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St. Anthony’s parishioners taking a break from work during their mission trip in Hillsdale County this past July. Left to right: Rich Moeggenberg, Aiden Petersen, Brother Capistran, Brother Bonaventure, Mia VanderHoff, Chloe Stuchell-Tritchka. Fred Yaniga | Courtesy
St. Anthony’s parish­ioners taking a break from work during their mission trip in Hillsdale County this past July. Left to right: Rich Moeggenberg, Aiden Petersen, Brother Capistran, Brother Bonaventure, Mia Van­derHoff, Chloe Stuchell-Tritchka. Fred Yaniga | Courtesy

This summer in Hillsdale, one little boy thought he saw Jedi. What other expla­nation could there be for bare­footed men wearing brown robes and rope belts?

The “Jedi” were actually Fran­ciscan Friars Minor, vis­iting Hillsdale for the biennial mission trip run by St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. They nearly ended up moving to the city to open a friary per­ma­nently — and the pos­si­bility for a friary in Hillsdale remains for the future.

Five Fran­ciscan friars from Fort Wayne visited St. Anthony’s Catholic Church during the summer for the mission trip. They worked with a group of teens from the parish for three days, serving and praying in the local Hillsdale com­munity.

“During the retreat we just got to know the kids — really tried to min­ister to them to make them know the love of God,” Bonaventure, a brother from the St. Lawrence Friary in downtown Fort Wayne, said. “And they really showed us the love of God too.”

At the end of the visit, the brothers sprung a sur­prise on the con­gre­gation: they wanted to start a friary in Hillsdale. One of their fri­aries had struc­tural problems, forcing brothers to move out.

“The kids and the com­munity made a huge impression on us, and so we really wanted to establish some­thing in Hillsdale,” Bonaventure said. “We just men­tioned that it would be nice if we could live here and they took that and ran with it.”

Pro­fessor of English Stephen Smith and his wife Laura Smith, both parish­ioners at St. Anthony’s, hosted the brothers during their stay.

“While we were driving them to Mass in Hudson, Brother Bonaventure asked if we could find them a house in Hillsdale because one of their fri­aries in Fort Wayne was being con­demned,” Laura Smith said. “Stephen and I laughed a bit at the request. When was the last time five guys driving in my mini-van asked me to buy them a house?”

Parish members leaped at the chance to have a friary in Hillsdale and imme­di­ately set about trying to find a suitable location for the brothers, according to Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of German Fred Yaniga, the faculty adviser to the Catholic Society and an active member of  St. Anthony’s.

“Their plan was to bring about 15 friars to Hillsdale if a suitable site could be pro­cured,” Yaniga said.

Without any formal fundraising on the parish’s part, many parish­ioners vol­un­teered to finan­cially support the friars and ended up quickly raising several months’ worth of rent money. As for a location, they ended up selecting the old Mauck school building at the corner of Fayette and Oak streets across the road from the Catholic out­reach house, the Grotto.

“Since the friars are on foot they needed a location which would provide great walk­a­bility,” Smith said. “Mauck is only a few minutes on foot to St. Anthony’s.”

Despite the parish­ioners’ success in finding a location, the plans for the Mauck school building quickly fell through. According to Yaniga, Bishop Rhoades of the Fort Wayne Diocese ended up sending the friars to an aban­doned friary in the Fort Wayne Diocese instead.

“It came close to moving in, where every­thing was about ready,” Bonaventure said. “In two days we were going to bind a con­tract, but our bishop called us.”

Another side of the diocese needed attention and pas­toral min­istry.

The friars moved into the new building on Aug. 16 and are set­tling in with 15 new pos­tu­lants, according to Yaniga.

The Fran­ciscan Friars Minor were founded in 1209 by Saint Francis of Assisi, who set up the first friary in Italy. Their order is char­ac­terized by devotion to a life of radical poverty. A men­dicant order, they beg for their food and live lives of prayer and service to the com­munity.

Miller said she was struck by “what a joyful group of men they are.”

“When my own three kids returned from the week-long mission trip this summer, all of the stories they told involved the friars,” Miller said. “Stories of the work they did, the con­ver­sa­tions they had, the ultimate frisbee and bas­ket­balls games they played in the evenings.”

Many Hillsdale eyes stared at their brown robes, rope belts, and bare feet.

“While in Hillsdale, they cer­tainly turned some heads!” Yaniga said. “The expression of the folks in Subway, when I took them there for lunch one day, was pre­cious. One little boy asked them if they were Jedi.”

Although the arrangement fell through, the oppor­tunity demon­strated the zeal of the St. Anthony’s parish­ioners in the friars’ time of need. The friars may not be moving to Hillsdale after all, but parish­ioners con­tinue to have a strong rela­tionship with the friars. When the new friary in Fort Wayne required ren­o­va­tions for its sanc­tuary floor earlier this month, Yaniga spread word and the con­gre­gation ended up raising the nec­essary funds within a mere 24 hours.

“St. Anthony of Padua, the patron of the Catholic parish in Hillsdale, was also a Fran­ciscan friar,” Yaniga pointed out.

St. Anthony’s parish­ioners and the brothers also con­tinue to visit each other.

“St. Anthony’s Parish has forged a beau­tiful friendship with the friars thus far,” Smith said. “Some of our teen boys traveled to their new friary for a retreat, others have traveled down for some of the order’s vows. Just yes­terday Brother Pio sent us a note asking for us to send our prayer inten­tions to be engraved upon the altar so they may pray for all of us in Hillsdale in their daily prayers. ”

On Oct. 2, some brothers are set to visit St. Anthony’s for a talk on vocation. According to Dean of Men Aaron Petersen, the brothers will soon get involved with the Catholic Society on campus as well, beginning this month.

“We’d like them to come down for the third Tuesday of the month whenever they can,” Petersen said. “There’s a pre­sen­tation each month, in addition to prayer, con­fession, and fel­lowship, and we’d like them to provide one of the talks or pre­sen­ta­tions this fall.”

The order is growing, and there are hopes that in the future, should the friars need to spread, that they will have a home in Hillsdale.

“Maybe, God willing, within two years we would hope to establish some­thing in Hillsdale,” Bonaventure said. “We had received per­mission from the bishop of Lansing and so all those per­mis­sions were given, but we have to just play a waiting game.”

“In the next few years, if it is God’s holy will, there will be a band of Fran­ciscan friars living a pro­found witness for Christ in our midst,” Smith said. “Praying, serving and spreading the gift of joy.”