I did a double-take.
Five grown men in long brown robes with bald heads, beards blowing in the breeze, were jogging barefoot down the sidewalk. I slowed my car and caught their happy faces in my rear-view mirror. This was not a sight I was used to seeing in the middle of the afternoon in this rural community. I called my sister-in-law, who runs a business in the small town I was passing through. She laughed and explained “Those are our brothers.”
My introduction to the Franciscan friars (brothers) living in this lakeside community began a journey that over the past several months has carried me back into my Catholic heritage and, I think, was ordained by God.
The bearded men reside in a white Cape Cod home on the grounds of Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center across from Sylvan Lake in Rome City, Indiana. They are novitiates in the Franciscan Friars Minor, a Catholic monastic order committed to living the rule of Saint Francis, which includes a vow of poverty. People in the community have grown used to seeing the barefoot gentlemen in the grocery store, at civic events and elsewhere in town. Growing up, I’d seen priests and nuns in their habits, but not a monastic brother.
The journalist in me wanted to know more — about the friars and about Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center.
When I knocked on the door of the brick Victorian home that houses the center’s offices, I really wasn’t sure what I hoped to gain from my visit, other than to satisfy my curiosity. Standing in the lawn outside the house, I was transported back in time.
I was raised in the Church and grew up visiting the site of the Catholic retreat center on Sunday afternoons with my parents and grandparents. At that time, it was known as Kneipp Springs and was operated by nuns from the Order of the Sisters of the Precious Blood. The 65-acre compound was beautiful, dotted with gardens and green pathways, and amazing natural springs. It was our family’s own personal Catholic park. What I didn’t know as a child was that it was also a place of physical and spiritual healing. For 75 years, celebrities and devout Catholics from around the world had made the pilgrimage to Kneipp Springs to be immersed in the healing sulphur springs and to renew their Catholic faith.
I left Catholicism when I headed off to college and eventually embraced the Protestant faith. About the time I returned home and began my career as a news reporter, Kneipp Springs was sold by the nuns to The Way International. The organization operated a residential religious school on the grounds for the next 20 years. Following their departure just before the start of the new millennium, the property changed hands many times as groups and individuals pursued various uses for the buildings and acreage. A year ago, the current owners, Catholics active in the diocese, decided to return the property to its original purpose as a place of healing and devotion to spiritual growth. A foundation was formed and the property was given a new name that reflected its devotion to Mary, the mother of Christ — Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center.
I met several times with the foundation’s director and was inspired by and drawn to the work being done at the center. I looked for a way to get involved. Restoration of the 100-year-old chapel is underway and, of course, donations are needed there, and the grounds are slowly being returned to their original beauty. Manual labor is always needed.
I wondered if others might be as curious as I was about the Franciscan friars, the history of the property and the future of the retreat center. I also longed to reconnect with the Catholic Church of today. I offered to use my gifts as a writer and designer to write articles for the local newspaper and to create a magazine for the center’s use. It’s been a mutually satisfying project.
A Healing Labor of Love
During the weeks I worked on the magazine, I also spent a lot of time with my parents. Mom’s health was declining and Dad couldn’t live entirely alone as she spent time in hospitals and in two different nursing homes. On one of my visits to the nursing home, I took Mom her rosary. I knew she needed to hold it in her hands.
It’s because of Mom that I have an emotional connection to the Catholic tradition. She’s actually my stepmother and when she married my Dad over 50 years ago — a divorced man with three little girls and a Presbyterian background — she gave us not only her unconditional love but the love of Christ as she shared with us her Catholic faith.
The morning after the magazine project was first put into the hands of visitors to Our Lady Mother of Mercy Center, Mom was found unresponsive by nursing home staff. She passed away one week later.
I hadn’t attended Mass for years. The rhythmic cadence of the liturgy, the smoky cloud of pungent incense, the priest’s lyrical prayers — all combined in a wave of nostalgia that was both comforting and unexpected. I sat in Mom and Dad’s little church for the funeral Mass last week, surrounded by people who shared her faith and knew her well, and found the words were still with me:
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus…..”
I’ve yet to spend an afternoon getting to know the barefoot, bearded Franciscan friars living at Our Lady Mother of Mercy, but I’m hoping they’ll let me tell their story soon. Now that a window has opened on the faith that formed me, I’m not anxious for it to close.