At first, Francis sought a life of solitude and prayer. Within a few years Francis’ life gave new direction to those he encountered. Francis found that other men of Assisi were attracted to the same vision – to follow Christ and His Apostles. Soon there grew a small community which settled on the outskirts of town near the abandoned church of Our Lady of the Angels. Then St. Francis and a band of eleven followers sought permission from Pope Innocent III to found a new order in the Church. Permission was granted in 1209. Today it is known as the First Order. The Second Order of St. Francis (commonly known as Poor Clares) was founded in 1212 in Assisi when Francis received Clare as a follower of his way of life.
Francis also had an impact on a movement already present among the Christian faithful. These were the “Penitents”; people who were seeking holiness in their daily lives. In preaching a “life of conversion,” Francis attracted many men and women from all walks of life who turned to him for guidance in a life of penance. In 1209, Francis gave a norm of life for these penitents living in the world and in 1221 he collaborated with the Church, which granted them a Rule. In 1289, Pope Nicholas IV approved another version of this Rule. Some of the penitents began to live communal life dedicating themselves to works of mercy; others began to live in remote places as hermits. These groups were known as the Religious of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis.
The history of the Third Order Regular in Ireland dates back to the later part of the 14th and early part of the 15th centuries. These tertiary communities were small communities of clerical and lay Brothers.* In the early 19th century, responding to the request from Bishops in the United States, the Brothers accepted apostolic works outside if Ireland. Franciscan Brothers traveled to the United States from Ireland to minister as teachers and established permanent foundations in Loretto, Pennsylvania and Brooklyn, NY. The Brooklyn foundation became the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn.
*Adapted from a work by Fr. Michael Higgins, T.O.R.
The first two Franciscan Brothers to respond to the invitation of the bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Brooklyn arrived on May 31, 1858 and received hospitality from the Christian Brothers of St. James on Pearl Street. Shortly thereafter, three more Brothers arrived and they purchased a house on Baltic St. where they began an Academy for boys. In 1860, they acquired adjacent property on Butler St., which was to become the community’s Motherhouse for over a century. The Academy eventually became St. Francis Prep and St. Francis College. By the end of their first decade, the Brothers were also staffing 7 parish schools in Brooklyn.
During their second decade, the Franciscans Brothers expanded further. They undertook the administration of 5 more parish schools in Brooklyn. Brothers also went to Olean, NY to assist Friars beginning St. Bonaventure University there, and some opened a school in Kingston, NY. Other pioneer Brothers travelled to Contarf, MN to open a school for Native American boys.
The Franciscan Brothers became more firmly rooted in Brooklyn during their third decade as they undertook 3 more parish schools and established St. Leonard’s Academy, which became a leading business school for 85 years.
The fourth decade began with the purchase of property on Centerport harbor on Long Island. This became Mount Alvernia and Camp Alvernia, which is the oldest continuously run camp in the State of New York. The Brothers opened more schools in Brooklyn as well as in Mattewan, NY and Jersey City, NJ. Three Brothers went to Australia for 4 years to assist friars there. By the end of the decade, the community of over 90 Brothers served in 20 schools, with most Brothers walking to their work from the Monastery on Butler St.
There were no new undertakings in the fifth decade as the Brothers dealt with internal tensions. From its beginning, the Brooklyn Congregation, as well as communities of Franciscan Brothers in the U.S., sought to advance from Diocesan to Pontifical Right. The proposal, which emerged from all the groups, was for the Brothers to join the Third Order Regular (TOR) Friars. Bishops in other dioceses where there were foundations of Franciscan Brothers approved the proposal; the Bishop of Brooklyn did not. The community became divided and, in 1907, nearly half of the Brooklyn Brothers transferred to the other foundations, finally settling in Loretto, PA as a Province of the TOR Friars. The crisis forced the remaining Brothers to withdraw from several outlying missions and reorganize in Brooklyn
The Bishop of Brooklyn oversaw the re-stabilization of the Brothers by appointing the Superior as his Vicar. The issue of Papal approbation, which was a the heart of the crisis in 1907, did not disappear and continued for seven more decades until the Congregation became Pontifical. Meanwhile, during this decade, the Brothers expanded to two more parish schools in Brooklyn.
1918 began with the ending of World War I and became a decade of calm for the community. There were no new foundations undertaken during this period. Rather, the Brothers strengthened their existing works and incorporated new members to prepare for the future.
New life in the community enabled the Brothers to purchase property in Smithtown, NY for a novitiate. A few years later, St. Anthony’s Juniorate, now St. Anthony’s High School (in South Huntington), began on the Smithtown property in 1934. During this decade, the Brothers also undertook the operation of Camp Malloy on Long Island.
The ninth decade of the Franciscan Brothers was marked by World War II. Once again, growth and expansion stopped. Institutions, like St. Francis College, shrank to their smallest size with Brothers working together to hold together what had been built. At the war’s end, events changed as soldiers returned home and families grew.
With new growth, the Brothers moved their novitiate to Wyandanch, Long Island. St. Francis Prep moved to North 6th St. in Brooklyn, while St. Francis College expanded on Butler St. The Brothers also took on the staffing and administration of 5 more parish schools, 1 in Brooklyn, 1 in Queens, and 3 in the growing communities of Long Island.
The centennial decade of the Franciscan Brothers was one of rapid and unparalleled growth. The novitiate moved to the beautiful grounds of St. Francis Center in Oyster Bay and the Brother Columba Reilly Scholasticate opened in Brooklyn. St. Francis College moved to its present site on Remsen St. as did St. Francis Monastery. The Butler St. era ended after a century. The Brothers undertook the running of another parish school and the new Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn.
The Brothers convened an Extraordinary Chapter of Affairs in 1969 to respond to the mandate from Vatican Council II for Religious Congregations to renew their Constitutions in the spirit of their founders. This process was to take two decades. The first phase saw the creation of pre-novitiate communities and the formation of communities of small friaries, some unattached to schools. One community of Brothers was established in Tampa, FL.
As the renewal process continued into the 1980s, more Brothers undertook pastoral and social service ministries in a variety of parishes and agencies. In addition, new communities and ministries formed in the Dioceses of Bridgeport, CT and Raleigh, NC, as well as in Brooklyn and Rockville Centre. Most important in this decade of continued renewal was the beginning of collaboration with other Franciscans for the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis and the approval of a new Rule of Life for the Brothers and Sisters of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, to which the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn belong.
The Franciscan Brothers’ 14th decade began with Pope John Paul II’s establishment of the Congregation as an Institute of Pontifical Right and the approval of the revised Constitutions in 1989. This complemented the global awareness of the Brothers since Franciscan formed national and international federations. The Brothers helped establish a Franciscan presence at the United Nations and fostered inter-Franciscan dialogue. New projects were undertaken in St. Louis and Raleigh. Traditional institutions sought to expand global awareness and Franciscan consciousness. Collaboration, a hallmark of the Brothers, engaged in a process of bringing the Franciscan spirit to the approaching millennium.
The Franciscan Brothers’ 15th decade included the acceptance of new ministries in the Dioceses of Cape Girardeau, MO and Paterson, NJ. As the Brothers entered the New Millennium, the congregation began to look at stewardship of resources. With the closure and sale of St. Francis Center in Oyster Bay, the novitiate was moved to Padua Friary in Kings Park with a re-vitalization of the Franciscan Brothers’ formation program. The growth and expansion of our Education institutions continued. In 2008, the Franciscan Brothers celebrated 150 years of Franciscan life and ministry in the United States.
With the start of the Brothers’ 16th decade, the Franciscan Brothers have joyfully welcomed a new Pope and join him in waking up the world with the Joy of the Gospel. As we celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life with Pope Francis and the Church, we invite you to join us in our celebration, giving thanks to God for the gift of Consecrated Life!