Peaceable Kingdom

Dec. 1-7, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 41
Peaceable Kingdom
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Franciscan Men and Women are Doing More than Feeding the Hungry

It has taken them over 150 years, but the Franciscans on Syracuse’s northside have finally defined their realm.

By combining forces eight years ago, the Sisters of St. Francis and the Conventual Friars have managed to accomplish more in their community than most nonprofit organizations ever hope to. In the past, sisters served sandwiches to the hungry via the back door of the friary on North Salina Street, but now they also help northside residents with medical care, guide them on how to obtain social services, find them free legal advice, and work with the friars to find them housing and to reclaim their neighborhood and their dignity. The realm has grown and so has the ministry.

“The sisters have been working with the friars here since the Civil War,” said Sister Dolly Bush, OSF, director of Franciscan Northside Ministries. Her ministry is just one piece of the Franciscan pie in Syracuse. Under her direction falls the free clinic, the attorney services, the free coffee, donuts and conversation every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., the Faith In Action program, soup and Scripture program, free pancake breakfasts and, she said, the janitorial and maintenance duties at the house next to the friary.

Franciscans are a fixture in the neighborhood and Sister Dolly knows many of the neighbors by name and circumstance. Every Tuesday morning the coffee is brewing and the locals come for conversation and cannoli provided by a restaurant in the community. Discussion covers everything from the predictions of Nostradamus to the war in Iraq. Last Tuesday, Sister Dolly was there making sure the conversation wasn’t too colorful and the coffee stayed hot.

“Did I just hear a bad word come out of your mouth?” she asked one of the men who came for the hospitality. “No, Sister, not quite but almost,” the man answered. One woman that morning was trying to find a home for some recently weaned puppies. Another was telling the story of her coat having been stolen. A man was explaining how he was looking for work and had more success after he cut his long hair. These folks know they will receive more than warm coffee; they will gain the attention and the compassion of the Franciscans who are part of the community too. Even though the problems and the conversation are contemporary, one can’t help but wonder if the same hospitality and warmth wouldn’t have come directly from St. Francis and St. Clare.

The Franciscan influence on the northside goes beyond providing necessities, however. Their vision includes reaching out to everyone so that the same type of community that Francis and Clare developed actually takes root and grows in the city. No simple task. Friar Canice Connors, OFM Conv., just completed back-to-back terms as provincial of his religious community. He returned to Syracuse a few months ago to help lead the Franciscans in Syracuse. Along with Sister Grace Ann Dillenschneider, OSF, he co-directs the FCM and under that umbrella is the Franciscan Northside Ministries, the Franciscan Place Mall Ministry, FrancisCorp, the food pantry at Assumption Church, Alibrandi Catholic Center at Syracuse University, and the St. Clare Theatre at the newly-named St. Clare Gardens apartment complex.

Sister Grace Ann came on board as co-director of FCM as of Oct. 1, but her heart has been in the project since the beginning. “We’re working together [she and Friar Canice,] coordinating the program so there is a true sense of mutuality and collaboration — not just individual efforts, but part of a movement,” Sister Grace Ann said. “Franciscans have a very powerful message of peace, joy and love.” The organization has an advisory council made up entirely of lay people, save for Sister Roseanne Renna, OSF. They meet on a regular basis and help determine the role of the Franciscans within the community. Most recently Friar Canice explained that the members are going to be spending time getting involved with the individual ministries in a hands-on manner. “Lay people bring a desire to improve the quality of life for the community and they bring the Franciscan movement to life,” Friar Canice said.

Most recently the Franciscans re-acquired the old Academy Court Apartments on North Townsend Street. The apartment building has 24 units and was a former haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. There are currently four sisters living in two of the units and the building has been reclaimed for the residents. The issues of drugs and prostitution still plague the neighborhood, but the Franciscans meet regularly with neighborhood and city organizations to work on resolutions to those problems. In particular, Friar Phil Kelly, project coordinator, develops and maintains relationships with key people within those groups.

Bishop Thomas Costello serves as a sort of liaison between the diocese and the Franciscans. He sees Friar Phil as the catalyst for the changes brought by the FCM.

“Phil Kelly identified with and successfully associated himself with the vast majority of community organizations or agencies that impact that neighborhood,” Bishop Costello said. Friar Phil had been living and working in Toronto and said when he returned to Syracuse four years ago, he was stunned to see how the neighborhood had deteriorated. “It didn’t take me long to learn that the northside is on a knife’s edge,” Friar Phil said, “that Syracuse has the lowest rate of owner occupancy in the country and that North Salina Street and the northside, the highest rate in the city. Most of the houses are not owned by the people living in them.”

Because the old apartment building, now renamed St. Clare Gardens, was a pick-up spot for prostitutes, the Franciscans found themselves in the midst of finding a way to deal with a difficult situation with spiritual compassion. “Ninety-five percent of the prostitutes are drug addicts. They are often victims of sex abuse,” Friar Phil said. The Franciscan way of ridding the area of prostitution did not include “get the cops in and get them out,” he explained. But rather, finding a way to help them leave behind their unhealthy lifestyle. The prostitutes need help he said, not people to “beat up on them.”

The Syracuse mayor’s office is well acquainted with Friar Phil and the FCM. Mayor Matt Driscoll applauds the Franciscan influence in the city. “The northside Franciscans have provided a significant positive influence to the city’s northside over the last few years,” Driscoll said. “They have become actively engaged as part of this community, making strategic investments, such as the Saint Clare Garden Apartments, to support our neighborhood revitalization efforts.” He also commended their work with the Sudanese community, saying that the partnership between the city and the Franciscans helps effectively utilize resources for the entire community. Aside from dealing with urban issues, Friar Phil establishes connections between people and organizations, a skill that has paid off. When it comes to feeding the poor, however, Friar Phil said he tends to want to “cure” those living in poverty. “When I first came here I had a conversation with Sister Stella at the Assumption Food Pantry,” Friar Phil remembered. “She told me a story about one of her volunteers who drove around picking up food for the pantry. He asked her how she could keep handing the sandwiches out to the same people day after day. She told the volunteer that he clearly wasn’t ready to see Christ in the face of the poor and that he better keep driving the truck. Well, I’m afraid I’m still driving the truck, too. But, I like to drive the truck. I like forming coalitions. I see connections where someone else may not.”

He attributes much of the success of the FCM to Friar Canice. Since his return, the friary at Danforth Street has closed and all of the friars live at Assumption. “We find ourselves with a new leader with a clarified vision. Canice has a vision and he can more clearly articulate a Franciscan approach and deep-seated Franciscan values and the secular theology of Francis,” Friar Phil explained. “Oh, it’s going to take some time before 12 old bachelors can live in harmony, but ministry is central to each of us.” There are more goals and more forms of ministry to come, according to Friar Canice. One of the key elements the Franciscans hope to focus on soon is to bring more lay people into the spiritual life of Francis by inviting them to Assumption Church for worship. The friary is being renovated so that it can better accommodate the large groups who will be invited in before or after liturgy for coffee and conversation. And, a newly-acquired house next to the Assisi Center will serve as an urban spiritual retreat center in the future. The initial idea behind the Franciscans working on the northside was to establish a “collegial church,” Bishop Costello explained, something broader than a parish.

After a conversation with Friar Canice it becomes clear that the focus of the Franciscans in the diocese is not only serving the poor but serving everyone in the manner of Francis and Clare thereby forming an intentional community: a community that is filled with the spirit of Francis and Clare and one that can exist in mutual respect and harmony. “St. Francis did not just embrace the leper. The leper embraced him,” Friar Canice said. “It’s not what he gave to the leper, but what the leper gave to him. The leper is scary because we haven’t embraced the leper in ourselves. We must discover that peace within us so that we can move beyond the boundary of fear in our lives.”

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