An Extraordinary Chapter

In one day, with one vote, friars chart a new course


The tension mounted as friars strained to hear a choppy audio feed that might make history. It was kind of ironic, according to Bryant Hausfeld.

"I drove 3,000 miles to hear something from a guy I live 50 miles away from," quipped Bryant, one of many SJB friars standing in front of a stage-wide screen at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati. Here from Cerrillos, N.M., he was awaiting a video transmission from Albuquerque, N.M.

Years of talking, planning and praying all came down to a 4 p.m. announcement from Jack Clark Robinson, Provincial Minister of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province. But after all the prep and anticipation, a technical glitch was messing with the sound.

At 3:30 p.m., when images from Albuquerque flickered to life on the screen at the Carol Dauwe Fine Arts Center, friars left their seats to watch in fascination as far-away brothers scurried to arrange the set where results of a nationwide vote on unification would be read by Jack.

Jack Clark Robinson reports the results.

Having their say

Six hours earlier they had gathered for this Extraordinary Chapter to prepare themselves spiritually and emotionally for what was to come. After months of meetings, discussions and discernment, most had made up their minds. They would vote yes to begin the process of restructuring and revitalization. Or they would vote no to preserve the status quo.

Today they could have their say, making the case for either side. If they wanted, they could just vent.

"Now it has begun," said Provincial Minister Mark Soehner, calling the Chapter to Order. As Executive Secretary, John Barker piloted the program, urging friars to craft their "succinct and rhetorically powerful" comments before standing to speak. He warned, "I am going to ask you to stop speaking after one minute."

For the most part, the 22 friars who shared their opinions took this to heart. A few were at opposite ends of the spectrum, with two saying the projected union felt "forced and desperate," and others predicting "a world of good" and "a new energy" would accompany the creation of a national entity. For some it was either-or: In choosing this future, would they sacrifice their past and their identity?

Loren Connell, who planned to vote yes, saw things differently. "If we go forward with this, we honor our forebears who came to a new country" from the Tyrol and Slovakia, he said. "We honor those friars who left to go out to Arizona [in 1898]. Voting yes is not just for our future, but honors our past."

"I feel as though it's forced," Richard Goodin said of the proposed restructuring.

Fanning the flame

Ultimately they were fortified by prayer, seeking wisdom and guidance in a Mass of the Holy Spirit.

Homilist Mark shared a story. In a village there lived an atheist who was not interested in the church. "It was cold and dead – a social club, with no visible care of the poor." One day a blaze broke out in the church building. "The whole town ran toward it to help extinguish the flames, including the atheist," Mark said. Surprised by his presence, a villager said, "This is the first time we’ve ever seen you running to church." And the atheist replied, "This is the first time I’ve ever seen the church on fire!"

Mark recalled the homily of Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry, who stirred things up at last month’s royal wedding by "asking God to fan the fire of love."

"Has not our age come to be frozen, chilled and dry?" Mark asked. "At times we get this attitude and it causes me some angst: ‘Life is too hard, so I’ll settle for mediocre.’" Then, "The only expectation we have as a friary is that we have no expectations." And from the viewpoint of prospective brothers, "Why would anyone want to give up his life for a lukewarm group of sometimes polite bachelors?

"It’s not that we have hearts of stone; sometimes we can have flabby hearts"; becoming a cold, dead community with no fire, one that doesn’t "reach out to the brother down the hall."

St. Francis knew "the secret of fanning the flame," Mark said, "Prayer and Chapters. Chapters help friars catch our breath." In the coming vote, he said, "May God’s Spirit move among us. But please don’t confuse restructuring with an automatic revitalization."

Friars rise for the Gospel during the Mass of the Holy Spirit.

First you pray

At 3 p.m., as John called the roll of 95 voting members, tellers Roger Lopez, Colin King, Mark Hudak and Clifford Hennings gathered in front to take an oath of secrecy and distribute envelopes bearing the name of each friar.

"Please take out the yellow pamphlets and let us pray together before we vote," John said.

"Give us the ability to act in accordance with our knowledge of your will and to desire always what pleases you," friars intoned before marking the enclosed ballot. Then, with an X or a checkmark, they cast one of the most important votes they would ever make.

"The next thing that’s going to happen is the announcement of the results by Jack Clark Robinson," said John, but that was 45 minutes away. In a classroom near the theater, Frank Jasper was taking portraits of anyone who wanted a new head shot. There was time for fellowship, reflection, and some good-natured kidding about the outcome of the voting, including jokes about potential Russian hacking.

"It’s interesting times we live in," said Frank Geers.

A few minutes before 4 p.m., all eyes turned to the screen as Jack entered the picture and took a seat for the remote broadcast from Albuquerque.

Clifford Hennings collects a ballot from David Kobak.

The votes are in

After a prayer, things got quiet on both ends as he began to read results:

ABVM Province, 48 yes and 6 no or abstentions;

Holy Name, 128 yes and 54 opposed or abstaining;

Sacred Heart, 64 yes and 44 no or abstaining;

St. Barbara Province, 58 yes votes, and 41 opposed or abstaining.

• Surprise was evident among the friars at Roger Bacon as the numbers were read for St. John the Baptist: 86 yes votes, 9 no or abstaining.

• Jack ended with his own province: OLG, 32 yes and 8 no or abstaining.

No one whooped with excitement. A few friars looked stunned; others seemed relieved. The proposal had passed. God willing, a national province would be formed.

Then it was time to move on, with an announcement that the next steps will be decided at an August meeting in St. Louis.

"This is a great day in that we have discerned together where God’s Spirit is calling us," said Mark Soehner, who described his own feelings about the outcome (see From Mark), a mixture of relief and sadness. As things unfold, some small traditions may change, he admitted.

"We are men who work as pilgrims and strangers. I rejoice that in you I still find my home." The closing prayer would be a hymn: Lord, You Give the Great Commission.

"Please feel free to stick around and discuss your decision," Mark invited his brothers.

And many of them did just that.

John Quigley and Murray Bodo

Voices of Chapter

"It’s going to be a great experience. We can only benefit and grow experiencing different cultures."
–Dennis Bosse, OFM

"I for one am very excited about the upcoming possibility of merger and think it will do a world of good."
–David Kobak, OFM

"We’re doing this for the spread of the Gospel and the spread of the Franciscan charism – not just becoming larger in number."
–Fred Link, OFM

"I see new energy because we’re coming together."
–Henry Beck, OFM

"I think it has a tremendous potential for us to pull together."
–Maynard Tetreault, OFM

"I’m undecided right now. I’m troubled by the concern of younger friars."
–John Quigley, OFM

"I’m still very much attached to St. John the Baptist Province."
–Bruce Hausfeld, OFM

"Many men’s orders have done this. Those I’ve talked to have said, ‘It’s the best thing we’ve ever done.’"
–Mark Gehret, OFM

"I’ve been hearing this is being forced. When I hear that we can’t sustain ourselves in the future I hear, ‘reality check’."
–Jerry Beetz, OFM

"Provinces are legal realities that come and go. What’s more important is the way I live."
–Art Espelage, OFM

"Not to expand is to decline."
–Jim Van Vurst, OFM

"I’ve had a lot of contact with people in other provinces. I’m humbled by their significant skills and talents – skills we can benefit from."
–Frank Jasper, OFM