Our History

Our Lady of the Angels Province is Established

On May 5, 2014, the union of the Conventual Franciscan Friars from Immaculate Conception Province (founded – 1872) and St. Anthony of Padua Province (founded – 1906) formed Our Lady of the Angels Province; the first North American Province established since the 1981 inception of the West Coast Province of St. Joseph Cupertino. During their first Provincial Chapter, May 5-9, 2014, most of the 220 friars of this new union gathered in Buffalo, NY. Having on March 6, 2014 already been elected via mailed ballot the, Very Rev. James McCurry, OFM Conv. was installed as the first Minister Provincial, on May 7th.  For the past 4 years, Friar James held this position for St. Anthony of Padua Province, for one term. During the Chapter, the friars also elected the rest of the new provincial administration: Friar Brad Milunski, OFM Conv. (Vicar Provincial) – Friar Richard-Jacob Forcier, OFM Conv. (Province Secretary) – Friar Anthony Kall, OFM Conv. (Definitor) – Friar Jude Surowiec, OFM Conv. (Definitor) – Friar James Moore, OFM Conv. (Definitor) – Friar Donald Grzymski, OFM Conv. (Definitor) – Friar Michael Heine, OFM Conv. (Definitor) – Friar Mitchell Sawicki, OFM Conv. (Province Treasurer). Former minister provincial of the Immaculate Conception Province, Friar Justin Biase, OFM Conv., and former Dean of St. Mary’s Seminary School of Theology, in Baltimore, Friar Timothy Kulbicki, OFM Conv., were elected as Delegates to the General Chapter of the Order. Friar Tim currently serves as the Guardian of the Convento S. Anthonio alle Terme, in Rome. In addition to holding elections, the friars spent the days of the Chapter in fraternal brotherhood, prayerfully crafting the parameters of the new Province, in preparation for the 2nd meeting of the Chapter, from August 4-8, 2014. At that time, they again assemble to finalize all of the leadership for the friaries and ministries where the friars serve in Ontario Canada, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Italy, Costa Rica, Brazil, Great Britain and Ireland.

Conventual Franciscans in the United States: The First Half-Century
by Fr. Timothy Kulbicki, OFM Conv.
At the request of the Minister Provincial of the St. Anthony of Padua Province, in 2002,
Fr. Tim’s monograph commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the arrival of Conventual Franciscans in North America is an in-depth history of the work of the Conventual Franciscans in the United States that began formally with the 1852 arrival of five Conventual Franciscan Friars in Texas, but began informally many years prior, with varied accounts of our order’s influence and work in North America. It is a reworking of material from Fr. Tim’s 1997 doctoral dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Ecclesiastical History of the Pontifical Gregorian University. The full dissertation was privately published in Rome, in 1998. What you are about to read was first published in 2002, through the efforts of the Companions of St. Anthony.

Our Roots

The Conventual Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor Conventual – OFM Conv.) of Our Lady of the Angels Province form a part of the Franciscan family founded by St. Francis of Assisi, born in 1181 or 1182 (the exact year is uncertain), dying there October 3, 1226. With the Gospels as his guide and through the silent teaching of personal example, St. Francis lived his life based on the words of Jesus. St. Francis saw his Friars in terms of a fraternity of brothers. Hence, the title “Friar” (or brother) best suits the Franciscans. Seeing the Jesus of the Gospels as one who was poor and uncomplicated, St. Francis wanted his Friars to live in that same spirit. Conventual Franciscans, sometimes also known as “Black Franciscans,” “Greyfriars” (in England), “Cordeliers” (in France and Switzerland), and “Minoriten” (in Germany), are one of the three main fraternities of the First Order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. The other fraternities of the First Order are known as the “Observants” or “Brown Franciscans” (OFM) and the Capuchins (OFM Cap).

The roots of our Conventual tradition reach back to Francis himself at the time of the founding of the Order. Particularly toward the end of his life, in the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (or OFM), i.e. the Order of Lesser Brothers, there was a growing trend for the brothers to live in larger communities (“convents”) and to be engaged in pastoral work, particularly in the cities. This soon developed into a pronounced emphasis on the study of theology as well. The radical poverty and avoidance of privileges which had been required by Francis were moderated for different reasons and the use of material goods was permitted, but without the right to ownership. This development led to violent controversies in the Order (above all with “Spirituals,” who — true to their name — sought to live Francis’ legacy even more radically, and later with the “Observants”). These different viewpoints become more pronounced over time and alongside the Conventual tradition there emerged a number of reform communities.

These currents continued in one Order until the early part of the 16th century when Pope Leo X, in 1517, formally separated the Conventual and Observant friars of the First Order. The Capuchin Friars became a branch of the First Order in 1528. The Conventuals continue to carry on the earlier Franciscan Conventual tradition, identifying themselves particularly with the interpretation of Francis promoted by the great Franciscan theologian St. Bonaventure. Special accents of this tradition are community life and the apostolate in the cities. The “convent” (friary) is the fundamental organizational unit, which holds crucial organizational and spiritual importance, and is merged into a regional federation called a Province.

The nearly 5,000 Conventuals world-wide are active in an abundance of different apostolates and missions. Of particular importance are those places steeped in the tradition of the Order such as Assisi, where the Friars of the “Sacro Convento” care for the tomb of St. Francis, in Padua, where the Friars tend the tomb and Basilica of St. Anthony, or the churches of other great cities, such as San Francesco in Bologna, Santa Croce in Florence or the Frari in Venice.

Depending on the part of the world where they live, Conventual Friars wear a black or gray habit with a white cord and a small cowl attached to the capuche which covers the shoulders.

The headquarters of the Order today is at the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles in Rome. The Most Reverend Joachim Giermek, OFM Conv. the 118th Minister General of the Order, who served from 2001 to 2007, is a member of the Our Lady of the Angels Province. The 119th Minister General of the Order is The Most Reverend Marco Tasca, OFM Conv.

Foundations in Europe

The Conventual Franciscan Friars are part of the world-wide Franciscan family, founded by St. Francis of Assisi, in 13th century Italy.

In 1209, St. Francis of Assisi received formal approval from Pope Innocent III for his new way of life. He entitled his community the “Friars Minor,” a title literally meaning Lesser Brothers. St. Francis wanted his followers to imitate the humility of Christ and to minister to the least in society, to those of no account by the world’s standards. But soon, Francis’ pooling of religious men of such varied backgrounds, with so many talents and initiatives, led the community toward the broader response of transforming every level of society. The friars became preachers and educators, royal administrators of charity and advocates of social justice. They spread the faith far and wide as missionaries, and spilled their blood as martyrs. The friars’ expanding influence ultimately obligated them to sacramentalize even the world of culture. As musicians they began to dispel the dullness of life, as architects they reached beyond the ordinary shapes and forms, and as scientists they explored the mysteries of the universe.

After St. Francis’ death, his movement was possessed of such vitality, with so many opinions of how to live his form of Gospel life, that over time it could not be contained in one community. In 1517, the Order decided to divide into autonomous branches, each professing a valid perspective of their observance of his Rule. The “Conventual” followers of St. Francis chose to minister in the heart of the cities rather than in more remote hermitages. They chose to band together in concentrated communities, in large houses or friaries (conventus, from the Latin). From here they felt they could offer a more concentrated flow of ministry and live a life of regular observance of their Rule.

The New World

Although the friars had been missionaries to the East since the thirteenth century, by 1492 they felt it was time to explore any new worlds to the West. Christopher Columbus, a Secular Franciscan, sought the advocacy of the Conventual friars of the Rabida Friary in Seville, Spain. It was Friar Juan Perez, an astronomer, who pleaded Columbus’ case before King Ferdinand, to whom he was financial advisor, and to Queen Isabella, to whom he was confessor. Needless to say, the monarchs were won over. Friar Juan Perez was able to sail with Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He is credited with celebrating the first Mass in the New World. As time past, it would be another branch of the Franciscan Order that would evangelize the Spanish colonies of the Southwestern parts of the United States. The Conventuals focused attention on the former British colonies of the East Coast.

The United States

The Napoleonic suppression of religious houses in 1803, devastated the life and ministry of the friars in Germany. It was legislated that when the last friar affiliated to a friary died, then that friary would become the property of the State. In 1839 only two friaries (Wurzburg and Schonau) were still possessed by the Order when the King of Bavaria overturned Napoleon’s degree and gave permission for the Conventuals there to receive novices.

Thus, the small and weakened community of German friars saw the missionary adventure to America as a great hope of continued rebirth. It would be a sacrifice, but the invitation of Bishop Jean Odin of Galveston, Texas initiated the missionary adventure of pastoral care for German and Polish immigrants. The first five friar missionaries were Friar Bonaventure Keller, first superior of the mission; Friar Leopold Moczygemba, Friar Anthony Mueller, Friar Dominic Messens, and Friar Giles Augustin. These daring men of German, Polish and Belgian ancestry, were given four parishes in Castroville, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels, and Ohanis. Twelve missions were attached to these parishes that extended westward to California and south to Mexico.

Between the 1780s – 1850s, several individual Conventual friars ministered to German immigrants in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, and Cincinnati. But it was not until they arrived in Texas on September 14, 1852, when the Conventuals were able to establish de facto a permanent and abiding presence of the Order in North America. They ministered first in Texas and later in the northeastern United States.

Two years after their arrival, in 1854, Bonaventure Keller was invited East to minister in Brooklyn, New York. There he was responsible for twenty-two mission stations, including the premier German parish of Holy Trinity, currently on Montrose Avenue. In that same year, Leopold Moczygemba was appointed as second superior of the mission. In 1858, the friars received permission to place the mission under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception (a Franciscan sponsored dogma that had been declared four years earlier). That same year, John McCloskey, the first bishop of Albany, invited Moczygemba to send German friars to Syracuse and Utica to care for German Catholics. Since the number of friars in the country could not care for both the Texas missions and the East Coast missions, it was decided to transfer all activity to the East Coast. By 1859, the mission in Texas was failing. The territory was stations were entrusted to the friars in upstate New York, and finally in 1867, Our Lady of Angels parish was offered in the capital of Albany. terribly under-populated. The constant travel and basic exhaustion of the friars had led them to discern that a settlement in the East, where the Church was more settled, would be the wisest way to lay a solid foundation for the Order. In the East there would be more available resources and more vocational opportunities.

It was also in 1859, that the mother-house of the American mission was established in Syracuse at Assumption Parish. A novitiate was also established there, and Assumption soon became well known for its beautiful liturgies and music. After this time, more and more mission stations were entrusted to the friars in upstate New York, and finally in 1867, Our Lady of Angels parish was offered in the capital of Albany.

The First North American Province

In February of 1872, the General Administration in Rome felt that the American mission was mature enough to become an autonomous Province. Bonaventure Keller was elected the first provincial of the “Immaculate Conception” Province.

In his first circular letter as provincial, Keller wrote, “Although the friars are involved in many activities, the first and greatest activity is personal sanctification by means of religious observance.” Basically, the friars were very good pastoral laborers, but they had become accustomed to an independent lifestyle. Notwithstanding the immediacy of ministering to an overwhelming tide of immigrants, Keller passionately believed that the mission would be less fruitful if the friars neglected the regular observance of their common life.

Even as he worked to stabilize the community, Keller’s health quickly declined and he died in office in 1877. Joseph Lessen was elected as the second Provincial. Lessen also tried to convince the friars that their constant pastoral activity would limit their common religious strength. He commented that “frequently religious obligations are viewed by the friars as impediments to ministry, as things that detract from work…” Thus, Lessen also challenged his confreres toward religious observance. And it was actually Lessen’s organizational skills that placed the young province on a firm administrative foundation.

In the 1880s there was a tremendous number of Polish immigrants coming to the shores of America. Mostly of them being citizens of the then German-Austrian controlled region of Poland, these people naturally gravitated toward the German speaking parishes. Eventually this influx necessitated more Polish speaking friars. It was Friar Hyacinth Fudzinski, who was at the time ministering as a confessor at St. Peter’s in Rome, who was delegated to begin recruiting Poles for the American mission.

Fudzinski soon returned to America himself and in 1895 he was elected the fourth Minister Provincial. Fudzinski, a man of Polish-German origin, was diplomatically able to quell the growing tension between the Polish and German friars. Fudzinski was praised for his pastoral zeal, his piety and prudence. Through his tact and administrative efforts, Fudzinski also elevated the respect of ecclesiastical and civil leaders toward the friars. He and his successors accepted many debt-ridden parishes and through years of personal sacrifice and financial acumen they almost miraculously stabilized every apostolate.

New Provinces

As early as 1852, the friars had welcomed Polish immigrants, the first settlement being Panna Maria, Texas (near San Antonio). In 1906 it was decided to establish a second American Province to specifically minister to Polish immigrants. The Province of St. Anthony of Padua was founded in 1906, in order to more effectively provide pastoral care for the large number of Polish immigrants who had begun to arrive to the United States during the previous decades. This new province, headquartered at Baltimore, would also help to stave off the terrible rift between the Church and those Poles who were leaving to join the new “Polish National Catholic Church.” Although the Conventual friars were not able to settle the division completely, they were able to catechize well enough to welcome many back into the fold.

For the next four decades, the primary ministry of the Province was the pastoral care and education of Polish communities in the Buffalo-Boston-Baltimore triangle. In the late 1940’s, ministry expanded in the area of evangelization, overseas in the Amami Oshima islands of Japan, and domestically in Alabama among the African-American community. The 1950’s and ’60’s saw great expansion of the Province’s commitment to secondary high school education.

In succeeding years, three other jurisdictions were founded: in 1926 Our Lady of Consolation Province in the Midwest was created with it’s motherhouse at Mount St. Francis, Indiana; St. Bonaventure Province was created in 1939 with its motherhouse at Chicago. And in 1981, a West Coast Province was formed named after St. Joseph of Cupertino.

An Expansion of Conventual Heritage

In the intervening years of continued immigration, the Depression and World Wars, the friars ministered at many secondary schools as teachers and administrators; they served as military, university, prison, and hospital chaplains; they established printing presses and founded several publications. The friars have been pastoral and substance abuse counselors, itinerant preachers, directors of retreat centers, art’s colonies, and the sponsors of a radio station. They have ministered in AIDS hospices and homeless shelters. They have constructed housing for the handicapped, founded a network of international shelters for youth and runaways, have co-sponsored a Franciscan NGO Office (non-governmental organization) at the United Nations, and have even initiated a wine making venture, as well as a bakery to help fund an inner city food pantry.

The changes in American society in the 1960s and ’70s saw changes in ministry focus for the friars. As the assimilation of Polish immigrants had been virtually accomplished, there was less need for Polish ethnic ministry; the once expanding field of Catholic high school ministry also began to contract. Accordingly, the Province’s ministry focus changed, with an evangelization effort in Ghana, West Africa, and increased attention to the growing needs of the southeastern United States. While continuing to serve pastoral and parochial needs in ministry, commitments to specialized domestic evangelization and service were initiated with the establishment of campus ministries, a shelter for run-away youth, a lay ministry formation program, and the founding of The Companions of St. Anthony, providing spiritual support while fostering a continuing devotion to St. Anthony by means of providing spiritual resources, prayers books, novenas, chaplets and other forms of personal devotion to thousands of American Catholics.

Currently the Conventual Franciscan Friars of Our Lady of the Angels Province minister in twenty-four American (arch) dioceses, as well as Costa Rica, Brazil, Great Britain, Ireland, Japan, the Order’s central Administration in Rome, and at the Order’s Sacred Convent; the friary and Basilica in Assisi where St. Francis is buried. We continue in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi by living a simple lifestyle in community, and by sharing our Gospel life of joy and peace in our various ministries.

Many Sisters’ communities have been co-founded or aggregated to the American Conventual Provinces. To name a few: Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, LaCrosse (aggre. 1870); Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, Milwaukee (aggre. 1900); Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph, Hamburg, NY (co-founded 1909; Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, Syracuse (aggre. 1902); Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Cornwells Heights (aggre. 1912); Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods (aggre. 1913).

The American Provinces of Conventuals have continued to water their roots of evangelization by either founding or re-founding a number of missions, namely: England (1907), Brazil (1946), Costa Rica (1946), Zambia (1959), Central America (1970), Japan (1970), Canada (1976), Ghana (1976), Mexico (1977), and Denmark (1993). The American friars have also generously assisted the international Order with ministry as confessors in St. Peter’s in Rome, and pilgrim leaders in Assisi.

In keeping with their long heritage of cultural promotion, the friars minister at various significant sanctuaries across the country: Our Lady of Mount Carmel, located in El Paso, is the oldest Spanish mission in Texas; The National Shrine of St. Francis in San Francisco; St. Stanislaus Basilica in Chicopee, Massachusetts; St. Josaphat Basilica in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekawitha (Native American), Fonda, New York; the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe (Marytown), Libertyville, Illinois; the National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio; and the Shrine of St. Anthony, in Ellicott City, MD.

Significant American Personalities

Besides observing the feasts of the Franciscan saints in the universal calendar, the Conventuals also retain a special memory of several other American friars. Friar Aloys Fish +1939, historian and preacher, was also a longtime advocate for prison reform. Friar Dominic Szymanski +1951, was the co-founder of a printing apostolate in the spirit of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Friar Justin Figas +1959, was the founder of the radio program, “The Father Justin Rosary Hour.” He was also an adviser to President Roosevelt regarding the German occupation of Poland during World War II. Friar Casimir Cyphir + 1976, was a missionary in Honduras who was brutally martyred. Friar Frederick Gorka +1992, a man who escaped Nazi aggression, spent his entire life dedicated to serving displaced immigrants. He even founded an orphanage in Africa. Friar Jeremy Chodacki, one of the senior most friars in the country, was a professor and musicians, who while a student in Cracow was commissioned to compose the arrangement for the Israeli National Anthem. Friar Lucjan Krolikowski, accompanied orphan children out of Poland to Africa to freedom in the United States, during WWII. He is also a celebrated author of several books on the subject, including Stolen Childhood. Friar Ignatius Maternowski +June 6, 1944 was killed while ministering to the injured servicemen after parachuting into Normandy. He is the only Military Chaplain to have died on D-Day and holds a place of honor in Picauville, Normandy, France.

Minister Generals

The American Provinces have also contributed to the international administration of the Order with four men who have served as Minister Generals. These men served with distinction at times of international crisis. Friar Dominic Reuter (1904-1910), was the first American to be elected General and the 107th successor of St. Francis. He was actually born in Germany, but immigrated to the States when he was three. Friar Dominic held a doctorate in both philosophy and theology. During the First World War he was appointed to head the Vatican Office for war prisoners. Friar Bede Hess (1936-1953) served the Order during the precarious year of the Second World War. Friar Bede was an intermediary between the Allied and Axis powers. He promoted culture, social works, and new missions in Latin America. Friar Basil Heiser (1960-1972) served during one of the most transforming events for the Church of the modern era. The renewal of the Second Vatican Council confirmed his own beliefs that only reclaiming confiscated buildings was not enough to renew a lifestyle. During his many travels Friar Basil promoted a reawakening of social ministry and cultural activities that were all to be balanced by a contemplative attitude. After his term, Pope Paul VI named him to the position of Under-secretary to the Congregation for Religious. And even the third millennium was ushered in with the election of an American, Friar Joachim Giermek. Friar Joachim, the former and 118th successor to St. Francis, is a man of culture, imbued with both a fraternal and professorial sense of his Franciscan heritage.

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Sources Album Generale. Ordinis Fratrum Minorum Conventualium. Curia Generalizia. Rome, 2000.

Geary, Daniel OFM Conv. Fr. Hyacinth Fudzinski OFM Conv., Unpublished Paper, Christ the King Seminary, Buffalo, New York, 1994.
Kulbicki, Timothy OFM Conv., Early Development of the Conventual Franciscan Identity in the United States of America, 1852 – 1906. Doctoral Dissertation, Gregorian University, Rome. 1997.
Smith, Jeremiah OFM Conv., History of the Conventual Franciscans in the United States, 1852 – 1906. Order Minor Conventuals, Inc. Union City, New Jersey, 1988.
Wood, Joseph OFM Conv., The Conventual Franciscans, Celebrating 150 years of Gospel Life in North America 1852 – 2002 www.conventualfranciscanfriars.org/OurHistory.html
Grzymski, Donald OFM Conv., Our Roots www.stanthonyprovince.org/roots.htm
Koziol, John OFM Conv., Our Ministries www.stanthonyprovince.org/ministries.htm
Breski, Martin OFM Conv., Photo Contributions throughout this site

For more information, you may want to consult the following sources:

Bodo, Murray, “Francis. The Journey and the Dream”, St. Anthony Messenger Press, Cincinnati, 1988.
Carney, Margaret OSF, The First Franciscan Woman: Clare of Assisi and Her Form of Life, Franciscan Press, Quincy University, 1995.
Chesterton, G.K., “Saint Francis of Assisi”, New York, 1924.
Englebert, Omer, “Saint Francis of Assisi”, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1965.
“Francis and Clare. The Complete Works.” Translation and Introduction by Regis J. Armstrong OFM Cap. and Ignatius Brady OFM, (Paulist Press), New York, 1982.
Habig, Marion A. OFM, Secular Franciscan Companion, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1987.
Habig, Marion A. OFM, The Franciscan Book of Saints, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1979.
Moorman, John, A History of the Franciscan Order from its Origins to the year 1517, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1988.
Moorman, John, “Saint Francis of Assisi”, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1986.
St. Francis of Assisi. Writings and Early Biographies. English Omnibus of Sources for the Life of St. Francis, edited by Marion A. Habig, Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, 1983.