Brothers of Peace Pray, Serve

By Gibeau, Dawn | National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 1995 | Go to article overview

Brothers of Peace Pray, Serve


Gibeau, Dawn, National Catholic Reporter


The decline in religious community membership is old news. There is no indication this decades-old trend will reverse. The surprising news amid this slump is that new communities are sprouting, sometimes serendipitously, in response to signs of the times.

One sturdy young community of religious brothers is developing in the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, where the Franciscan Brothers of Peace have 12 members, six of whom have professed lifetime vows. They have three houses: Queen of Peace Friary/Novitiate in a 22-bedroom former convent in St. Paul; Samaritan House, a hospice in south Minneapolis where three brothers care for AIDS patients; and St. Francis Friary in north Minneapolis, a small house where three more brothers exercise a ministry of prayer and presence in a neighborhood marked by poverty and violence.

On Jan. 1, 1994, the brothers received church approbation as a public association of the faithful, the second of three steps in becoming a religious institute. A public association is considered a "juridic person" that can operate in the name of the church, explained Br. Paul J. O'Donnell, the community's guardian overall.

Michael Gaworski, who founded the group, had no intention of creating a religious community when he and David Lehnen agreed in 1982 that they would find an apartment and live there for a year to discern what the Lord wanted them to do. They had met at the 1982 National Charismatic Renewal Conference, and both had previously looked into diocesan priesthood and existing religious communities.

Gaworski and Lehnen were recovering alcoholics who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together. They began to attend daily Mass and to pray together each day. Friends would come to pray with them. One was O'Donnell, then a seminarian, who discovered in their midst "a sense of fraternity, where people really care about each other, and a sense of peace and a solid prayer life."

The gatherings continued for weeks, then months, then years until "it kind of entered our minds that maybe the Lord was doing something here, something a little special," O'Donnell said. In 1985, "with fear and trepidation, we went to the archdiocese and met with the vice chancellor, who at the time was Father Urban Wagner, a Conventual Franciscan. We just shared with him what we were doing in our prayer life."

Wagner told the men that many people come to him with plans to start new communities, but "you didn't do that. You just came in and shared what your life was about and asked, in a way, for the church's approval."

O'Donnell said Wagner "set us on a course of action that would establish us" as a religious community. Wagner also chose their name, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. Nine months later, July 28, 1986, St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Roach canonically established the group as a private association of the faithful, the initial step for a religious community in formation.

Approval can be significant for a fledgling community, so laypeople can feel confident about the group. "That's very important when you have a lot of different groups that seem real and legitimate and beautiful on the outside but can be religious cults," O'Donnell said.

He recalled his community's beginnings, when "we felt the Lord was calling us to live a contemporary Franciscan lifestyle." The young founders, "all post-Vatican II products," wanted to combine active and contemplative elements, to adopt some traditional aspects of religious life yet avoid pits into which some established communities had fallen.

"The vision we wanted was to live in unity together, to preserve that feeling of fraternal support," O'Donnell said. The brothers did not want to found big institutional ministries but to serve the poor free of charge and live among them in inner cities. "We decided to have a very structured prayer life," he said, and to spend 60 percent of the time in prayer, 40 percent in active ministry - ministry to anyone who needed it but especially the poor. …

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