ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Brian Gibson met Michael Gaworski in February 1981 at a charismatic prayer meeting in Shakopee, Minnesota. It was right before Gaworski founded Pro-Life Action Ministries, where today Gibson works as its executive director. Franciscan Brothers of Peace live Christ’s ‘radical love’ in their ministry
“We became friends very early on,” Gibson, 66, recalled. “He was very inspiring in his call to action to be pro-life.”
At the time they met, Gaworski was seriously considering religious life, and eventually started his own religious group of men a year later, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. It is designated canonically as a public association of the faithful, and this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Gaworski said he felt drawn to the Franciscans, and he felt God speaking to him about starting a Franciscan group of religious men.
The Franciscan Brothers are the first religious group of men founded and organized in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as a Catholic entity. Modeled after traditional Franciscan orders, the brothers take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Over the past 40 years, they have remained stalwart in their defense of life and in serving the poor and vulnerable, operating a weekly food shelf and opening the doors of their two friaries in St. Paul for anyone in need.
They serve members of the Karen community in St. Paul — refugees from Myanmar. They also have an AIDS ministry and provide housing for victims of torture from other countries.
Their community has worked through tremendous hardships, including sickness, life-altering events and even death. But through it all, they continue their joyful service to the archdiocese, and say the difficult and painful trials have helped them grow and mature, plus deepen their relationships with one another.
The effort started one man at a time.
When Gibson and Gaworski saw each other again at another charismatic conference, this one at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Gaworski, who eventually became Brother Michael, invited Gibson to join his new group.
But Gibson was engaged to be married, and Brother Michael served as a lector at Brian and Julie Gibson’s wedding Oct. 30, 1982.
Soon after, Brother Michael recruited Paul O’Donnell, a friend from their days at St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. He became Brother Paul O’Donnell, and the two served side by side for nine years, growing the group’s membership to nine and making an impact with their pro-life work.
Gibson stayed connected with the brothers and started working for them at Pro-Life Action Ministries. He became its executive director in 1989.
In 1991, the first of several tragedies struck the brothers. Brother Michael contracted pneumonia that caused cardiac arrest and a lack of oxygen to his brain. Doctors revived him, but he was left with a severe brain injury.
The brothers cared for him at their original residence, called Queen of Peace Friary, next door to St. Columba in St. Paul, for 12 years until his death in 2003 at age 45.
The loss was felt deeply. Brothers had taken turns caring for Brother Michael round the clock. Brother Paul stepped into the leadership role of the group, at that time called “guardian overall.”
As the brothers split time between caring for Brother Michael and maintaining their ministries, tragedy struck again.
Brother Joseph Katzmarek, a hard-working handyman with strength enough to move boulders about the grounds to improve landscaping, suffered a fall while walking in an area of road and sidewalk construction near downtown Minneapolis in 2001. He now uses a wheelchair.
Since then, he has spent hours a day in prayer, and needs the continual help of other brothers to handle daily tasks like bathing.
In 2015, Brother Paul, who dealt with his own health issues, died in his sleep. The group had to move forward without its founder and without a man who had served in the primary leadership role for more than two decades.
Despite these difficulties, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace continue to grow and bear fruit in the archdiocese.
They started with five men and remain at nine in St. Paul, with one — Brother Didacus Gottsacker — making his final vows Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, their patron. A 10th brother is living in the Philippines, his home country, and awaits a visa to return to the U.S.
Their ministries have grown to include outreach to the Karen community in addition to sidewalk counseling at Planned Parenthood in St. Paul and a presence at other pro-life gatherings, plus regular visits to patients at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.
They have added a second friary, which is adjacent to the church of St. Patrick in St. Paul. And they built a spiritual center in northern Minnesota about 10 miles inland from Lake Superior, a place where the brothers, other priests, friends and supporters can go for renewal and relaxation.
They also gained their first priestly vocation — a desire of Brother Michael’s from the very beginning — when Father Seraphim Wirth, 42, formerly Brother Seraphim, was ordained in 2019.
Father Seraphim, who joined in 2007 and made his perpetual vows in 2013, is today the overall leader, now called community servant. He is heavily involved in ministry to the Karen community, celebrating Masses and doing baptisms and weddings, along with Brother James Voeller, 59, who joined the brothers in 1998.
As the leader, Father Seraphim tries to help the men look forward to what God might have in store, while at the same time continuing their present ministries.
One of these outreaches, the food shelf, operates every Monday morning and as needed on other days.
The ministry offers tangible fruits of their efforts. Last year, the food shelf at Queen of Peace Friary served 3,500 individuals, including regulars such as Louis Hurd, 48, who lives near the friary in an apartment with his 12-year-old daughter. He has dealt with several struggles since 1996, when he moved to the Twin Cities from Memphis, Tennessee, and he has been coming to the friary for 13 years. It’s a place where he has found physical and spiritual support and formed bonds that run deep.
“They’ve always had my back,” said Hurd, 48, who is battling cancer and has only one lung. “They’re like family. I really consider them my family.”
For a while, he would hang out with one of the brothers and do things like go to the movies. He said they have treated him “like I was one of them.” Whenever he is struggling, they always take time to pray with him, while also teaching him simple lessons like “have faith and believe in miracles.”
“I love them,” Hurd told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “They’re good people.”
From pro-life ministry to food shelf service, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace keep going as a spiritual force in the archdiocese. Gibson, for one, sees their shining light of prayer, dedication and service.
“They continue to love God, they continue to be that radical love of Christ that it was intended to be from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s amazing — amazing what they’ve gone through and what God is still using them to do. … This is an amazing religious order.”