Excerpts below are taken from “Conventual Franciscans in the USA: The First Half-Century,” by Fr. Timothy Kulbicki, OFM Conv.
The Conventual Franciscans of Our Lady of the Angels Province form a part of the Franciscan family founded by St. Francis of Assisi.
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 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.
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 passed, 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.
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, 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.
It was also in 1859, that the mother-house of the American mission was established in Syracuse at Assumption Parish.
The First North American Provinces
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.
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.
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.
Our Lady of the Angels Province is Established
On May 5, 2014, the union of the Conventual Franciscan Friars from Immaculate Conception and St. Anthony of Padua Provinces formed Our Lady of the Angels Province.