Harlem Friary Provides Introduction to Monastic Life

By Trevor Bach on Dec 20th, 2012


Postulant Kristone Capistrano, by window, prays at midday. Before entering religious life, Capistrano was a successful portrait artist in Australia. (Photo by Trevor Bach)

On a grey December afternoon inside the spartan St. Joseph Friary in West Harlem, Ryan Best sat silently at the end of a long wooden dining table, a simple wooden cross dangling from his neck. Looking concerned, he leaned in close to listen to a man named Lito.

Weathered and wheelchair-bound, Lito has had a rough life, at one point attempting suicide after being released from a mental hospital. Now, he comes to the friary most Thursdays for a hot meal and warm conversation. Other neighbors come as well — 20 or so today — many carrying their own stories of suffering.

“A lot of times they’ll tell you they have cancer or they have AIDS,” Best said afterwards. “I feel like they just need to talk to somebody. That’s really why we’re here.”

A few years ago, as a part-time criminal justice student at Florida Atlantic University, Best had an enjoyable life. He took two or three classes a semester and frequently went out drinking with his buddies. He traveled. He had girlfriends, one of whom he considered marrying.

And he was earning a handsome living — as much as or more than a middle-aged businessman — playing poker on sites like Bodog or PokerStars. “I felt like it was free money,” he said. “I felt like I was going to be doing it my whole life.”

In September, the former poker ace, now 30, moved into the friary, a handsome red-brick building tucked into a row of brownstones on West 142nd Street off Broadway, around the corner from a Kennedy Fried Chicken and La Nacional money wiring store.

In his new life Best sleeps in a sleeping bag on a mat on the floor, prays five times a day, and isn’t allowed to have a cell phone, use the Internet, or deviate from a strictly regimented daily schedule without permission. And he’s happier than ever. “I feel like it’s a privilege, this type of life,” he said. “It’s awesome.”

Best is one of the current class of men — this year there are four — who‘ve been accepted to spend 10 and a half months as postulants of the order of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

On the first rung of a five-year ladder to becoming friars, they are freshmen in the school of religious life: Living in a spiritual fraternity with the other eight or so members of the house — two superiors and about a half dozen others in various stages of formation — they dedicate themselves wholly to serving God and the community, following strict guidelines and proscriptions for daily activity set by the order. Wednesdays, for example, are dedicated to physical work; Fridays are devoted entirely to silent prayer until dinner.

“The postulants — they’re new,” explained Father Luke, the house superior and postulant director. “They’re taking classes. They don’t really have a lot of responsibilities. They’re more just kind of helping out, dipping their feet in the water, so to speak.”

If they choose to continue and Father Luke approves, the postulants take the title of brother and may adopt new religious names. They also trade their current uniform of slacks and white dress shirts for the St. Francis habit, a full-length grey robe.

The second year of formation, the novitiate, is a period of even more intense prayer and religious study at another friary in Paterson, New Jersey.  Three consecutive one-year periods of service follow, during which the men take temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Then a brother takes permanent, lifelong vows — the final step in becoming a friar.

So will Best, soft-spoken and contemplative with thin-framed glasses and a full-flowing brown beard, continue all the way to final vows?

“I think so,” he said. “But I’m so new.”

Throughout the postulant year, he explained, he and the others must constantly ask themselves three tough questions: “Does God want me here? Does the community want me here? And do I want to be here?”

“If those three things are all yes, then you stay.”

The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal was established in 1987 by eight Capuchin friars “desiring to work more definitively for personal and communal reform within the Catholic Church.” Founded in the Bronx, the order has grown to include nine friaries in the United States (seven in the New York City metro area); four in Europe; and two in Central America.

The houses, said Father John Paul, vocational director of the St. Joseph Friary, are established in impoverished areas where the brothers can provide friendship and assistance; the Harlem friary was established in 1996.

“They’re just sweet people,” gushed Maria Armistead, a neighbor who stopped outside the building for a chat with the brothers — her friends, she said — which she does often. “They help the community. You could ring their bell, get a cup of coffee and a sandwich.”

Following the example of poverty set by St. Francis, the postulants sleep in sleeping bags on the floor in threadbare rooms. (Photo by Trevor Bach)

Since its founding 25 years ago, the order has grown to a healthy 120 members in total, along the way gaining a respected reputation among Catholics in and around New York: The first Saturday of every month draws roughly 1000 people to the stunning Our Lady of Good Counsel cathedral on the Upper East Side for a night of prayer and performances, an event organized by the friars and known as the Catholic Underground.

“The friars — I love them,” said 14-year-old Gabriela Romero, who came to the December version with her New Jersey youth group. “I feel like they’re all my brothers.”

Still, as they enter religious life, Harlem’s new postulants are joining a diminishing breed. In 1965, the United States was home to over 12,000 Catholic brothers, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate; this year, the number has dropped below 4500. (During the same period, the number of religious sisters fell from 180,000 to 54,000.)

For the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, this year’s class of four postulants —drawn from seven or eight applicants, many of whom will likely join next year — is typical of the past few years, Father Luke said. But that’s down significantly from the mid-1990s, when class sizes reached the teens.

Partly responsible for the smaller numbers, Father Luke explained, is that the order itself has become more selective. “In the earlier days, maybe… anybody who kind of wanted to join, we’d give them a try,” he said. “Over the years maybe we’ve developed our own discernment a little more.”

Not that he was much concerned.

For a newer, smaller community like the Friars of the Renewal, four postulants is actually quite a few, Father Luke said, and besides, swelling the order’s numbers was never really an objective. “If the Lord would send 16, we’ll take 16,” he said. “It’s kind of up to Him, that’s how we see it.”

Besides Best, originally from Bucks County, Pa., the other members of the current class include a former assistant wedding photographer and avid surfer from Freehold, N.J.; a successful portrait artist from Sydney; and a young man from Scotland who previously worked as a gamekeeper.

Such circuitous routes to monasticism are emblematic of a trend the past several decades of a different route into religious life, explained Courtney Bender, a Columbia University scholar of contemporary religion. Instead of following the traditional institutional mode — Catholic school, Catholic college, recommendation towards a specific order — now it’s much more common, she said, for young people to discover the path to monastic life on their own.

“These younger friaries seem to be to be drawing people who have done something else,” Bender said. “So they come into it with a different kind of understanding about what monastic life could be.”

Take Andrew Poster, the New Jerseyan. Now 26, he’d been raised Catholic but, along with his family, mostly dropped away from the faith during adolescence. “If someone were to ask me I would say ‘I was raised Catholic but I don’t really go now,’” he said. And as a public health student at Stockton College in his home state, he lived a very worldly life — “definitely partying, drinking, girls, marijuana.”

After graduating in 2008, Poster took a five-week surfing trip to Central America, following the new, born-again Christian girlfriend responsible for first setting him back on a religious path. On the water in Costa Rica one day, he grew angry at a lack of waves and began talking to God, asking for just one good wave to surf. Instead he wiped out and broke his hand.

Unable to surf—the one thing, he said, that gave him peace — Poster dived into the Bible and other religious books he’d brought along, and things began to click. Soon after, in Panama, he was struck by the crushing poverty of a little girl walking down a dirt road lined with shacks.

“It just hit me really hard,” Poster said. “This question kind of formed in my heart: ‘Why would God give me this comfortable, easy life, loving parents, nice roof over my head…and this girl’s born into this life?”

Finally Poster had a realization. “God,” he said, kneeling to the ground. “I want to change my life. And I want to give it to you.”

Though they’re still getting used to the lifestyle — waking up every morning at 5:30, eating cold leftovers so as not to waste food, writing letters to parents instead of emailing — the postulants sound adamant about their commitment to their new life.

“I didn’t come here just to play,” said Kristone Capistrano, the Australian. “There’s a lot of things I could be doing right now.”

But not everyone continuesWhile emphasizing that the order doesn’t actually keep statistics, Father Luke estimated only half the postulants who’ve begun in the past 15 years, the time he’s been postulant director, have eventually become friars. Sometimes, he said, the young men decide they’re not called to life in the community; sometimes they want to continue but Father Luke and the elder brothers determine that they’re not a great fit.

This year, he thought, the newcomers were doing well. But so early in the year, he was also wary about making predictions. “We’re not really hasty because everybody goes through their struggles,” he said. But sometimes “you can just tell somebody’s not happy, that being here is not like a life-giving experience for them.”

Ryan Best talks with a guest at a Thursday soup kitchen. A few years ago, Best was a part time college student making a good living playing poker online. (Photo by Trevor Bach)

Keith Dolon, a postulant from last year’s class, opted not to move on to the novitiate after deciding he was more suited to life as a fireman, the job he’d held for years before joining the order. But Dolon, at 38 older than most of the postulants, nonetheless deeply values his experience at the friary.

He credits the year he spent in the order with helping him understand his own purpose in the eyes of God, with teaching him patience and providing him confidence in interacting with community members. And as a symbol of his attachment to the religious life he left behind, Dolon still wears the long beard he grew in the friary.

“This is going to be good for me,” he said of his imminent return to the same Pa. firehouse he’d left last year. “It’s a good chance to put what I’ve just learned to use.”

During Thursday’s lunch, when they weren’t mingling with neighbors, the postulants trekked back and forth dutifully between the kitchen and the dining room, bringing out plates of soup, offering cookies, re-stocking silverware.

Once the day’s guests had gone, they went promptly back to work cleaning: There would be a small Bible study immediately following lunch, then a trip to the Bronx to visit a homeless shelter.

Even as they worked — hand-washing and drying dishes, sweeping and mopping the floor — Harlem’s newest monastics seemed genuinely happy, accepting of their new lives as religious servants.

“I think it’s freeing,” Capistrano said. “When you’re at that point in your life when you realize what you need to do, who you want to be, what you’re called for, it’s a very liberating feeling.”



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