Inner-City Friars

By Jeff Diamant
Religion News Service
Saturday, September 1, 2007

NEWARK -- The thin stream of blood extended the length of the sidewalk running by the Catholic monastery's front door, trickled around the corner and ended midway down the block. The friars who live inside assumed a gunshot victim had collapsed. They gathered that night last summer and prayed as nearby residents looked on.

Two months later, the friars showed up in religious garb at a funeral for another young area gunshot victim, and they again drew stares.

Last autumn, a man at the door seeking a sandwich told a friar that area residents thought they were "good guys," recalled the Rev. Richard Roemer, 37, who has lived at the monastery since 2005.

The friars and their order have attracted attention outside the neighborhood as well by doing something that has become unusual for Catholic religious orders -- growing.

Even as Catholic religious orders worldwide are having trouble recruiting new members, the Franciscans of the Renewal, a young order founded in 1987, have been drawing a steady flow of recruits in their 20s and 30s.

To be sure, there are other friars who live in urban America, but part of what makes the Newark friars unusual is that their numbers are increasing: Starting with eight members, the order now has 107 friars.

The Newark priory was purchased for $1.5 million in 2004 by the nonprofit group Friends of the Newark Monastery. The priory had been used for 121 years by a group of cloistered Dominican nuns who had not let outsiders in except to pray at a chapel.

By the time they left the priory in 2003, the nuns had not drawn a new member for more than a decade. In the past 40 years, the number of Catholic priests, brothers and sisters in the United States has decreased from 214,932 to 85,284, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

This fall, the friars will open the European-style courtyard, spacious back lawn and other prayer space for religious retreats.

"For years and years, no one has been behind these walls," said the Rev. Glenn Sudano, 54, a founding member of the order. "People think it's a prison. I want people to come in, and to see how simply we live."

Eight friars, including Sudano, live in the space permanently, and novices live and train there for 12 months. The novices then take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before leaving for the order's friaries in New York, Texas, Honduras, England and Ireland. Many eventually become priests.

The friars say the popularity of their order stems from its adherence to religious tradition. The Franciscans of the Renewal order, which split from a Capuchin order in 1987, was founded on the belief that other orders had lost their way after the liberal church changes of the 1960s. Unlike some larger orders, the Franciscan friars still live together, pray together and wear traditional garb. They do not have a television.

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