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4/25/2012 8:57:00 AM
Laypeople drawn to walk in footsteps of St. Francis
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Edgar Escamilla professes vows as a secular Franciscan to the group's leader, Mike Reidy, at Ascension Church April 21. Barbara Allen and Verna VanNewkirk, flanking Escamilla, also took vows in the lay order.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Edgar Escamilla professes vows as a secular Franciscan to the group's leader, Mike Reidy, at Ascension Church April 21. Barbara Allen and Verna VanNewkirk, flanking Escamilla, also took vows in the lay order.
Ed Langlois
Of the Catholic Sentinel

Sometimes, Catholic laypeople feel so drawn to the ways of a particular religious community that they link themselves to it. In secular orders, laity take permanent vows to live a modified version of religious life while continuing their jobs and family commitments.

Two Oregon Catholics this spring professed vows in the Secular Franciscan Order, seeking to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.  

Verna VanNewkirk has loved St. Francis since she was a child. She admired his open heart and love of animals even before she became Catholic at age 18. Her father, a section foreman on the Union Pacific Railroad, would bring home stray cats, dogs and people.

"I think that under all his rudeness and crudeness he had a Franciscan heart," says VanNewkirk, a 73-year-old retired nurse and teacher.

An Irish rail worker pointed out to the foreman's daughter that she had Irish heritage. She became enamored of Irish-Gaelic culture, which led her eventually to the saints and the little humble 12th-century man from Assisi.

"My hopes for the future encompass a very great desire to become a  good person," says VanNewkirk, a member of St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel who volunteers at Mission Benedict, a service center for people who are poor and homeless operated by the Benedictine Sisters. One of her role models is Sister Angela Meister, who leads he mission. VanNewkirk calls the nun "a truly kind and generous person with a great sense of humor." VanNewkirk also volunteers as a tutor.

Francis' message for the world today is the same as it was more than 800 years ago — embrace the leper, preach the gospel and use words when necessary, and honor every person including fallen priests whom he treated with great respect. I think the church needs a lot of work in that area today."

VanNewkirk admits she has  work to do when it comes to "embracing the leper." The phrase comes from a key moment in the conversion of St. Francis. He overcame fear and hugged a leper in Assisi in 1205. That set him off to a deeper affiliation with Christ. For Franciscans, secular and religious, "embracing the leper" means trying to transform the world by showing love to people or in situations one finds appalling.

"God said you have to love your neighbor even if you don't like him," VanNewkirk explains.

Edgar Escamilla, who also professed vows last month, drives a truck for a living. Franciscan life drew him because he feels close to God when he serves others. That includes what he calls "my first church," his family, and his parish, Ascension in Southeast Portland.

"I hope to be able to transmit love and joy to the ones who need it the most," says the powerfully-built Escamilla, 40.

The message of St. Francis for the world, he explains, is living out the gospel in everyday life.  

He interprets his commitment as finding "the true happiness with Christ our Savior" and "accepting my brothers and sisters as they are."

Escamilla is part of a Spanish-speaking Franciscan Secular group at Ascension that is being reactivated.

Professing vows with VanNewkirk and Escamilla was Barbara Allen of St. Joseph Parish in Vancouver, Wash.

"The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of St. Francis of Assisi," said Mike Reidy, a leader of lay Franciscans based at Ascension. "Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel."

Each new Secular Franciscan received a small cross modeled on the one before which St. Francis was praying when he received the commission to "Rebuild my Church." During their vows, they chose to observe humility, simplicity and penance.

"Your lives now become more intense in the gospel itself," said Franciscan Father John dePaemelaere, speaking during the vow rite, held during a bilingual Mass at Ascension. "It's not something we read and let pass by. It's something we live in our everyday lives."

Three laypeople professed vows as Secular Franciscans last week at St. Peter Church in Eugene.

There are 19 groups of secular Franciscans in the Northwest, totaling hundreds of members. Nationwide, there are about 725 different groups, or fraternities, linked to various parishes.

Oregon is also home to Augustinian Seculars, Carmelite Discalced Secular Order, Dominican Laity, Benedictine Oblates, Associates of the Holy Names Sisters and Donnés of the Sisters of Reparation.  

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