When William Unterthiner, a young friar and parish priest, left behind the rolling meadows and snow-capped mountains of the Tyrolean Alps to journey to Cincinnati in 1844, he did so with deep faith and trust in God’s grace. His response to a plea from Archbishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati to the Franciscans of St. Leopold Province in Austria to meet the needs of the large number of Catholic German immigrants settling in Over-the-Rhine, paved the way for other men of faith and courage to follow and for others to join them in collaborating with and supporting them in ministry.
As St. John the Baptist Province prepares to join other U.S. provinces on Oct. 17 to become a new coast-to-coast OFM Province, friars and members of the local Franciscan family came together for Masses of Thanksgiving. The friars were joined by the Poor Clare Sisters and province staff members at St. Anthony Shrine on June 16, the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, with Provincial Minister Mark Soehner as celebrant. On June 17, Parochial Vicar Bill Farris presided at a liturgy at Roger Bacon High School, attended by ministry partners, friends and other staff members.
While making the drive to Cincinnati from St. Francis Retreat House in Easton, Pennsylvania, for the celebrations, Henry Beck admits to experiencing some bittersweet emotions. “I have been associated with the province since 1966, when I entered St. Francis Seminary High School, and I was thinking of all of the friars who have touched my life in significant ways over all these years,” he said. “I was also thinking of my classmates all through the years and how we, too, formed each other through our interactions and friendships. We have journeyed a good and long path together, and I am deeply grateful.”
“Mark’s homily really helped me both feel my gratitude and my sadness of this part of our journey together coming to completion and to look forward with excitement to the next steps of our journey with our brothers in the other USA provinces,” Henry added.
Dan Anderson, Secretary of the province, said the celebrations reminded him of the unwavering trust of the early friars in Cincinnati. “The fact that we’re here speaks to the faith of the early guys, who left knowing they might never return home,” he said. “The other thing that really strikes me is how, when we have had Chapters over the years, we have elected the right person for the right time as Provincial.”
After Communion, Mark, Bill and Dan presented the Francis Medal to the friars, Poor Clares and staff members present. The image of St. Francis on the medal, by John Quigley, is inspired by the 13th-century artist Cimabue. John captures the poverty and humility of Francis that are part of Cimabue’s portrait. Some biographers consider this likeness to be the most faithful of the early portraits of the saint, and it is a treasured image for the Franciscans.
The celebration continued after Mass with a delicious picnic on the beautiful grounds of the Shrine. That evening, many friars came back together to enjoy a pizza dinner and the sharing of stories, about events and their fellow brothers that impacted their lives through the years. “The picnic was a wonderful experience of the friars and our extended family coming together,” Dan said. “As the friars shared our memories that night, it sparked many meaningful and funny conversations.”
A highlight of the day was the opportunity to view a historical display of St. John the Baptist Province and the Vice Province of the Most Holy Savior. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, its members became part of SJB Province in 2000. John Barker prayerfully and artfully developed the display with assistance from Ron Cooper, province archivist, and material from Pat McCloskey’s book, God Gives His Grace: A Short History of St. John the Baptist Province 1844-2001. “Several months ago, when the Provincial Council was meeting to discuss the celebrations, we decided it would be nice to have a historical display,” John explained. “I said I would take care of it, but wanted it to be more than just a historical timeline. I also used the necrology very heavily since we read it with dinner every day and hear interesting stories about the friars,” ranging from those who served as missionaries in China to writers, poets and artists. “I tried to include interesting facts about life as a friar interspersed with historical detail. It’s meant to be representative of our history over the years, not exhaustive.”
John said he found the project to be inspiring in a variety of ways. “As I was working on it, I became more and more impressed with how the friars had responded to the particular needs of the time,” he explained. “There was always the human factor, but there is a history of friars doing what needed to be done. As I was working on the display, I was able to immerse myself in some of the stories and the general history of the province and vice province and came to appreciate what a gift the friars have been, and the gift others have been to the friars. For me, it really led to some questions about how I live my life as a friar, how I understand the charism and how we balance the old and new as Franciscans today.”
Page Polk, who chaired the planning committee for the celebrations, said, “God’s grace has been so prevalent in what the friars have tried to do throughout our history and what we’ve been able to accomplish due to the people who have helped us along the way. The celebrations were an opportunity for us to remember what our mission is all about, the kindness and generosity of others and how God has used people’s time and talents to help us. God has put me in places that I never dreamed I would go, and I have met so many wonderful people. I have experienced God’s grace in so many ways.”
Reflecting on the celebrations, Jeff Scheeler said, “I think they were helpful in the process of letting go of what has been and embracing what is to be. As John Barker said at our Friday evening gathering, we have a great history that promises a great future. John’s displays put names and faces on our history and reminded me of the many courageous and faithful men who built our province. I enjoyed telling stories of friars who made a special impact on my life. Mark’s homily hit the right notes, reminding us of the great things we have done, acknowledging our grief, but inspiring us to embrace how the Spirit is leading us now.”
Although Fred Link was focused on providing joyful music for both Masses, along with other talented friar musicians, he said, “I thought both Mark’s and Bill’s homilies were very inspiring and positive. I’m so glad our sister Clares were with us. We are incomplete without them. I also appreciate the inclusion of our brothers from the former vice province in remarks/ homilies during the weekend. Our lay brothers and sisters who were worshipping with us had to be impressed. The emphasis on both days was that ‘God gives His grace.’ Even though we’re not certain where the future will lead, we know that God will be with us. I feel so proud of St. John the Baptist Province. God has used us humble instruments to touch so many lives over the past many years.”
“The farewell Mass was bittersweet for me,” Murray Bodo acknowledged. “I entered the novitiate in 1955, after four years in the minor seminary, and I had first heard of St. John the Baptist Province in my hometown of Gallup, New Mexico when I was 13 years old. For me, our province was the Order of St. Francis, and it would last till the end of time. I never dreamed I would be sitting in a pew in our novitiate chapel 68 years later saying goodbye to the source of so many graces in my life. Our province gave me brothers — I am an only child — and what wonderful brothers they have been; it gave me an incredible education; it showed me how to be a Franciscan friar; and it encouraged my love of teaching and writing and preaching the Gospel and leading pilgrimages to Assisi for 43 years. So, there were definitely — to paraphrase Mark’s lovely homily — claw marks all over everything I was saying goodbye to. But the good part is the realization that many of the brothers at the farewell Mass were also saying goodbye with me, and like me, were trying to welcome a future still unclear but full of hope for all of us because, yes, God does give the grace.”
Part of the family
A number of province staff members shared their thoughts on ministering with the friars over the years. “There have been so many times over my 17 years working for the friars that I just knew in my heart that I was doing what God was calling me to do,” said Colleen Cushard, co-director of Friar Works. “I have really enjoyed working for the friars and all the wonderful people who support them. I would simply say ‘thank you’ for the wonderful memories and for allowing me to be part of the Franciscan family.” “I would quote my venerable predecessor, good friar, and wonderful man, Fr. Kenan Freson (on the occasion of his retirement from the treasurer position): ‘I am filled with gratitude and hope,’” added David O’Brien, OFS, chief financial officer for the province since 2007. “The friars have been and continue to be an inspiration, collective witness, and manifestation of God’s grace to me, my wife, Michelle, and our children. We are ever grateful.”
Longtime province staffers Shirley Daugherty and Jim Lewis, who currently work in the Friar Works Office, both came to work with the Franciscans in the mid-1970s and say the friars’ faith and example and their respectful and welcoming nature have made the experience rewarding. “I’ve always felt like I was part of the Franciscan family,” Shirley said. “It’s been very spiritually fulfilling to work with the friars, and they’ve really inspired me to be the best person I can be.”
Jim said he has appreciated the variety of his work responsibilities over the years and that “every day brings something different. There is something special about what the friars do, their spirituality and their fraternity. I’m very grateful to have had the chance to do my little part to keep their ministry going.”
The celebration continues
In his homily at Roger Bacon on June 17, Bill focused on “glancing backward and forwards in thanksgiving and gratitude, as Mary’s Magnificat does in the Gospel. We are here to celebrate 179 years as a Franciscan presence,” he said. “This history reflects the lives of a known number of friars and unknown number of people like you who have walked with us,” including the boards that help strengthen and sustain the friars’ ministries, both old and new; onsite leadership by talented individuals who bring new ideas and energy to the friars’ work with the young, the poor and those seeking spiritual sustenance; those who work side by side in the hands-on labor: teachers, writers and editors, business managers, housekeepers, maintenance and indispensable volunteers.
“The next edition of the history of the province will include you who are willing to guide and carry on our ministries. Our thanks to you looks back to many years of service in the Franciscan spirit and ahead to the challenges of a province soon to be much larger,” he continued.
Those in attendance expressed their gratitude and thanks for the friars’ ministry and inspiration. Pat Riestenberg, who ministered with the friars at Our Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Community in Hazard, Kentucky, for more than 20 years, said she has always been moved by their “down-to-earth personalities, willingness to pitch in with any project and openness to all people. They are so bold and courageous in doing whatever needs to be done,” she said. “I can’t thank them enough for being the Franciscan witness of compassion and justice they provide locally and beyond. They make the best of every situation, and I wish them well moving into the new province.”
Joni and Gary Mataitis have been inspired by the friars in their respective volunteer roles: Joni at St. Clement, where she helps run the cord-making machine and assists Kevin Duckson with gardening projects, among other things, and Gary, who works on bookkeeping with St. Clement, St. Anthony and St. Francis Seraph Friaries.
“I’m so grateful for the friars’ spiritual knowledge and the example they set for us,” Joni said. “Every friar has a story and unique gifts they have shared with us.”
“I have so much respect for their ministry, especially how they have managed things from the business aspect,” added Gary. “My gratitude and prayers are with them moving forward.”
Tom Hattersley, a 1968 graduate of Roger Bacon High School and current chair of the board of directors, recalled how the friars’ spirituality and kind, but firm, approach to discipline influenced him during his time as a student and beyond. “St. Francis saw the incarnate and inherent worth and dignity of all humanity, even of lepers,” he said. “Luckily for me, that example enabled the friars to see worth even in a rebellious, underachieving teenager. And, to help me see it for myself.”
“I have the utmost respect and gratitude for the friars and their 179-year legacy of service to the poor and marginalized in Over-the-Rhine,” said Mary Pat Raupach, executive director of St. Francis Seraph Ministries (SFSM). “Their actions, words and presence inspire me every day, and it was a privilege to attend the provincial farewell event and celebrate their legacy with them. The friars are in my prayers as they continue their transformational work of promoting peace, justice and the care of creation during this time of change.”
“I have been inspired by the friars’ commitment to serving God by serving God’s children, and by their virtues of kindness, peacefulness and collegiality,” said Tom Gruber, SFSM board chair. “I have great respect for the friars and thank them for their service and commitment. God bless you moving forward and peace be with you.”
Friars Club President Annie Timmons, whose connection to the Franciscans goes back 45 years, said. “I really enjoyed the celebration. It brought back so many familiar faces and so much emotion as I saw and talked to many of the Franciscans. I am a product of the love and support of the Franciscan friars. I received the Franciscan medal of honor a few years ago, so I know even though the Franciscans are merging and changing, their true spirit will continue to be seen in me and all we do at Friars Club every day.”
She went on to share how the friars have been an influence in her life and the lives of others. “A father’s love and support are always ingrained in their children regardless of their physical presence,” Annie said. “I know the Franciscans have been a true impact in my life personally and for the children at Friars Club, and I believe their presence will continue to always be a part of who we are and what we do, just as Jesus is, in our lives daily. Job well done, my good and faithful servants. Now let’s move forward to the next chapter.”
Pat McCloskey, whose book chronicled so much of the province’s history, said, “Both farewell celebrations showed the presiders/homilists and the other friars at their best. I could not have been more proud. For the province, grace has come in moments such as the two celebrations, but even more in tougher moments. For me, it has come through living with and ministering with all the friars in SJB and beyond. I can’t wait to meet Wilhelm Unterthiner face–to–face — in God’s good time!”