The Franciscan Brothers Minor, an evangelical apostolate based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, follow the philosophy of St Francis of Assisi, who, after experiencing a religious conversion, renounced his patrimony and stripped himself of all worldly possessions to follow the way of Christ. Each of the Franciscan Brothers has chosen to shed his own form of earth-bound wealth in the present-day consumer-driven culture to bring the Word of God to his neighbourhood.
The apostolate was founded in Pennsylvania by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, then bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and now bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, at the request of Franciscan Father David Engo in November 2009. Since its move to Fort Wayne in March, the nascent community has found a home in the former rectory of St Andrew Parish, now known as Our Lady of the Angels Friary. The parish had been closed since 2003.
The apostolate, consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has grown to include a dozen men. They live an inspiring yet remarkably austere lifestyle immersed in poverty, obedience, chastity and prayer.
The radical penitential lifestyle chosen by these men may not appeal to everyone. The barefoot brothers wear coarse woollen tunics all year-round, use unfinished wood furniture constructed by a postulant, have no televisions or computers and only take nourishment from community food donations. The friary is sparsely decorated with crucifixes, images of the Blessed Mother and saintly statues.
Because the brothers don't hold traditional jobs or raise funds, they earn no money as they serve the community, in accordance with their vow of poverty. They rely, said Father Engo, on God's providence and the generosity of the community. It is not unusual for a neighbour to appear at the friary door with three dozen eggs for the brothers.
"We are a witness of the life of poverty and show the poor they can trust in God," he said.
Amid the spartan life these men have chosen, the driving force is prayer. In imitation of St Francis, the strict adherence to prayer includes praying the Divine Office seven times each day, two daily Eucharistic holy hours and communal Rosary after night prayers. Prayer, Father Engo said, is where the Franciscan Brothers' ministry begins.
As their patron before them, who was called by God to "rebuild my house," the brothers have begun their spirited evangelical efforts to rebuild the Catholic community in the neighbourhood and around the diocese. Each brother shares his deep devotion to God through participation in Bible study, door-to-door evangelisation walks, parish missions, confirmation and youth retreats, catechesis with the neighbourhood children, Saturday devotions and Mass, and serving area parishes in any way they can.
"We want to bring back the Catholic identity to the neighbourhood," says Father Engo.
Not only are the brothers rebuilding the heart of the Church, but they have harkened to God's call by literally restoring a place of worship as well.
With the assistance of a diocesan priest who offered his carpentry skills in exchange for communal prayers for a new school principal, the brothers laboured in the summer heat to transform St Andrew's dilapidated church building into a sacred space that has become a spiritual haven for many neighbourhood Catholics.
Though the church is open for Mass and prayer events, Father Engo is clear it's not a parish, but an oratory. "We wanted to open it as a place of prayer. Then we'll direct the people to the local parishes," he said.
Each of the brothers, ranging in age from 19 to 40-ish, plays a specific role in the community. Brother Chase Michael is the newest addition, having arrived only three months ago from Florida. A recent convert to the Faith, Brother Chase Michael has found a sense of belonging as a postulant.
"I feel God is calling me to live this austere life. You sacrifice much, but God gives you more," he said. "I find joy and life in sacrifice."
He is passionate about the evangelical essence of this apostolate with its door-to-door efforts. "I have a great need to bear witness to Jesus and spread the truth of the faith."
Brother John Paul Mary Mother of the Divine Redeemer is a novice in his second year of discernment with the Brothers Minor. Brother John Paul can testify to miracles in life as he continues to follow his desire to serve God after emerging from a coma at the age of six. He holds catechism classes for the neighbourhood children amid the backyard football games.
After profession of temporary vows, he hopes to enter seminary next year to eventually become an ordained priest. But not all novices choose to study for the priesthood. Many take the permanent vows of the Franciscan friar.
Of his commitment to the Franciscan community, Brother John Paul admits it's not always easy. "You're always dying to self," he said. "You can't do it on your own strength. You have to rely on God to pull you through."
Others in the community include Brother Andy, who coordinates kitchen activities, Brother Solanus, who heads the nursing home ministry, and former punk rocker Brother Felix, who serves as tailor.
For these humble men, less is more as they live up to their name - the Franciscan Brothers Minor - which depicts their lesser stature.
"We don't run hospitals, parishes, soup kitchens - but we serve at these places," Father Engo said. "It's dealing with people one-on-one - we are the servant of servants."
This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor , an American Catholic weekly, and is reprinted with permission. Kay Cozad is a journalist from Indiana. For more information on the Franciscan Brothers Minor, visit www.franciscanbrothersminor.com