Posted by Daniel Imwalle on 10/21/16 7:00 AM
The daily average temperature in St. Louis during January is 31.8 degrees Fahrenheit, just below freezing. For those who make their homes in the area called South City, the threat of having utilities turned off due to lack of payment is very real. In this environment, a small organization called the Franciscan Connection stands ready to assist those facing challenging financial situations.
The Franciscan Friars of the Sacred Heart Province founded the Franciscan Connection in 1991, with a mission of providing “pastoral listening, respectful support, and emergency assistance to low-income St. Louis area families in times of need.” The vast majority of the people served are African-American, though there are growing numbers of Hispanic, Afghani, and Eritrean families moving into the area who are in need, as well. Despite their many cultural differences, these families experience the daily economic struggle together.
Executive director for the agency since 2009, Father Larry Nickels, OFM, handles a great deal of the daily workload, assisted by just two part-time volunteers. His passion for social justice, though, provides plenty of fuel to make real the mission of the Franciscan Connection. “Concern for social justice issues and doing something about them is at the heart of the Gospel of Christ and at the center of the life and witness of all the baptized,” Father Larry explains.
This Chicago native’s Franciscan spirit is evident today, but the road to his vocation was not a straight line. “This path has had many twists and turns,” he reflects. A vowed Franciscan for over 30 years, Father Larry was initially drawn to the Augustinians, as was Saint Anthony (who became a follower of Saint Francis himself). He even entered the Augustinian novitiate, but was ultimately asked to step out of formation. “There was a concern that I was choosing religious life because I believed I could not be successful doing anything else,” Father Larry recalls.
Father Larry’s calling to religious life never really went away, and he began looking at other orders, at the encouragement of his Augustinian spiritual director. After seeing the way a Franciscan priest greeted people on the sidewalk outside Saint Peter’s in the Loop in Chicago’s central business district, Father Larry felt pulled to the Order of Friars Minor. “My Augustinian background was part of a wonderful preparation for living and working as a Franciscan priest,” Father Larry says.
With an interest in counseling, Father Larry studied social work at Washington University in St. Louis, obtaining an MSW with a focus on mental health in 2002. As a Franciscan social worker with a deep concern for social justice, Father Larry was a natural fit with the Franciscan Connection. One of the most prominent programs offered is emergency utility assistance, where applicants who have run out of options can receive up to $100 to help pay a bill for electric, gas, or water services.
On top of utility assistance, the Franciscan Connection offers help with school supplies, Christmas baskets, and shoe vouchers. “In August 2014, approximately $5,000 was distributed in the form of shoe vouchers to assist parents with providing new shoes for students returning to class,” Father Larry explains.
Soliciting funding is the greatest challenge facing the operation of the Franciscan Connection, with many donors capable of making only small contributions. Still, Father Larry takes inspiration from the story of Peter curing the crippled beggar in the third chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. “I understand well what it means to have neither silver nor gold, but we have the ability to offer others what we do have—the love and compassion of God for others,” Father Larry explains. “By this accounting, the Franciscan Connection is rich beyond measure.”
A couple of years ago, I was traveling from Milan, Italy to South Africa. When I landed in South Africa, my suitcase did not arrive. My heart sank since I had all my new clothes and presents for my family in it. Desperate, I thought, Only Saint Anthony can help me now. I found the St. Anthony Shrine website and sent a prayer request.
The next day, after I sent an e-mail to Milan airport’s customer service with a photo of my lost suitcase, a kind lady called me and asked me to describe the contents of my bag. When she heard my description, she told me that my bag was right in front of her! Apparently, it had fallen off the conveyor belt and lost its label along the way. I will never forget my story. It was a miracle that my suitcase was recovered, and it’s all thanks to St. Anthony. He is my patron saint now.
—Olivia Brites, Johannesburg, South Africa
Anthony of Padua moved around a great deal during his 10 years as a Franciscan. Knowing Jesus well through prayer and his life as a friar, Anthony had no inclination to accumulate a great many things.
That attitude helped make him a very credible preacher. He clearly “walked the talk”—to use our terminology. His simple style of life disarmed many people who criticized the Church for being extremely wealthy and for being much too involved politically. People saw Christ in him. —P.M.