunities they could only have dreamed about. “I would not have had the education I have had I not entered religious life,” said Sister Stella Maris. “I’ve had the grace to enjoy every ministry I’ve been involved in.” “It’s not about what you do,” added Sister Dolly. “It’s about what you are as a sister. What you do flows from that.” Former FrancisCorp volunteer Michelle Bernier couldn’t agree more. Since the August completion of her year of service in FrancisCorp –– a faith-based volunteer program for post-graduate men and women –– Michelle has been working as an administrative assistant at the Assisi Center. Michelle’s work with the Franciscans has guided her down a new path of understanding and growth. “I’ve come to understand lay ministry from working with Brother Jim Moore and Brother Tom Purcell,” said Michelle. “It has helped shape my understanding of the various forms vocations can take.” Michelle is a 2003 graduate of Fairfield University, a Jesuit school in Connecticut. In addition to her duties as administrative assistant, Michelle helps out at the food pantry, medical clinic and social programs. “I love what I do,” she said. “I had a hard time deciding what to do when my year at FrancisCorp was up. I was drawn here because everything is rooted in mission. Being here has been a great time of reflection and discernment for a life of vocation. We all have a vocation, whether or not it’s religious.”

Michelle said her parents have encouraged her to work in ministry. “The people who have been real role models to me have guided me not so much through verbal dialogue but by the way they live their lives,” she said.

One of those guiding forces is Sister Jeanne Karp, OSF, vocation director for the Sisters of St. Francis. “That’s what I do,” said Sister Jeanne. “I let people in a consumer-oriented society know that it’s okay to choose a greater good than what society dictates.” Sister Jeanne’s mission is to reach out to as many groups as possible to talk about St. Francis. “I feel in my situation, women are being called to religious life just as they have been over the centuries. So part of what I do is open them up to hearing that call.” Sister Jeanne said she talks about how St. Francis listened to God, how he was called by God to be a peacemaker. “That’s what I’ve been called to do, even though I may fall short. As a sister, the way I live my life is not because God has a higher place in heaven for me or not because of the intensity of my prayer. We are all called to pray. It’s because I chose to journey in my life with other like-minded women –– in prayer, support and service.”

Sister Jeanne said that when people begin to look at religious life, choices are not always clear. “I encourage women not to fear making a step toward discernment because it’s not a permanent long-time commitment but rather a time to check it out, to see if the shoe fits. If they find it’s not for them, they are free to leave. Leaving is not a failure. It’s being open to how God is leading you in life.”

As a Franciscan, vocation minister Brother Tom Purcell, OFM Conv., is very aware of the missions of St. Francis. “It’s hard to preach about the poor unless you’ve worked with them,” he said. Brother Tom worked with young people at Covenant House in New York City for four years. “I learned more about life in those four years than at any other time in my life,” said Brother Tom. “I also learned more about God and His unconditional love.”

With a bachelor’s degree in theology and law and a licentiate and doctorate in canon law, Brother Tom spent many years teaching –– both at a high school and seminary. For the past nine years, Brother Tom has worked in formation for Franciscan Life Ministry. He was also Vicar for Religious for the diocese. “Through the entire experience, there is a common thread,” said Brother Tom. “That thread is that I’ve learned how to help people rebuild the church in many different ways –– through education, working with the street kids and working with formation candidates. This has helped me and them understand how to build the church today. It’s a continuum.”

“Collaboration is the key word,” added Brother Jim Moore, OFM Conv. “Vocation is not just about priests. It’s about inclusivity. It’s about lay people, sisters, brothers and priests carrying out the mission. What we are trying to model here is church. Today, more than ever, it’s a collaborative effort to bring peace and reconciliation to our city, the world, the men and women we serve and to reconcile in our own hearts.”

“The Franciscan Northside Ministry is an evolving event,” said Ed Grabowski, a member of the ministry’s advisory council and a long-time parishioner of Assumption Parish. “A lot of seeds have been planted and a lot of good has happened as a result of this ministry. As we go forward with our visions, we hope to expand and to do things that generate income to perpetuate the programs. We want to break the cycle of poverty and afford people a sense of dignity.”

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