Apr 29, 2014

Springfield native to head merged Conventual Franciscan province



By Father Bill Pomerleau

(Iobserve file photo)

SPRINGFIELD – “The last provincial of our ‘German’ province is Italian, and the last provincial of our ‘Polish’ province is Irish. I guess that sums up where we’re at today,” said Conventual Franciscan Father James McCurry (pictured at left).

Father McCurry, a native of the former St. Matthew Parish in Indian Orchard, is an Irish-American and is completing his second term as minister provincial (superior) of the St. Anthony Province of his religious order. Father Justin Biase, an Italian-American, also is completing eight years as head of its Immaculate Conception Province.

Both of their jobs will disappear on May 5 when a new Franciscan jurisdiction named Our Lady of the Angels Province will encompass nearly 300 priests, brothers and novices of the order in the Eastern United States and parts of English-speaking Canada. 

“We will also have custodies and delegations (semi-autonomous groupings of Franciscans) in Britain and Ireland, Costa Rica and Rio de Janeiro,” said Father McCurry, who was elected March 24 as head of the new province.

“Father Biase is a bit older than me, so he’ll go back to the troops, so to speak,” Father McCurry told iobserve.

The merger process, which will reach its formal conclusion when Father McCurry is installed as the new provincial minister at a May 7 ceremony in Buffalo, N.Y., began in 2005 when members of the geographically overlapping provinces began to formally work on collaboration. By 2009, 11 focus groups were examining the provinces’ governance, finances, ministry and fraternal life. They concluded that there was no longer a need to have separate structures to serve German and Polish Catholics.

The St. Anthony Province website, www.stanthonyprovince.org, chronicles the history of the Conventual Franciscans in Europe and the United States. The Conventual branch of the Franciscan family of religious orders traces its roots back to friars who sought to live the ideals of St. Francis in European cities. Unlike other Franciscans who lived more solitary lives in the countryside, they were known as “fraters conventuales,” or “brothers who live together” in slums like London’s “Stinking Lane.”

In 1570, the OFM Conventuals were formally established as a separate religious order. Their friars, who can be priests or religious brothers, live in residences known as “friaries” in English.

While some friars were ministering individually in the United States in the early 19th century, the organized beginning of the order’s work in this country began in 1852, when four German and Polish priests and a Belgian brother came to assist Bishop Jean Odin of Galveston, whose diocese included the entire state of Texas.

Bishop Odin first wrote to Father Bonaventure Keller, who would head a mission band to serve German and Polish-speaking immigrants. Perhaps sensing difficulties to come, the bishop suggested that Father Keller’s companion not be Father Leopold Moczygemba because “Polish priests are too full of revolutionary spirit and have caused me nothing but trouble.”

The mission in Texas ended in 1859, when lack of finances and personality disputes among the friars led them to more populated Catholic centers on the East Coast. After brief stays in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y., they settled down in upstate New York.

The bishop of Albany had initially invited the friars to staff several smaller territorial parishes in his diocese, but he soon asked them to serve “in those areas where Catholics of the German and French nations are found.”

One of the first parishes they staffed, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Syracuse, was militantly ethnic. The agreement between the friars and parish trustees stated:  “Assumption will always remain a German Roman Catholic Church” and “The Irish Catholics are to have no rights whatsoever in the church.”

The friars’ national diversity and experience in ethnic parish ministry led other bishops to request their services, particular after the order organized the North American Immaculate Conception Province in 1872.

By the turn of the 20th century, bishops in the Northeast, including Springfield, wanted the Conventuals’ help in calming feuds among the wave of Polish Catholics who poured into their dioceses in the 1880s. The bishops had experienced mixed success with sometimes problematical diocesan priests who arrived independently from Europe to serve their fellow Poles.

Father Hyacinth Fudzinski, the provincial minister in 1898, told his superiors in Rome:

“I spent 17 days in the Diocese of Springfield working for my compatriots… the bishop caught up to me and we came to the conclusion that he will give us an already established Polish Parish (St. Joseph in Webster), with rights for a friary, under the condition that we care for the Poles who are scattered in seven or eight other places in the diocese…

“In Springfield, as in all of New England, the clergy are not favorable to the friars. If they want us, it is only that their need forces their hand,” Father Fudzinski wrote.

Three years later, the friars moved their friary to the more centrally located St. Stanislaus Parish in Chicopee, which enabled them to also serve Holyoke and other communities.

By 1906, continuing Polish immigration and ethnic divisions within the province led to the creations of a separate Polish-American province. It was named after St. Anthony of Padua, and initially included 19 priests and 11 brothers serving nine parishes. The new grouping also had 36 Polish-speaking seminarians, which made it easier for the province to staff new Polish parishes, such as the former Mater Dolorosa in Holyoke.

By the time the new province founded St. Anthony of Padua Parish in the Willimansett section of Chicopee in 1923, emigration from Eastern Europe had slowed. But the province continued to staff additional parishes, and built high schools and seminaries in Granby and Ellicott City, Md., through the 1930s. Vocations were plentiful, and the province doubled in size to 190 men in 1927.

With the decline of immigration, the urban parishes they staffed reached their numerical peak before World War II, and began their slow decline. But the province, with plenty of manpower, continued to take on new missions. By the 1950s, the growth in Franciscan staffing of parishes nearly ended, and the order expanded its high school and college ministries. The “Polish Question” was first raised at the province’s chapter (goal-setting gathering) in 1954.

The number of friars continued to grow until 1978, when it peaked at 351 priests and brothers. Even though their membership dropped to 258 men by 1991, they took on new ministries in high schools, chaplaincies and foreign missions.

By 2001, the St. Anthony Province had 180 members, and had withdrawn from various ministerial posts. The assignments which remained were much less focused on ministry to Polish-Americans.

                                (Photo courtesy of stanthonyprovince.org)

“We call it the re-founding of our order and province,” explained Father McCurry.

Worldwide, there are 3,000 Conventual Franciscans – a total that has not diminished in recent decades. But like most religious orders, their growth is in the Third World.

“Our custody in Britain and Ireland, which I headed before I became provincial, is now a delegation,” Father McCurry said, alluding to the lowest level of Franciscan organizational status.

Father McCurry’s installation as provincial minister will be only one event during the new province's first chapter meeting next month. Its agenda includes proposals to withdraw the community from up to one-third of its current ministries, while accepting six new ministries.

“None of the proposed changes involve the Diocese of Springfield,” said Father McCurry.