Summer with Our Student Friars

Featuring friar Sebastian De Backer, OFM Conv.

Thoughts presented by Simply Professed student friar Sebastian:

The former St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary, in Rensselaer, NY

Because of COVID and the nature of the program, it was a rare fact, but when a friar would visit us in the novitiate, we were tremendously grateful and happy. A friar visiting was a breath of fresh air, an inspiration to persevere. Cheered on by the novice master, some of those friars shared intriguing stories about two famous and memorable places in our Conventual history on the East Coast: Granby and Rensselaer.

At a given moment, we searched the library for picture books and vocational brochures of a time long gone, hoping for a little nostalgia. I particularly remember a hardcover picture book published right after the seminary opening in Rensselaer in 1967. The not-so-spontaneous pictures featuring friars studying in a library void of books or friars involved in scholastic conversations with each other were ok, but it was the chapel that intrigued me. I’m one of the few who enjoy brutalist church design, and the altar and ambo struck me in a particular way. Later, I learned that despite the seminary’s closure in 1988, there is still lots of activity on the grounds of St. Anthony-on-Hudson, not in the least the community of friars living in the old Beverwyck Manor.

So, when our prefect of formation asked me if I had a preference for my summer assignment, I spontaneously mentioned Immaculate Conception Friary in Rensselaer, NY. A diverse community, beautiful grounds, historical significance: it all appealed to me. As a social work student, I was mainly looking for a community that could help me make things real and concrete. It’s one thing to delve into social work theory, it’s quite something else to give hand and feet to social work values.

That said, I’m not here as a social worker but as a brother. I’ve been in Rensselaer for about seven weeks. So far, it has been a wonderful experience for which I am genuinely thankful—helping friars run errands, driving them to doctor’s appointments, or going to the movies and just having fun. Ultimately, it’s about sharing our lives and being attentive to each other’s needs – nourished and challenged by the gospel and St. Francis’ example of minority. That’s beautiful but not as simple as it sounds.

Fr. Adam Keltos, OFM Conv., an artisan and one of nine friars in residence at Immaculate Conception Friary, explaining to friar Sebastian, the meaning of his artwork, which he painted in the 1960’s.

What helps me to grow in this? The longer I am a friar, the more I am convinced of the importance of the stories we share with one another. About a year ago, a friend introduced me to a podcast called “The Place We Find Ourselves.” It features a social worker and a wide array of guests, discussing subjects like story, trauma, and attachment. Together, they try to navigate the guest’s story toward healing, wholeness, and restoration. Before interviewing the guest, Adam, the social worker, says something to the liking: “Any time you share a story from your life, you’re taking a risk. And so, as you are listening to this story, what does it mean to hold with honor the story of another human being? How can you receive the story with a sense of sacredness and gratitude?” Here in Rensselaer, as a brother to my brothers, I aspire to hold with honor the stories the friars share with me and the story we’re writing together.

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