Followers of St. Francis lead life of prayer, service STRADDLING TWO WORLDS

April 02, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Until an illness forced him to abandon his career, Joseph Burch cut hair and sold hair-care products, earning $60,000 a year. Now, the 33-year-old Franciscan friar serves as barber to his religious brethren at the St. Joseph Cupertino Friary on Folly Quarter Road in western Ellicott City.

But his is hardly a cloistered existence. On a regular basis, Brother Burch, a theology student at Oblate College in Washington, D.C., leaves the friary's scenic grounds for classes and to work as a chaplain at a Washington hospital.

With one foot in the religious world and one in the secular, he is typical of the 20 priests and religious brothers who make their home at the secluded friary and novitiate.

St. Joseph Cupertino is a base of operations for members of the Roman Catholic religious order who work as chaplains, help those with AIDS and other illnesses, teach in schools and assist at local parishes.

But the friars, whose residence has been in Ellicott City for 66 years, still find themselves and St. Joseph Cupertino's secluded stone building a mystery to many in the community who picture monks in seclusion from the world.

"People think it's a monastery, but it's not," said the friary's guardian, the Rev. Bart A. Karwacki, 47, who entered the order in 1965 and was ordained in 1975. "It's a friary. . . . It's our home."

Unlike monks who withdraw from the world, Franciscan friars follow the example of the order's founder, St. Francis of Assisi. The son of a 13th-century Italian fabric merchant, he gave up his worldly possessions to spread the Gospel and serve the poor. Franciscan friars take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and do charitable work throughout the community.

The friars at St. Joseph Cupertino -- known as Conventual Franciscans -- are among three types of Franciscan friars. They are part of the order's 10-state St. Anthony of Padua Province, which has administrative offices on the Folly Quarter Road property.

At the friary, they find lodging and fellowship in a spacious rural setting on 195 acres of former farmland. The property, once owned by descendants of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was purchased by the order in 1929. The building was completed in 1931.

"People find this is just a place of peace and quiet," said Father Karwacki, wearing a black hooded robe bound with a white cord bearing three knots, symbolizing his three vows. "That's a reason why they [neighbors] don't want us to sell out to developers."

Outside the friary, there's a large fountain. The building's interior has long, echoing halls; a small chapel; barber and tailoring shops; a library; and recreation, music and weight rooms. Upstairs, the friars have individual rooms.

Life at the friary requires spiritual dedication and discipline. In some ways it's similar to a fraternity. "It's more than that," said Brother Burch, "because of the spirituality."

To become part of the friary, men usually visit before applying for a two-year candidacy program, which gives them a taste of life in the community. They then enter the novitiate, professing temporary vows, and make a permanent commitment by taking solemn vows.

Every morning, the friars rise about 6 a.m. for their morning ritual and prayers. At 6:45 a.m., they attend Mass in the chapel. They then leave for work in the community, to attend theology schools in Baltimore and Washington or to help around the friary.

At 5:30 p.m., they gather again for the Eucharist and liturgy. Afterward, they eat dinner, prepared by a cook who is not a friar. They also study.

That leaves a little time for leisure activities. Father Karwacki, for example, likes to watch a bit of television -- "N.Y.P.D. Blue," "ER" and home improvement shows are among his favorites.

The friars' lights usually are out at 11 p.m.

It's not a lifestyle that appeals to everyone. The friary has trouble attracting members, a problem since the 1960s, Father Karwacki said. Last year, for example, 33 friars lived at the friary -- 13 more than this year. Many transferred or dropped out. Usually, a third of the novices, or new members, leave within their first year, Father Karwacki said.

"I think people are afraid of a commitment like that," he said. Even so, he said, "I don't think we'll close."

His optimism may be due to men such as Brother Burch, who come to the order later in life, sometimes after a crisis.

The former hair stylist from San Jose, Calif., become a friar about six years ago after a struggle with myasthenia gravis, a nonlife-threatening disease that weakens the muscles.

"It kept my eyelids closed," he said. "I was blind, but my eyes worked."

For about two years, "I had to learn to walk with a cane and learn to read Braille. There was not much hope. . . . By that time, I started to realize that the presence and power of Jesus Christ in my life was very real."

Raised a Roman Catholic, he prayed for a recovery. "I thought if I were able to see, I'd go into the ministry," he said.

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