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Franciscan friars now serving Macon

Long brown robes stir images of monks in monasteries, but Macon’s new Franciscan friars are anything but cloistered.

From the moment they moved into the Pleasant Hill neighborhood parish of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in early September, the trio immersed themselves in their ministry, said Sister Cheryl Ann Hillig, principal of the parish school on Ward Street.

“On the first day they arrived, you could find them jumping right in with our students -- welcoming them in carpool, playing soccer on the playground during P.E. class, sitting among the children having lunch in the classroom,” Hillig stated in an email. “You can see how much they truly care about all the students and families at (the school).”

At the invitation of Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of the Savannah Diocese, who is also a Franciscan, the Holy Name Province has agreed to a five-year, renewable commitment to station two priests and a brother at Macon’s historically black church, now more than a century old.

The Rev. William McIntyre, 50, known as Father Bill, was named pastor of the St. Peter Claver congregation. The Rev. Frank Critch, 54,is the new chaplain for Mount de Sales Academy and will assist McIntyre in the parish. Brother Paul Santoro, 58, will serve the Daybreak homeless ministry of De-Paul U.S.A.

Unlike his priest partners, Santoro is not ordained for sacramental ministry, such as saying Mass or hearing confessions.

“Brothers are sort of like nuns,” Santoro said. “But in our community, we are all the same. We are all brothers.”

“All of us who feel the calling as Franciscans join a brotherhood,” McIntyre said.

In 1206, Francesco di Bernardone, a wealthy Italian merchant from Assisi, renounced his fortune and social status to dedicate himself to God, serving lepers and the least of his people.

Three years later, when a dozen others joined the future St. Francis, Pope Innocent III sanctioned the Order of Lesser Brothers. In Latin, it is Ordo Fratrum Minorum, or OFM, the initials that follow the name of all Franciscans.

There are about 30,000 men serving worldwide in the three sectors of one of the major orders of the Catholic Church.

“We have social workers, professors, doctors and nurses,” Critch said. “It’s how you live out your vocation.”

Critch, of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, whose brogue lilts lightly toward Irish, trained in a culinary school in British Columbia.

He ran his own restaurant, the Duck Street Bistro in St. John’s, before joining the friars less than a decade ago and being ordained in January 2013.

He hopes to share his skills and teach students some cooking basics.

“He can make simple things taste fantastic,” said McIntyre, who grew up in Hyde Park, New York, and spent a year in the insurance industry before becoming a Franciscan friar 25 years ago.

He was inspired by a friar who, after teaching, strolled St. Bonaventure University’s campus picking up trash from the students.

McIntyre, who graduated from the Catholic college, is now the cleanup man when Critch or Santoro cook.

Their friary, or residence, is two doors down from the church and about a block off Vineville Avenue.

“We don’t just do ministry and go home to some far off place,” McIntyre said. “We live in the community.”

The brown hooded robes attract plenty of attention.

In other places, the attire drew stares and sideways glances, but people in Macon begin a conversation, said Critch, who twirls his rope sash as he walks.

“I had one of the little ones ask me, ‘Why are you wearing a brown bag,’” he said.

McIntyre was once asked at a gas station in Durham, North Carolina, if he worked for UPS.

A HISTORY OF SERVICE

Friars may be new to Macon, but they served the Savannah diocese in places like Cordele and Americus between 1942 and the early 1990s.

The order of St. Francis first arrived on the Georgia coast in the 16th century.

Preaching against polygamy among native people in the Savannah area led to the slaughter of five of the friars in 1597.

Their deaths came nearly two centuries before Franciscan Junipero Serra began preaching to Native Americans on the West Coast.

Although Serra was canonized a saint last week by Pope Francis in a Mass in Washington, D.C., the Georgia martyrs are still under review for possible beatification or canonization.

The Macon friars already are earning haloes from St. Peter Claver staff.

Religion and physical education teacher Rachel Smith is grateful McIntyre and Critch helped her sixth-graders work off some energy on the soccer field last week.

“I think it’s great because it forms a connection with the church and our school,” Smith said. “Playing sports with the brothers is definitely helping them out because they get more practice, and they just enjoy being together and having a good time.”

Critch’s sandal flew off as he kicked the ball away from the goal.

“I was hoping to hit Bill in the side of the head, but it didn’t work,” said Critch, whose goal-tending ability was hampered by the robe.

“This can only stretch so far, this habit,” he said.

WALKING THE WALK

The Middle Georgia community is much smaller than what Santoro was used to growing up near Boston, but within a couple of days he felt right at home.

Although he’s worked primarily in the classroom after professing his vows in 1982, he also is a trained substance abuse counselor.

His job at Daybreak is the first time he will be working with the homeless.

“Every day I’m learning something new,” said Santoro, who interviews new clients and tries to match them up with services at the center.

He works alongside Daughters of Charity, the Catholic sisters serving Macon in various ways, including at St. Peter Claver and at Family Advancement Ministries.

McIntyre, who also speaks Spanish, has ministered in other highly diverse cities.

He was attracted to St. Peter Claver on his first scouting trip in May.

The congregation is nearly equal thirds of African-Americans, Latinos and whites, including a large Filipino community.

“Our parish looks like Macon looks like,” McIntyre said.

His style is not to lead from ahead or follow from behind, but to go through life’s journey together.

“Accompanying others as we walk towards building up of God’s kingdom,” he said.

Although Pope Francis is a Jesuit priest, the pontiff mirrors his patron saint with a style that attracts followers of many denominations, they said.

“For years, it was this condemnation, but the heart was missing,” Critch said.

Santoro sees the pope’s influence this way: “He’s returning to the joy of the Gospel.”

The brothers’ own fun and loving nature bubbles over as they interact with others, including those lined up for the biweekly food bank.

Recently, the friars moved through the crowd and hugged volunteers as they left.

McIntyre even rattled off the names of one woman’s children as if he had been in the parish for years.

“We live the Gospel,” he said. “We want to be with people and see God in the highest in society and those who are sweeping the streets.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, all 744-4303 and follow her on Twitter @liz_lines.

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