The History of the Province of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, U.S.A.
The Diocese of Altoona, in western Pennsylvania, was formed in 1902 with the Most Rev. Eugene A. Garvey as the first Bishop. In the process of organizing his diocese, in order to care for all the members of his flock, the Bishop was anxious to establish an adequate number of parishes. The region had experienced an influx of immigrants of various nationalities newly arrived from their fatherlands. Among these were very many families from Italy. It was the pastoral care and service to this particular group of immigrants which eventually led to the establishment of the American Province of the Immaculate Conception.
Soon after the establishment of the first Commissariate of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance at Loretto in 1908, Bishop Garvey appealed to the Commissary Provincial, Very Rev. Jerome Zazzara to help him to care for these immigrants from Italy. There were at the time, two parishes for Italian Catholics; one at Altoona and the other at Johnstown. At the Monastery in Loretto there were two Italian priests: Fr. Jerome and Fr. Anthony Balestieri, who was serving the Commissariate as Novice Master. Fr. Jerome was very sympathetic to the bishop’s appeal and to the pastoral needs of his compatriots. He went to Altoona in 1908 to arrange for the foundation of a Friary there. Throughout 1908, Fr. Anthony, because of his duties as Novice Master, could only go at intervals to make a similar arrangement for a house of the Order in Johnstown. At the bishop’s request, Fr. Anthony was relieved of his duties in Loretto to take up full-time work and residence in Johnstown where he remained from 1909 until his death in 1942.
Again, in 1918, the Bishop came to the Franciscans seeking a priest to take over the parish of our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Barnesboro. The Very Rev. Fr. Francis Smyth assumed the responsibility for this parish. His having studied in Rome and being fluent in Italian made him the ideal man for this task.
In the meantime, two more friar-priests, Fr. Zachary Girolami and Andrew DeSanto, came from the Italian provinces to join their American confreres in the pastoral work among the Italian immigrants.
The Commissariate (1920 – 1925)
For many years the idea of establishing a separate Commissariate dedicated to parish work was discussed and the circumstances were making it increasingly more feasible. Finally, it was decided to petition the authorities of the General Curia for such an establishment. However, due to the outbreak of war in Europe, the Minister General had returned to his native land and was unable to return to Rome and so the request was tabled until his return … which was not to be until four years later in 1919! A little before all this came about, a golden opportunity had presented itself. About 1918, a tract of land about 3 miles south of Hollidaysburg was up for sale. It seemed an ideal spot for a house of formation for candidates of the Province. The friars took an option on the property and awaited the approval of Rome.
When word came that the Father General had returned to the Motherhouse, the petition for a Commissariate was formally presented to the General Curia. With the approval of the Curia of the Province of the Sacred Heart at Loretto, the Sacred Congregation of Religious on January 22, 1920 granted the necessary authorization. The Commissariate was established the following March 15, 1920 with the execution of the Congregation’s decree by the Minister General, Most. Rev. Pius Dujmovic. It was dedicated to Our Lady under her glorious title of the Immaculate Conception. Fr. Jerome Zazzara was named the first, and as it turned out, the only Commissary Provincial. The headquarters of this new unit of the Order was located at the Friary of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Altoona. The following are the names of those listed as members of the new Commissariate:
Friars Jerome Zazzara, Anthony Balestieri, Zachary Girolami, Francis Smyth, Hugh Smyth, Benignus Gallagher, Christopher Murphy, Patrick Joyce, Bernard Weakland, Justinian Clear and Alban Gormley.
Now the negotiations for the purchase of the Hollidaysburg land could be completed. It was taken over by the friars and dedicated to the great Franciscan preacher, St. Bernardine of Siena. The old homestead on the farm property became known simply as The Priory. The houses of the new Commissariate now numbered four, namely: St. Bernardine’s Monastery in Hollidaysburg, the Parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Altoona, that of St. Anthony of Padua in Johnstown, and the Parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Barnesboro. In 1925, the Parish of St. Anthony in Windber was entrusted to the care of the friars of the Commissariate. From this small seed, planted by a small group of friars with a vision, would come a Province of the Order reaching far and wide over this country and even to missions in foreign lands.
The thoughts of these “founding fathers” now turned to the recruitment of candidates so that the work begun would continue. It was not possible to adequately staff a house of formation at this time so Fr. Jerome Zazzara, with his Curia’s approval, entered into an agreement with the Provincial of Umbria-Piceno, Very Rev. Giovanni Zaffrani, for candidates to be prepared in that Province’s Seraphic College, Novitiate and Clericate. This plan bore fruit so that in a few years more friars were added to the Commissariate’s roster of priests. Among these were:
Frs. Angelo Piacintini, Francis Capannari, Anthony Possumato, Charles Smyth (brother of Frs. Hugh and Francis), Gabriel Jones and Richard Kearney.
Slowly, with God’s blessing, the Commissariate was growing and expanding.
The Early Apostolates
During the early 1920’s, a boundless zeal marked the work of the friars and it bore abundant fruit. In each of the parishes entrusted to their care, the friars spared no effort to serve the spiritual needs of their parishioners, bringing them closer to God and making them at home in the Church in their new land. Many instances have been told of how “the Franciscans,” as they were familiarly called by clergy and laity alike, provided also for their material needs of their flock, even at the sacrifice of their own necessities. As means allowed, the facilities in each of our parishes were improved, expanded or rebuilt as the several parish plants attest. It is noteworthy that, in every case, the last parish building to receive attention was the residence of the friars.
These early friars of the Province gave particular attention to, and provided for, the spiritual instruction of the children. Their efforts were highly praised by the two bishops who shepherded the diocese during the years of the Commissariate, Bishop Garvey and Bishop John J. McCort.
The Franciscan priests did not limit themselves to the confines of their own parishes but readily lent a helping hand to other parishes as well. That calls for help in various ways were frequent is evidence of the great respect which the faithful of the whole area held for the Franciscans. The people handed down many stories of the Christ like solicitude of the friars for the sick. It was their daily concern to visit the area hospitals to bring the Sacraments and the sacramentals of the Church to the sick and the dying. The hospital personnel came to know them well and to look forward to their calls which, they said, greatly benefited the patients.
Another noteworthy feature of the friars’ apostolate was preaching. Gifted by God with the ability to preach His Word, many of these men became quite well known, even beyond the boundaries of the diocese. They were frequently called upon to preach Parish Missions, Novenas and other series of sermons. The first Good Friday service of the “Three Hours” preached within the Diocese of Altoona was by Fr. Justinian Clear in the then Pro-Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Altoona. Other friars who distinguished themselves in the pulpit were: Frs. Benignus Gallagher, Fr. Christopher Murphy and Fr. Angelo Piacentini.
The printed word was no t neglected either. During the late teens and early twenties, our friars began a Catholic weekly known as The New Guide. Fr. Benignus Gallagher served as editor and the paper was printed at offices located on 9th Street in Altoona. It was the first Catholic weekly in the diocese and was published until the adoption of the Catholic Register system as the official diocesan newspaper.
In all our parishes, the novena apostolate so popular with all the faithful was carried out with all earnestness. The weekly Novena of St. Anthony, a feature of all Franciscan churches, was conducted faithfully and in grand style. Some of the friars have described the special solemnity which marked the annual novenas in honor of St. Anne, St. Therese, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Several priests would participate at these services and the street processions with the patronal statue drew immense crowds from all parts of the diocese.
And a special mention must be made of the early friars’ fidelity to the confessional. The confessionals of our churches were never closed. The fathers were known to be available for confession at any hour and never wearied of the calls that came in for one of them to go to the confessional. Even at night, after the church had been closed, it was not an unusual sight to see one of the friars unlock the church so as to administer the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is not surprising that these early friars endeared themselves to the faithful to the point of veneration! Their willingness and readiness, as true shepherds of souls, to give comfort, solace and peace of mind to their people when it was most needed …. by the sickbed and in the confessional … were rewarded with the love and deep respect of the faithful.
In the early 1920’s much thought was given to the juridic status of their little fraternity by the early friars. A Commissariate, by its nature, is a temporary and provisional thing, about the middle of the decade, it was decided to raise it to the status of a Province of the Order. With the concurrence of all the friars, a formal request was sent to the General Curia for the elevation of the Commissariate into a Province. On July 28th, 1925, the Holy Father, Pius XI, granted the Minister General, Fr. Arnaldo Rigo, the faculty to act favorably on the petition. The necessary formalities were completed and the decree of erection of the Province of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was drawn up on August 16, 1925 and read publicly at a meeting in the Friary of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Altoona on August 25, 1925. Representing the Minister General at this ceremony and during the subsequent Provincial Congregation, our first, was the Very Rev. Bernardine Russo. The first Minister Provincial was the Very Rev. Jerome Zazzara who had been serving as the Commissary since 1920.
The new Province promptly applied for legal status through its incorporation by civil law in the State of Pennsylvania at the local county courthouse. The next move was to build a House of Formation on the tract of land at Hollidaysburg which they had purchased several years earlier. The Monastery building was erected and dedicated to St. Bernardine of Siena to honor …. it is said … the patron saint of the Minister General’s delegate, Fr. Bernardine Russo who had proved a wise and friendly advisor to the friars. It was a proud occasion for the friars of the new Province when, in the summer of 1928, Bishop McCort, in the presence of a large crowd of clergy and laity, blessed and laid the cornerstone of the Monastery building. The first class of candidates was accepted on October 17, 1929. This first group was composed of: John Flannelly, Paul Hatch and Louis Hileman. A fifth member of the group, Joseph Soltis, did not persevere.
The faculty of the Monastery school consisted of: Fr. Benignus Gallagher, Angelo Piacentini, Charles Smyth and Albert Petaccia, STD, a secular priest who gave his time and talents to the Province from 1929 until his death in 1949. Another friar who taught at the Monastery at that time was Fr. Anthony Bauza, of the Spanish Province, who taught at St. Francis College and came down from Loretto to give classes in Gregorian Chant.
The first Investiture Ceremony took place in the Monastery chapel on January 6, 1930 when Bros. John Flannelly and Paul Hatch received the holy habit of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis. Fr. Charles Smyth served as the first Master of Novices. One year later, the first Profession of Vows Ceremony was celebrated.
The essential elements were now in place in the Province: dedicated friars, an active and successful apostolate, and a House of Formation to receive new vocations.
The limitations of the Monastery school soon became evident. It lacked sufficient space to accept more than a few candidates and the Province, responsible for several parishes, could only release a few priests for the work of formation. So the number of young men received in those first years was restricted. At the Provincial Congregation of 1932, this was a prime concern for the new Provincial, Very Rev. Francis Smyth. After much discussion, it was decided that a practical solution was to send the clerics to Rome for their theological education and to gain fluency in the Italian language. Also, it meant that, for the moment, the Province did not have to provide a Master of Clerics. The then clerics, Friars John Flannelly, Paul Hatch and Louis Hileman were sent to Rome where they registered at the Pontifical Gregorian University on November 12, 1932. In later years, other clerical friars joined their confreres in Rome or attended St. Francis College and Seminary at Loretto.
In 1939-40, with another European War beginning, a plan was devised for the clerics to attend the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. During the first year, 1940-41, the clerics boarded with the Conventual Friars at St. Bonaventure House of Studies across from the University. The first group consisted of Bros. Louis Secondo, James Cox, and John Bartolomucci. A year later, the Province purchased the Carmelite Fathers Clericate at 1300 Newton St., N.E. as the House of Studies for the clerics. It was dedicated to St. Thomas More and was ready to receive the student-friars in September of 1941. The Minister Provincial who opened the clericate was the Very Rev. Benignus Gallagher. Fr. Alban Gormley was appointed the first local Minister and Master of Clerics. This house very soon became inadequate for the increasing number of clerics. During the provincialate of the Very Rev. Louis Hileman, a second house located a half-block away at 1242 Newton was purchased in the summer of 1947 to take care of the overflow. In the main house were the chapel, refectory, library, laundry, visitors’ parlor/recreation room, the rooms for the cleric master and juniors. The 1242 residence had the rooms for the “simplex” priests and the older clerics. The Minister and Cleric-master at that time was Fr. Francis Smyth.
The present St. Thomas More Friary at 650 Jackson St., N. E., which replaced the other two buildings on Newton St., serves as the residence for student-friars and friars involved in ministry in the Washington area. It was constructed while Very Rev. Jerome Pechillo served as Minister Provincial. The completed structure was solemnly dedicated and the main altar consecrated by the Most Rev. Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington and Chancellor of The Catholic University, on September 8, 1959. Since 1986, the offices and residence of the Minister Provincial are located at St. Thomas More.
In 1945, the old Highland Hall Academy in the historic center of Hollidaysburg had been purchased to serve as the Minor Seminary of the Province. The number of candidates had increased beyond the limited capacity of the Monastery. The separation of the candidate program from the novitiate was recognized as desirable. Discussion had centered on converting the former winery (present Iona Hall) between the Priory and Monastery buildings into classroom space and adding a chapel building. Plans for this had even been drawn up by an architect, but the project did not receive the approval of the Curia. However, when the Hollidaysburg property was listed for sale, the Province Definitors inspected the old Academy and unanimously approved its purchase as the site for the relocated seminary program, which was done on November 8, 1945. The first Mass was celebrated in the Chapel dedicated to St. Therese at midnight of December 31st by the Minister Provincial, Very Rev. Louis Hileman.
The Province now had a complete Formation Program with its Minor Seminary, its Novitiate, and a House of Studies for the education of its own candidates from the time of their admission through Ordination for those called to Sacred Orders. Highland Hall, renamed the Franciscan Preparatory Seminary, had a high school department recognized by the State of Pennsylvania and a junior college department affiliated with The Catholic University of America. The Seminary was later opened to admit extern students from the surrounding area. However, a declining seminary enrollment and new directions in the education of seminarians led to the decision to sell the seminary building to the Blair County administration in February, 1968. A house on the corner of the property, which had been purchased in 1948 to serve as the residence for junior professed clerics (St. Anthony’s clericate) enrolled in the college department, later served for several years as the provincial Residence and Office. This house was retained by the Province and, renamed St. Joseph’s Friary, serves as the residence for semi-retired friars of the Province.
Following the establishment of the Province, two more churches were added to its responsibilities: in the fall of 1925, Our Lady of the Assumption in the Pleasant Valley sector of Altoona, was opened as a mission of Mt. Carmel Church; and Sacred Heart Mission, Alverda, Penna., then part of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, opened in 1929.
The long years of preparation for the priesthood prescribed by the Church must have seemed like an eternity to the founding friars, who waited from the establishment of the Monastery until 1935 for the first ordinations from the original group of students. In that year, Frs. John Flannelly and Paul Hatch were ordained in Rome and, a year later, returned to the Province to their assignments on the faculty of the Monastery school.
The Very Rev. Angelo Piacentini, then Minister Provincial, saw the need for another priest to help in the work of the parishes and again the Province sought the help of the Umbrian Provincial,
Fr. Zaffrani. In 1936, Fr. Luigi Damen arrived in the United States and was assigned to Mt. Carmel Parish in Altoona. He later served at St. Anthony’s in Johnstown zealously and creditably until his return to Italy in 1955.
During the late 1940s and in the 1950s, the Province experienced an encouraging increase in the number of priests ordained. This permitted the Province to expand its apostolic activities. Fr. Paul Hatch was the first priest of the Province to enter military service and served as a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy during World War 11. Other friars served as chaplains in the military or at military bases. Among these were: Frs. Theodore Midile, Mark Reifel, Ignatius DellaValle and Joseph Quinn.
At various times, the Province has answered appeals from the bishops of several dioceses for the assistance of friar-priests. So, we have served for varying lengths of time, ranging from one to. several years, in New York City, Endicott, and Auburn, N.Y.; in Chester, W. Va.; in Harrisburg,PA; in New Ulm, Belle Prairie and Alexandria, Minnesota and in various towns of the Baker City Diocese of Oregon.
This last region was accepted as a Home Missionary Apostolate by the Minister Provincial, Very Rev. Augustine Cestario. The first friars, under the leadership of Fr. Alphonsus M. Domnick, traveled the long distance across the country in train and arrived in April of 1951. On September 12, 1952, Fr. Alphonsus was appointed Pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish, Dufur, which had 4 mission stations attached to it. During the four years of his pastorate in Dufur, he supervised the building of three churches at these missions: St. Mary’s, Wasco was blessed on June 23, 1956; St. Mary’s at Antelope on September 30, 1953; St. Mary’s at Maupin on May 17, 1956.
Due in part to the great distance which separated the State of Oregon from the main activities of the Province in Pennsylvania, the Provincial Congregation in 1956 decided to discontinue the mission in the Diocese of Baker City, much to the regret of the Ordinary, Most Rev. Francis Liepzig, who made a special trip east to plead the cause of his diocese. During the years of their work, the friars had endeared themselves to the bishop, priests and faithful. The excellence of their work and the apostolic zeal which accompanied it were attested to in several communiqués from Bishop Liepzig to the Minister Provincial. The Province ended its work in Oregon in June of 1956.
In 1959, the Province accepted the responsibility for the Parish of St. Patrick at Inver Grove Heights in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. On October 9th of that same year, Fr. Alphonsus was appointed pastor with the responsibility to refound this parish of which nothing remained except its cemetery, its record books and its title. Within seven years, Fr. Alphonsus had supervised the building of a large parish church, a modern rectory, convent and catechetical center of several classrooms which is in daily operation. With the departure of the Sisters, due to the vocational shortage and a realignment of that Community’s apostolates, the convent had been put to different parish uses. In 1986, it was rented by the Province as the locale of its Pre-novitiate or Candidate Program. The candidates were introduced into fraternal life and shared in the activities of the parish and were enrolled in the Inter-Congregational Formation Program. However, the distance from the other houses of the Province and the small number of candidates led to the transfer of the program back to the Washington house.
In 1974, the Province accepted the pastoral care of St. Bridget’s Parish in Minneapolis. Fr. Patrick Quinn, in residence at the parish, served as a Spiritual Director and Instructor at the Archdiocesan Major Seminary. For a period of several years, the friars also served the Archdiocese as pastors of St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s parishes in Delano. In 1989, the Province accepted the parish of St. Gerard Majella in Brooklyn Park and replaced the Redemptorist Fathers there.
In the Diocese of Saint Cloud, the Province once had a sizeable group of friars engaged in works of teaching, nursing, parish work and hospital ministry. In 1959, the friars of the Province began teaching at the Cathedral High School with residence at the former Benedictine convent rededicated to St. Louis, King of France. About 30 miles further north at Little Falls, another group of friars served from 1958 until 1976 as chaplains to the Motherhouse, St. Francis High School, St. Otto’s Home for the Aged, St. Gabriel’s Hospital and School of Nursing. The Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Little Falls showed a great respect and appreciation for their chaplains over all the years of service there and our communities are still linked with strong ties of friendship. The Province also accepted the chaplaincy at Mercy Hospital at Alexandria and various parishes. Many of our friars served in the Diocese of St. Cloud in the stimulating atmosphere during the sessions of the Vatican Council and had the opportunity to attend lectures presented by renowned cardinals and theologians at the Benedictines’ St. John’s University at Collegeville. A good number of the friars later assumed positions of leadership and responsibility in the Province.
In Kentucky, two of our friars, John Bartolomucci and Francis Mastrovito, began working in the Diocese of Owensboro in 1967 and were greatly appreciated by the bishop, clergy, sisters and people. Bishop Henry Soenneker was originally from the Diocese of St. Cloud and had served as chaplain at the Franciscan Motherhouse in Little Falls at an earlier time. His sister, Sister M. Elizabeth had been Mother General of the Little Falls Community and he had a niece at St. Gabriel’s Hospital so the Franciscan TORs were not unknown to him. Fr. John had been working with the poor, mostly black people of Owensboro. He had the dream of bringing some of our friars to establish a house in Owensboro to take on an apostolate among the needy. It was still in the early time of consciousness raised by the Civil Rights Movement and it was the desire of the Diocese to establish a presence and service to help Blacks make use of the new possibilities for a better life. In 1968, the Province eagerly accepted this opportunity to offer a ministry of direct service to the poor. A small group of friars was sent to join Fr. John at a house provided for them by the Diocese on Parish Avenue in Owensboro. Frs. Joseph Quinn, John and Bro. Sean Long renovated and created programs at the “Fr.Robert O’Connor Center” while Fr. Seraphin Conley served as Chaplain to the Owensboro Davies Co. Hospital. The friars were beloved by the people, clergy and religious, many of whom joined them in their works of mercy. After this commitment of the Province ended, Fr. John stayed on to serve in various parishes of the Diocese until his retirement to St. Bernardine’s Monastery in 1986. At his funeral a year later in October, 1987, his close friend, Fr. Anthony Ziegler came as the representative of the Diocese and gave a moving tribute to all that Fr. John had done and meant to the Church in Owensboro. Fr. Francis Mastrovito continues the presence of the Province in the Diocese serving as a pastor.
In 1971, the Province accepted the invitation of Bishop Malone of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio to provide several instructors for the John F. Kennedy High School in Warren. The residence of the friars has moved several times but the friars continued as respected and faithful members of the high school staff. In 1991, it was decided to phase out this apostolate and the friary closed in 1992. At different times, Fr. Seraphin Conley served in the Pastoral Care Department of St. Elizabeth Hospital Medical Center. Bro. William Ellert, M.D. served his medical internship at the Center. Bro. Regis Leonard served on the nursing staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Warren. At the request of Bishop Malone, the Province assumed responsibility for St. Michael’s Parish, Windham in 1974.
The State of West Virginia is considered to be Home Mission Territory with a small Catholic population — 5 % of the total population concentrated in cities and rural towns of the Eastern Panhandle. The Province began a “permanent commitment” to the Church in West Virginia in 1972 when Fr. Gerald Hay became the first resident priest in clay County with a mobile home for his Chapel of the the Risen Lord. In 1974, Fr. Cyprian Mercieca was the first resident priest in Ritchie County at the Mission Christ Our Hope. Our friars took on responsibility for Newman Centers at Fairmont State College in 1974 with Fr. Jude Molnar and in 1975 at Alderson Broadus Baptist College at Phillipi with Fr. Damian Drass. Fr. Damian is also Pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Parish. In October of 1978 this Parish celebrated the dedication of a lovely modern church and parish center. The first priest to minister to the Spanish speaking migrant workers was Fr. Joseph Quinn in 1976. After spending a period of time as a hermit, Fr. Joseph took over the pastorate of Our Lady of Grace Church in Romney and saw the completion of the modern church complex before his death in 1982. In 1978, the Parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Stonewood was assigned to the Franciscans to serve as a Regional Center to meet the needs of our community way of life. This enabled the friars of the region to have a place for meetings, retreat days, etc. In 1983, Fr. Cyprian was named pastor of Annunciation church at Fort Ashby. In the same year, Fr. Theodore Midile was named Administrator of the Diocesan Spiritual Development/Pastoral Center at Priest Field. The mission parish of Epiphany at Morefield was accepted in 1984 as an opportunity to strengthen the fraternal possibilities for the friars in Romney and Ft. Ashby.
Wilmington, Delaware was the scene of an interesting attempt to insert the friars in a friary in the inner city giving service to the poor in an unstructured way. “San Damiano Friary” won many friends for the Order during the brief years of its existence from 1980 – 1983. It was the means of sponsoring an energetic Fraternity of Secular Franciscans. The house was closed in 1983 when the Province accepted the responsibility for St. Paul’s Parish serving the Hispanic Community. The friars turned over this parish to the Holy Name Province of the Friars Minor in 1990.
In 1979, our Province accepted the invitation of the Most Rev. Thomas J. Grady of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida to staff the San Pedro Spiritual Life Center in Winter Park. On September 1, 1979, Fr. Guy Noonan was the first of the friars to arrive. They administer a lovely, well equipped Center located on 500 acres beside Lake Howell. The friars offer retreats, Days of Recollection and Programs on spiritual themes at the Center and in the parishes of the Orlando Diocese. In November of 1992, the year of the Fifth Centennial of the Evangelization of America, the Plenary Council of the Order was held at the Center. The principal themes considered by the participants were New Evangelization and Inculturation.
Fr. Emile Gentile serves as the Executive Secretary of the Diocesan Department of Priest Placement. Fr. Rafael Eagle serves the Diocese in the apostolate to the Hispanic population.
These brief descriptions of some of the works of the Province show that the pastoral zeal of the early friars continues in their successors.
The Non-Clerical Friars of the Province.
Although listed in the Necrology of our Province, Bro. William Osbelt never actually joined the Commissariate. He had founded a school for Native American children in Minnesota. Later, he came to live with our friars at Kladder Station until his death in 1923. Bro. William is buried there at our community cemetery.
With many difficulties facing the founders in the early years of the Commissariate and the young Province, the acceptance of non-clerical candidates was delayed. During the provincialate of Fr. Louis Hileman the time seemed right for the institution of this aspect of our Order’s life. The first non-clerical member of the Province was Bro. Bernard Dougherty who made his first profession of vows on November 24,1946.
Beside the traditional service to the Community by managing the domestic needs of a friary, many brothers have done and are doing excellent work in such areas as teaching, nursing and administration. Bro. Bernard was the first non-clerical friar in modern times to serve as Provincial Definitor (1976-80) and as a Local Minister (St. Joseph’s Friary 1978-80). Bro. Alexis Nagle was for a long period the sole Permanent Deacon in the Order. He was the first friar not a priest to head up the Province Development Office and the Mission Office. He also was named by the Minister General to form part of the General Economic Council of the Order in 1990 and served in that capacity for 12 years. Bro. William Ellert, after receiving his degree in nursing science from The Catholic University of America and serving as Instructor of Pediatrics went on to receive his degree in medicine at the University of Cork, Ireland. Bro. Christian Neetz was the first of our brothers to be certified in Pastoral Care and served as a Pastoral Associate at St. Elizabeth Hospital Medical Center, Youngstown, Ohio.
The first foreign missionary of the Province was Fr. Richard McNamara. In 1953, in answer to the appeal of the Minister General, Fr. John Boccella for the Provinces to release friars to serve with the Franciscan missionary congregation of Albi then in the process of uniting with the Order, Fr. Richard generously offered his services. In the company of Fr. William Frank of the Sacred Heart Province, he arrived in Sao Paulo, Brazil on January 23, 1954. The two missionary friars proceeded directly to the Apostolic Prelature of Guajara-mirim. There Fr. Richard worked several years among the settlers and Indians of this primitive area in the Amazon jungle known as “Green Hell. ” Ill health forced him to return to the United States in 1958.
In 1959, the Holy Father, Pope John XXIII appealed to religious congregations to come to the aid of their confreres in the task of strengthening and preserving the Faith in Latin America, an area targeted for Communist penetration. The Minister Provincial, Very Rev. Jerome A. Pechillo conveyed the Province’s willingness to accept a mission. The Holy See assigned our Province the responsibility for the Departmento of Caaguazu, then part of the Diocese of Villarica, Paraguay.
In 1960, after an impressive Mission Departure Ceremony in the chapel of the Franciscan Preparatory Seminary, Hollidaysburg, the first group of missionary friars left for their central mission station in the small city of Coronel Oviedo. The Papal Nuncio, Mons. Martini met them at the airport and gave them an orientation to Paraguay. He explained that their job was to build up and prepare the way for a Diocese in some twenty years!
A gas station along the main road through the town was purchased and transformed into the Convento de la Immaculada Concepcion. In it was located the parish office for the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, an old church a block further up the unpaved road. Later, the friary served as the residence for the Commissary Provincial and part of the property was the location for the “Casa Vocacional San Damiano” for pre-novitiate students. (Presently, in 1993, it is the house of Novitiate for the Vice-Province of San Antonio de Padua.)
A year later,in 1961, this area entrusted to our care was erected into the Prelature of Coronel Oviedo by Rome and Fr. Jerome was named the first Prelate Nullius, or Local Ordinary. Under his supervision, a lovely new Cathedral was built beside the old church, which was converted into the parish hall. To provide for the needs of his widely dispersed flock, Mons. Pechillo invited other religious congregations of men and women to work with our friars and the Friars Minor and Salesians of Don Bosco already present. The Irish Passionists, diocesan priest volunteers from the Dioceses of Altoona and Brooklyn, the Franciscan Missionary Brothers from Bamberg, Germany, the Canadian Augustinian Sisters of Mercy staffed clinics and the Teresian Sisters from Spain staffed the Cathedral’s parochial school and trained young girls as catechists.
Other parishes and mission stations were opened. Fr. Seamus Corcoran rebuilt the parish house and any number of chapels and mass stations throughout the extensive parish limits. As a favor to Bishop Claudio Silvero, he also took care of the neighboring parish in the town of Cecilio Baez. After refurbishing the church in the town’s center, he built the “mini-basilica” of Nuestra Senora de los Angeles at the developing crossroad area of the new paved highway. Fr. Seamus was a great vocational promoter and saw a number of his parishioners enter the Order.
At the Cruce area of Coronel Oviedo, a new parish of Cristo Redentor was established by Mons. Pechillo and assigned to the Province. Soon after the new church was constructed, it was hit by lightning and completely destroyed. Undaunted, Fr. Raphael Eagle and the parishioners began all over and the new building was even better than the first. Fr. Peter Chavez beautified the church and grounds during his many years as Pastor and added a modern hall for meetings and classes. Fr. Peter has been a strong promoter of the Charismatic Renewal and has organized several national assemblies which have overflowed the capacity of the large city sports complex.
In 1976 the Prelacy was raised to the status of a Diocese and Mons. Pechillo had the joy of ordaining a Paraguayan bishop, Mons. Claudio Silvero, SCC and handing over a Diocese well provided for in all the necessary infrastructure. He had served the Church and people well from 1961 – 1976 and returned to the United States as Auxiliary bishop of Newark, N.J. until his death on Jan. 1, 1991. The following year, our friars ended their administration of the Cathedral parish. An era of building and providing the material structure of the Church was ended. Our Province was honored in the efforts and sacrifice of so many friars.
At this time, the friars of the Commissariate decided to concentrate their efforts on promoting vocations and providing a program of formation. A simple novitiate building was built on our property joining the Cruce parish and Fr. Raphael took on a new role as Novice-Master. In the course of his Visitation, the Minister General, Fr. Roland Faley encouraged our friars and the Italian friars of the Assisi Province working in the next diocese at San Estanislao to combine efforts to provided a stronger program of Formation for the increasing number of Paraguayans coming to both Commissariates. In 1979, the Inter-Provincial Conference of Paraguay was established by Fr. Roland with Fr. Seraphin Conley, the Commissary Provincial of the Immaculate Conception Province as the first President. It was agreed to begin our formation collaboration at the novitiate level in the existing locale at the Cruce.
Since “San Gregorio,” the Minor Seminary of the Assisi Province at Santani was filled to capacity and could not provide places for the young men coming to us, it was decided to set up our own Pre-Novitiate Program in Coronel Oviedo. The former house at the end of our friary property which had served as the residence for Mons. Pechillo was converted into the “Casa Vocacional San Damian” providing a provisional locale for 10 candidates enrolled at the old Colegio Parroquial and later its successor ” Colegio Mons. Geronimo Pechillo, T. 0. R..” Fr. Seraphin served as the first Director of the Casa Vocacional for several years until his return to the United States. An impressive number of our Paraguayan friars began their Franciscan journey in this humble place. The first member of the “Class of Founders, ” Fray Dario Coronel was ordained on January 21,1989 and went on for studies in Franciscan Spirituality at the Antonianum in Rome.
An Inter-Provincial program for the clerics of the two Commissariates was also set up at the existing House of the Italian friars in Barrio Herrera, Asuncion. This residence soon was inadequate to the number of friars and there was difficulty in purchasing the adjoining property for expansion. The two Provinces approved the building of a new clericate next to the Theological Institute at the new campus of the Universidad Catolica in Lambare (Asuncion). At present, the friary at Herrera serves as the residence for the junior professed friars and older postulants doing studies with the Jesuits at Colegio Xavier and the House of Studies at Lambare is for the clerics studying Philosophy and Theology.
The Inter-Provincial Conference had its share of tensions in working out the problems that arose as Italians, Americans and Paraguayans tried to harmonize their understandings, temperaments and experiences for the Order’s future in Paraguay. A great deal of the problem seemed rooted in an organizational structure which was often inadequate to respond quickly or decisively whenever problems arose. As a means of avoiding such problems, the Minister General in a letter of February, 1991 placed the combined formation program directly under his authority.
In 1982, the friars of our Commissariate met to consider directions for the future in Paraguay in preparation for the Province’s Chapter of Mats. We had received an invitation from Mons. Van Aaken,SVD to consider accepting a parish in the Prelature of Alto Parana. Frs. Raphael and Seraphin had visited some of the parishes in the area of the See City, Pdte. Stroessner (now Ciudad del Este) in the company of the Vicar General, Mons. William Hirth. It seemed a wonderful opportunity and satisfied the criteria of assuring community life, provision for adequate financial support, etc. Unfortunately, our lack of personnel made it impossible to prudently accept any new commitments. However, during the following years, Fr. Raphael was very active in preaching and retreat work in the Prelacy and kept the idea alive. The willingness of Fr. Cyprian Mercieca to return to Paraguay provided the experienced friar needed for the new venture. The Province agreed to accept responsibility for the Parish of N. Sra. de la Asuncion in Hernandarias near the Itaipu Dam complex. On October 2, 1988, in the presence of a large number of friars, religious and laity, Fr. Cyprian was installed as pastor. In March of 1991, he and his associate, Fr. Federico Gayoso moved into the new friary alongside the main church.
A special meeting was held at the Motherhouse of Sts. Cosmas and Damian fron November 11 – 13th, 1991. Under the presidency of the Minister General, the Ministers Provincial of the Assisi Province, V. Rev. Raffaele Pazzelli, and of the Immaculate Conception Province, V. Rev. Giles Schinelli, the elected delegates of the Paraguayan friars, Fr. Pedro Villalba, Fr. Frederico Gayoso, and the General Definitors, the Very Reverend Frs. Lino Temperino and Seraphin Conley, plans were drawn up for the establishment of the Vice-Province of Paraguay under the patronage of St. Anthony of Padua. The proposed date of this establishment was September 17, 1992. So, the final chapter in the history of our service to the Church in Paraguay has been written. A number of friars have offered their time and talents over the years and God has blessed their efforts. We pray that He continues to bless the new Vice-Province of St. Anthony of Padua.
Another “Mission Story” reminds us that our Province has had a part in the transition of a Zulu diocesan community the Franciscan Familiars of St. Joseph into the Vice-Province of St. Joseph, Republic of South Africa. In 1979, Fr. Cyprian Mercieca had accepted the call of the Minister General, Fr. Roland Faley to come to the aid of these brothers for a period of time. He spent several years there helping to set up a solid program of formation. Fr. Cyprian is remembered with affection and respect by the Zulu friars and the faithful.
- Fr. Louis Secondo was the first friar of the Province to be elected to the office of Minister General of the Order. As Minister General he assisted at the Vatican Council II.
- Fr. Bonaventure N. Midili was the second friar of the Province to be elected to the office of Minister General of the Order. (Term of Office 1996 – 2001)
- Fr. Jerome A. Pechillo was the first friar of the Province to be ordained to the episcopate on January 25, 1966 at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Altoona. As Ordinary of the Prelacy of Coronel Oviedo, Paraguay, he assisted at the Vatican Council II. Later he served the Archdiocese of Newark as Auxiliary Bishop until his death on January 1, 1991.
- Bro. Didacus R. Wilson was the first friar of the Province to have a book of his works published.
- Bro. Alexis Nagle was the first friar of the Order to be ordained to the Permanent Diaconate.
- Based on an unpublished manuscript of the Very Rev. Louis G. Hileman, TORRevised by Fr. Seraphin Conley, TOR, 1993