“…there is a river whose streams make the city glad…” -Psalm 46 Recently I enjoyed the privilege of interviewing Capuchin Friar Jerry Schroeder, Pastor of St. Ben’s on 9th and State and Interim Director of the new St. Francis Institute Milwaukee in the Capuchin Center on 4th and Brown. We met at the Center, and Jerry gave me a grand tour, sharing Franciscan and Capuchin history, stories of St. Francis, and the good news about the new Institute. “This idea has been cooking and brewing for a couple of years. These are popping up all over the world – Manila, Southern India, Washington DC, New York, California. They’re dedicated to researching, editing, commenting on, and imagining ways for the Franciscan story to be told and lived,” Jerry explains. “It’s exciting. I really want to do this, it’s right up my alley!” His excitement is understandable when you see and hear what opportunities the Institute offers the community, all in the Franciscan tradition. The story of the Franciscan Movement dates back to the 13th century and grew out of the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Born into a wealthy Italian family in the year 1182, Francis rejected his father’s riches amassed in a growing capitalist society and chose instead to dedicate his life’s work to the poor, the needy, and the outcast – the Franciscan tradition that holds true to this day. “St. Francis saw the Divine Spirit working in every human being; he called the cricket, the fish, the Arab, the birds, all brothers and sisters,” Jerry says. “This Franciscan vision of reality needs to be articulated clearly today so that the [collective] consciousness can grow.” And that is one of the main reasons for the Institute. Jerry looks at our city today and sees “the lack of housing, lack of jobs, lack of health care and basic human services all making life insecure, making life dangerous.” He also sees widespread fear. “We draw lines – personally, in our families, our churches – ‘this is as far as we’re going to go, and you can’t come in.’ When this leads to violence and destruction of the community, then you are really in trouble.” Jerry explains that the Franciscan tradition from the very beginning has been the metaphor of “crossing the line.” He believes some of Milwaukee’s fear is unfounded and in part “because people do not meet and have coffee and eat together. We hope this will be a meeting place for people who don’t ordinarily meet.” A major piece of the Institute will be a Creation Garden located on the wooded property along Reservoir Avenue south of the buildings. As soon as they get funding, the Capuchins will work with a landscape architect to “make a beautiful garden, a reflection kind of place,” Jerry says. They might even include a little hermitage in the corner of the garden. A place to go to be alone, “like Thoreau and Walden Pond, ‘far from the maddening crowd,’” he explains. Other components of the Institute include the Dismas Ministry, presently located on the south side of Milwaukee in St. Francis at the Marian Center. After moving to the Institute, the Dismas Ministry will continue its work of training volunteers for jail ministry. “The big need today is for people to actually be willing to go and work with the incarcerated,” Jerry says. The Works of Mercy program will move from the Cousins Center in St. Francis to the new Institute where people with developmental disabilities will continue their ministry of sorting clothes donated from Kohl’s and Land’s End for distribution to the poor. Cardinal Stritch University’s new St. Clare Center in Fox Point for Lay Ministry Formation (also a Franciscan organization) will send ministers-in-training to the new Institute for their fieldwork. “This site is very good, because we’re close to the people in the city, to the poor,” Jerry says. Renovation of the former Franciscan Seminary has begun; the tiny residents’ rooms are beginning to look like directors’ and administrators’ offices, while the larger common rooms provide space for classes, workshops, seminars, and meetings. An important addition will be their elevator between the first and second floor. A deep respect for the history and beauty of the old buildings is reflected in the preservation of pressed tin ceilings, original woodwork, and wooden door handles and locks. The original chapel and friary, built in 1869 by the Capuchin Fathers to serve Milwaukee’s German immigrants, is one of the oldest Franciscan structures in this country. The Institute offers seminars, retreats and other programs on a limited basis now. More will come as funding for the project materializes. You can contact Jerry at 414-271-0135 for more information and for opportunities to volunteer or contribute financial support.
Watch for the Changes: St. Francis Institute Milwaukee 1927 N. Fourth Street 414-374-8841