They don't watch TV. They seldom wear shoes, and their wardrobe is limited to a coarse brown woolen tunic. They make their own furniture out of donated wood and eat only what others give them. They have no money.
Much of the world – not to mention Sunday-morning preachers who confuse earthly riches with heavenly blessings – might conclude that God has not smiled on a small Catholic community that followed new Bishop Kevin Rhoades to Fort Wayne earlier this year. But to Father David Engo, the group's rejection of possessions and embrace of prayer, self-sacrifice, and service to God and neighbor manifests the biblical principal implied by its name: the Franciscan Brothers Minor.
As in: Those who would put themselves first will be last. Just as the last – the “minor” among us – will be first.
“We're living by God's grace. We've made the radical decision to live the Gospel,” said Engo, leader of the group whose disdain for possessions reflects the philosophy of St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century Italian who was born into a wealthy family but after a religious conversion rejected wealth in an imitation of Christ, “who entered poverty in Bethlehem,” Engo said.
The group's lack of possessions made it easy to come to Fort Wayne with Rhoades, who founded the order last November. Even the brothers' new home reflects the Franciscan tradition, which teaches that God instructed Francis to “Build my church.” And that's just what the brothers are doing at the old St. Andrew's parish at 2712 New Haven Ave., which closed in 2003.
When the Franciscans aren't praying – which they do several times night and day – they may be working to restore the buildings and grounds and to convert them for a new use under a new name: Our Lady of Angels Friary and Oratory.
Just as Christ told his followers to replace trust in physical possessions with faith in God's grace, Engo said, the group's simple needs are met through donations of food and other items. What the group does not need it donates to others.
But the friary is not a monastery in which people cut themselves off from the outside world. Engo said the group's 10 members are actively involved in the neighborhood, providing instruction in Scripture and the catechism, playing sports with area children and assisting area priests in any way they can. Once renovations are complete to the 100-year-old church's interior, the group hopes to reopen it for public prayer and Mass, even though it will not be recognized as a parish or hold Sunday services. Nor is the lifestyle as dour as it may appear, Engo said, gesturing toward the soccer ball and Frisbee in the large yard behind the church. Even in long heavy robes and bare feet, the brothers find time for life's simple pleasures. The bearded brothers even enjoy a little wine now and then – but not liquor or beer.
Franciscans are not new to Fort Wayne. A Cincinnati-based order served St. Therese Catholic Church and Bishop Luers High School from the 1950s until declining membership forced the group to leave Fort Wayne in 1994, but Engo's order seems to embrace an even more Spartan existence than its predecessors – a reflection of a “back to basics” movement that is seen in much of the church, he said.
It's a lifestyle that won't appeal to everyone – or even most. And, certainly, a vow of poverty is not required by Scripture, which says only that a love of money, not money itself, is the root of all evil. And when Engo talks of how Franciscans serve institutions but don't create them, you can't help but be glad that others do create the mechanisms by which thousands and even millions are helped, not relative handfuls.
But that in no way diminishes the motives, contributions and zeal of those who, for the purest of motives, reject earthly standards of success so they may better serve God and neighbor.
And the Franciscans' new neighbors have responded in kind. “We've had a wonderful reception. We walk everywhere, and want to bring back the Catholic identity to the neighborhood,” Engo said.
But don't those woolen robes get a little hot this time of year?
“Hell is hotter,” Engo said.