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Spotlight Report

Capuchins take mission beyond friary

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/28/2003

 Related stories
Part one:
O'Malley's path of quiet conviction
D.C.: Unity found in 'Padre Sean'
Virgin Islands: A renewed faith
Fall River: Uneasy compromise

Part two:
Taking mission beyond friary

Part three:
Parishes replenish from abroad

The days start early at the friary on Harold Street.

Outside, a hot summer sun is rising over Roxbury; two middle-aged women in sweatpants are taking an energetic early morning walk up the dead-end street. Down the hall, an insistent phone echoes through the converted triple-decker.

Five Franciscan brothers, from four different continents, stumble into the shadowed room at the end of the second-floor hallway, sit down on the cushioned wooden chairs, and begin to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

Soon, in their own ways, they will head out to help the Cape Verdeans of Boston -- the particular mission of these Capuchin friars of Roxbury. Brother Tino will accompany a middle-aged woman to a Department of Social Services meeting; Brother Joao will prepare for his weekly religious radio show in Crioulo; Brother Zachary will head to St. Patrick's Church, where he will meet with couples preparing for the baptisms of their children.

But for now, at the start of a new day, at the start of a new week, at the start of a new era in the Archdiocese of Boston, the friars are gathered in the living room they have converted into a chapel, sitting under an icon of the San Damiano crucifix from which St. Francis heard God commanding him to repair the church, once again beginning their day with a reminder of the central practices of their unusual life: contemplation, prayer, and fraternity.

Capuchin friars have labored in the Boston area, largely in obscurity, since the 1920s, when a group of British Capuchins set up shop in Milton.

The Capuchins, traditionally marked by the pointed hoods of their floor-length brown robes, have lived in the shadow of the area's better-known mendicants, including the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province, who oversee the Workers' Chapel on Arch Street in downtown Boston, and the Poor Clare Nuns, a group of Franciscan sisters who lead a contemplative life inside a conspicuous monastery in Jamaica Plain.

But on July 1, Pope John Paul II named a Capuchin friar, Bishop Sean P. O'Malley, to succeed Cardinal Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston, and suddenly the Capuchins of Boston, many of whom believe that obscurity is a corollary to humility, find themselves the objects of unaccustomed, and sometimes unwanted, attention.

The friars are, of course, delighted that a respected member of their order has been chosen to lead the troubled archdiocese. The entrance to the friary's main floor features, propped up against a vase, a prayer card for O'Malley; their recitation of the daily Divine Office now includes a prayer for O'Malley's well-being. And each morning they scour the paper for news of their famous brother.

But the friars are also worried about their own future. There are now just 11,000 Capuchin friars in the world and, as in other religious orders, their numbers are falling and their average age is rising.

Of the seven brothers living in Roxbury at St. Benedict the Moor friary this summer, six expect to be gone by January, as the order's New England province is preparing to end its work with the Cape Verdean apostolate for the Archdiocese of Boston. Some of the friars hope O'Malley's arrival -- he will be installed as archbishop on Wednesday -- will somehow lead to new life for them.

But barring an unforeseen intervention, the friary in Roxbury could shut down this winter.

The province has a second friary in Boston, in Jamaica Plain, where about a dozen friars-in-training stay while pursuing graduate studies. This friary, called San Lorenzo, is housed in a former convent at Our Lady of Lourdes parish.

But the friars are accustomed to uncertainty. They take vows of obedience, meaning they go where their superiors tell them to go, and some say they get as little as two weeks' notice before being transferred to another posting.

So for now, they do what they think St. Francis would have done in Roxbury, living and working among the people, preaching the Gospel and helping the poor.

Beyond legend and history

To many, the very word friar smacks of medievalism: of Chaucer's tale; of Friar Tuck, the folkloric British priest who helps Robin Hood steal from the rich to feed the poor; or Friar Laurence, Shakespeare's well-meaning bumbler who tries to help Romeo and Juliet but instead contributes to their deaths.

But Roxbury is not Verona or Sherwood Forest; the friary is not an isolated hermitage or silent monastery; the friars do not pad around all day in brown robes and sandals.

In fact, the friary is a fraternity of sorts, a group of men living together in a reasonably well-appointed house in a poor neighborhood, bonded by their commitment to a Catholic religious life.

Of course, the friars are poor; as individuals they own no property and have no bank accounts. Seven grown men subsist on the salary of Brother Tino, who works as a social worker for Catholic Charities, and on the small stipends granted to the three brothers who work as priests.

Their building is simple but not monastic -- they share two televisions (and a satellite dish so they can watch the news in Portuguese), two computers, a stovetop espresso maker, and a microwave oven. Their furniture is comfortable but utilitarian.

Outside, a small garden with a statue of St. Francis is the only splash of color on a street where some of the buildings are marked with graffiti.

At home, the friars wear street clothes. At morning prayer one day last week, some wore shorts and T shirts, others were dressed in jeans and polo jerseys.

And even outdoors, some eschew the brown robe, with the thrice-knotted white cord often associated with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The argument is that St. Francis wore the habit to blend in with the poor, but now the clothing makes the friars look exotic.

"The robe is now a sign of prestige, and that's a problem," says Brother Tino, whose full name is Celestino M. Arias. "When I wear it to church, people go gaga."

Cape Verdean connection

Cape Verde is an archipelago, a former Portuguese colony off the western coast of Africa, with a weak economy, a population that is predominantly Catholic, and a strong connection to the Capuchins forged by missionary friars from Italy.

Joao Antonio Araujo was born 56 years ago on Sao Nicolau, one of Cape Verde's windward islands. At the age of 18, he moved to Italy to become a Capuchin friar.

Brother Joao, now assigned to help fellow Cape Verdeans who have moved to the United States, says he saw the Capuchins at work in his hometown when he was just a kid. And when he heard a friar complain about a lack of vocations from Cape Verde, he thought the priest was speaking to him.

"I wanted to work in my country," Joao says. "I wanted to help."

Like his fellow friars, Joao shrugs off the sacrifices inherent in a friar's life.

"This is my vocation, and it's hard -- it's not easy to live in poverty, but you give your life to the people, and I help the people to grow," he says. "And chastity is the way I can serve the people. If I had a wife, I couldn't serve the people, but now I am free, and I receive strength from my fraternity."

After his ordination as a Capuchin priest, Joao was sent to Fogo, a Cape Verdean island with few natural resources.

"I asked the people what I could do, and they didn't ask for Mass or sacraments -- they wanted water and streets," Joao says. "In two months, we built a big cistern, and three days later there was rain. Then there was water."

Joao was sent to the United States in 2000, and he assists Cape Verdeans through St. Patrick's Church in Boston and St. Margaret's in Brockton, visiting families, running Bible study sessions, and leading youth groups.

Once a week, he hosts a radio show, answering questions about faith in the Portuguese-African Creole language spoken by Cape Verdeans.

Joao, who expects soon to move to Portugal to help train Capuchin seminarians from Cape Verde, is frustrated by what he perceives as an unwillingness of some diocesan pastors to reach out to Cape Verdean-Americans and other immigrant groups.

"White Americans have to understand that the church in Africa was evangelized by Europeans, and now they are coming here -- they have to receive these people, who are the result of their missionary work."

Joao has a scraggly white goatee, and in the house, he is dressed haphazardly in black sneakers with white socks, brown polyester slacks, and two T-shirts, a white one that pokes out from underneath a blue one with the logo for a Catholic feast day.

But, like other friars trained in Europe, Joao prefers to wear his habit when he goes out in public.

"Many people ask me what religion I am, because they don't even know there are Capuchins here," he says. "The Catholic Church needs to be more missionary here. The people want to know what the Catholic Church is, but there is nobody to explain it to them."

Services amid sirens

The Cape Verdean community of Boston suffers more than its share of tragedy, much of it in the form of violent crime. But Sunday mornings at 9:30 are an island of peace for the community, which gathers at St. Patrick's Church, near Dudley Square, for trilingual Masses. Even early on Sunday morning, sirens can be heard wailing outside the church, but so can the strains of Portuguese hymns, and the upbeat tones of an electronic organ.

On a recent Sunday, a visiting Italian Capuchin friar who had long worked in Cape Verde, Camilo Torasso, celebrated Mass for more than 600 Cape Verdeans in the ornate vaulted sanctuary, while in the downstairs chapel, another Capuchin, Zachary Grant, celebrated a young people's Mass for another 100 communicants.

"Every parish has a shepherd, and some don't lead us very well -- it's always a scandal when some don't teach us what Jesus wants," Brother Zachary preaches. "We're waiting now to celebrate our new shepherd, Archbishop O'Malley, and we will welcome him here because he was sent by Jesus to be our shepherd."

After Mass, Brother Zachary, a cheerful curmudgeon with a shock of white hair, motors his maroon Chevy Lumina back to the friary. The Roxbury parish is Zachary's 18th posting in 47 years, and the 73-year-old Bronx-born friar expects to be assigned somewhere else -- he doesn't know where -- come January.

"I went looking for St. Francis, and I found the order," Zachary says. "Francis was from the rich and gave it up to become part of the poor. He was simple, and his friars lived the simple life of the people. He exemplified Christ's example, and that appealed to me."

A younger brother

The superior of the friary -- his official title is "guardian" -- is also the youngest among them, Brother Tino, a 35-year-old New York native who, much to the chagrin of his parents, felt the pull of religious life while at Boston College.

"I was the first in my family to finish high school and go to college, and I was supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor," says Tino, the son of working-class immigrants from Spain.

But somewhere along the way, Tino says, he decided he wanted to help -- not just volunteer or pitch in, but sign on for a life of service. He called the only priest he knew, a Capuchin friar who had helped out at his childhood parish in Croton on Hudson, N. Y. -- and soon he was hooked.

"Initially my father was furious ... and he thought I was giving up too much," he said. "But now they see this is fulfilling, and that I am happy, and they're very proud and supportive."

Tino oversees the friary, paying bills and calling regular meetings for the friars to discuss their work.

But his passion is his work with Cape Verdean teens. During the school year, he oversees an after-school program for recently arrived Cape Verdean immigrants, and now, in summer, he oversees a new summer school for immigrants in the basement of St. Peter School.

Tino has adopted the cause of young men such as Luis Rosa, 15, whom Tino is now trying to get admitted to Cathedral High School, and Augustinho Lopes, 18, whom Tino has hired to help other students with math. "Right now it's summer, and everyone wants to stay on the street, but there's a lot of violence on the streets," Lopes says. "This program is helping."

The summer program operates on a shoestring: Last week, when pupils were taking sailing lessons at Charlestown Navy Yard, Tino couldn't afford a bus, so he and program director Paulo DeBarros faced the challenge of getting 40 Cape Verdean teens from Dorchester to Charlestown by public transportation. The trip took 21/2 hours.

But by mid-afternoon Monday, dozens of Cape Verdean teens, many of whom barely speak English and some of whom had never been on sailboats, were riding atop the waves of a windy Boston Harbor, and, for a time, safe and smiling.

"Of course I've had doubts [about being a friar] but I prayed about them, talked about them to the friars and to friends," Tino says. "Then, with the scandal, the same thing happened -- I asked myself, why I am I doing this? Why do I belong to this church?' But ultimately, I'm trying to be true to myself, and true to God and the people I love, and this is what answers that."

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/28/2003.
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