Father John was wearing a simple brown habit with a knotted rope around his waist and a russet-colored fleece jacket. He met me in the foyer of the friary, a room paneled with dark wood, filled with glittering altars and shelves of red electric devotional candles. “Come on into the refrigerator,” he joked, opening the door to an ornate, but unheated, room off the chapel.
Father John, a member of the Third Order Franciscans of Kennebunk, just celebrated his 80th birthday, marking 64 years since his call to God as a teenager. As we chatted, surrounded by saints and icons, I noted how his life had taken a direction so wholly different than any other person I know, a life dedicated to sacrifice, simplicity, devotion, chastity and obedience.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR PATH TO BECOMING A FRIAR
My family came to the United States from Lithuania in 1949 and we landed in the Midwest. After I finished high school, and at about 16 years old, I received a vocation, a call to join the religious community. At first I didn’t know the difference between the different Catholic communities, but my mother used to receive a magazine called “The Little Bell of St. Francis,” because she belonged to the secular part of the Franciscans. She had that magazine on the desk and I noticed that, I looked at it and one of the pictures was from here, from Kennebunk. By that time, there were a few friars over here. There were Lithuanian Franciscans over here. The older ones who were there at that time, many of them have died already. Originally, in 1947, this was dedicated or blessed as a Franciscan friary. I became aware of that only in 1952, so I wrote a letter to them and I asked about the possibility of joining. And then of course I had to make sure all the requirements were checked off and so on. I already had my high school diploma. I received a telegram in 1953 in February, it said “come.” So I had a little suitcase, a grey suit and I came here and I rang the doorbell. And since that time I’m here.
HAVE YOU STAYED HERE SINCE THEN?
I had to leave in order to go to the seminary, so I was in the seminary for eight years and a one year novitiate. Novitiate is like the initiation year – you get to know the life that you are entering. My novitiate was in Troy, New York because this friary here too small, so I was sent to another Franciscan community. After that traditional novitiate, I took my first vows and I got the habit, the robe here. Then I had to go through studies at the seminary. The first two years of philosophy were in Andover, Massachusetts and after those two years I had to go and continue my philosophy and then theology and there I went to Wappinger Falls, New York near Poughkeepsie. There I stayed for six years, with three years more of philosophy, three years of theology. I was ordained over there in 1962, and after ordination I had to come back here again. We had a high school, a boarding school for boys. They were from all over the United States and from Canada. We had a beautiful, wonderful basketball team, they were very good.
DO YOU PLAY BASKETBALL?
I used to play with them. I used to play, but they competed with schools that were three or four times larger than ours. Yeah, they were very good. We found it very difficult to go against the bigger schools, but we did. One year we got to semifinals of the state to triples and we had only about 95 in our enrollment in our school. I taught in that school and I was also the Prefect of Discipline make sure all was in order.
IT TOOK YOU NINE YEARS TO BECOME A FRIAR
One year for novitiate and eight years. The reason for that is because I entered when I was young. I was only 18 years old, but I had high school behind me already and I worked for three years in a store, but I did not have any college. So I needed to learn philosophy and theology, going deeper into theology. I had to go and get some credits in order to be able to teach because our school was accredited as a regular high school. In fact, the Lithuanian language was approved as a foreign language over here and they would get credit for that. Then when we closed the school. We had to close it because we were running into debt. Many of the students were sent over here, their families could not afford too much, so we closed at the end of 1969. In 1969, at the end, I was transferred to go to Brookly, New York. I stayed there for five years.
WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE?
It was a very good experience. I had quite a few experiences in New York. Five years. It was very enlightening and educational. Then, in 1975, I asked to be transferred to a parish. Since we had a printery in Brooklyn, I had to work at the printery a lot and I felt I wanted to work with people more, so I was transferred to Toronto, Canada. I really liked it at the parish, but then in 1976 they decided to open up a novitiate over here in Kennebunk.
WERE YOU HAPPY TO RETURN TO MAINE?
Actually, we didn’t think about being happy or not happy, because it was a question of obedience. I was asked to come here. It was a challenge. It was very, very interesting, so in 1976 we began our novitiate formation, a formation of the new converts. It was full-time work because I had to stay with them all the time and I had to teach them the Lithuanian language, too. Since that time I’ve been here.
WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE TO RECEIVE YOUR CALL TO THIS LIFE?
I felt a call to enter a different kind of life. A religious call. Actually, it consists of two things. The first thing is that you feel an inner kind of attraction or interest in a different kind of life than what you see around you – to dedicate yourself more to God and to work among people. Spiritually, that’s the first part and that’s very important. It is the Grace of God to never make that call on your own, God initiates that call within you. Otherwise you might end up leaving, eventually. Then the second part is when the authorities approve of that. They say, “Okay, you are suitable for that kind of life.” And that’s why, in 1953 when I came here, I was sent to novitiate and the novitiate is an intensive kind of getting-into-that-kind-of-life immersion and there you find out whether you really like this way of life or not.
IS THAT PROCESS PRETTY CHALLENGING?
It’s very challenging! I’ll give you an example. I was in a group of 23 in Troy, New York. All of us were young. I was 18, others were 19. The oldest one was 26. We used to call him Pop! Many of them were used to smoking cigarettes. So the one who was in charge, the Master of Novices, came and said, “From now on, no more smoking at all.” For me there was no problem, I never smoked, but others it was very difficult for them to just drop it like that. But they did. That’s one way in which I’m showing that this was challenging for many of them. Now, you don’t have young people entering and joining this life, many people enter after they tried the other kind of life. Later on, when I was placed in charge of the formation of our novitiate here, there was one who was a lawyer, another one was an electrician, the other was a carpenter and so they were…they were working professionals.
WHAT IS DAILY LIFE LIKE IN A FRIARY?
Daily life depends. Now, in certain friaries like Toronto, Canada, it’s not just a friary, but also a parish. There you’re engaged in pastoral work: visiting hospitals and sick people. In some places they go teach in universities or schools of different kinds. Here, we don’t do that. We’re just friary. We’re not a parish, but we do have something we call a semi-public or semi-pastoral. We have masses in the morning daily and on Sunday we have three masses. We preach, and I engage in many other things, too. For example, I give talks to people. In fact, a few months ago I gave a talk in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the occult and the problems of people who get involved in the occult. And I was surprised: There were 150 people that showed up! Then I used to have healing services for people in which we’d pray for people. And I had seminars in which I’d teach about the basics of our faith, which is very much lacking among many people. We also have voluntary workers here for other things, like cooking or accounting or computers.
YOU HAVE TECHNOLOGY HERE?
When I was elected Superior for the first time in 1988, at that time computers started to show up, like DeskMate and everything was DOS. So, I thought, “You know really that is the future. We’re going to be computer dependent, I better get one!” Being Superior, I did get one. It was a little expensive in those days, a couple thousand dollars, and my conscience bothered me a little bit, because in a friary, modesty is important. But I said it’s going to be that everybody will be using one. And since then I’ve been using a computer, but I didn’t really get too involved with it because it’s too time consuming. They make it so that you have to get new technology. I wanted to stay with DOS and suddenly they came out with Windows and all kinds of things. I said I didn’t want that but you can’t choose.
THIS IS A SILLY QUESTION, BUT WHAT DO YOU EAT IN THE FRIARY?
Eating together is actually part of our schedule, because it’s a community. Meals are one time when you see everybody come around. God has blessed us with good food and cooks. We used to get different cooks from different places. Right now we have a cook from Poland who is a citizen of the United States. She cooks very well.
YOU HAVE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO WORK AND SUPPORT THE FRIARY
Yes. And we have the school building. Since we had the facilities, we decided that we had to do something with them. We had gym regulation size for basketball, so we decided to convert that to a Christian formation center. First we used it as a place for marriage encounters. A marriage encounter is for the spouses to get together and they spend a retreat. It’s a beautiful thing for getting together intimately under spiritual guidance. But how many times can you do that? Once and that’s it. We decided to close that. We converted it into a guesthouse, like a little hotel. In the year 2001, a group of lay people who call themselves SAMA: St. Anthony’s Association of Monasteries Association started to run the guesthouse. That somehow removed a lot of concerns from us because that’s mostly a secular thing. They’re running it very well. Now, many people come here for their own private retreats and in some cases people come here for vacation. Just yesterday a group left, there were about 80 seminarians from Boston. And recently we had students from MIT. This is a place where people can meet together.
TELL ME ABOUT THE PHILOSOPHIES OF FRANCISCAN CATHOLICISM
It’s 100 percent Catholic. We don’t want any kind of innovations that are not in accordance with our traditions. We go along with whatever is established by Rome at the Vatican. Here, we keep updated with that. That is the main thing. Then there’s a special flavor to that, the Franciscan flavor. We were founded about 800 years ago by St. Francis in Italy. We try to base everything Catholic with that flavor of St. Francis who wanted the friars to live according to regulations of the church, taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It’s why we wear the rope around our waist with the three knots symbolizing poverty, chastity and obedience. The habit we wear is as similar to what St. Francis would wear in the early 1200s. He wanted to be like the poor and did not want anything special, so he found a sack and put it on and he found a rope and put it on. We try to walk in those footsteps.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE LEARN FROM THE LIFE OF A FRIAR?
Actually, what we want to bring across as a message – that’s why we wear this habit and all that – is that there is another dimension, another aspect to our life that many people are ignorant of, or simply ignoring. Like St. Paul says, our citizenship is in heaven and we are strangers and pilgrims on this Earth. Let us not make this Earth our permanent home because it will not be a permanent home. Except maybe in a cemetery. I want to be like a symbol or sign of something greater, that we have our salvation forever. That is all that counts. If I didn’t have faith, I don’t know how I could live in this life.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Well, Jesus is the most important thing in my life. He’s everything. And then of course whatever else He brings with Him. So, for example, the gospels, the revelation that Jesus brought about us about God and heaven and so on. In other words, to try and become what Jesus wants us to become. That is the most important. And then, when you hold something very valuable, you want to share it, so I want to share that with people. I want to preach from the heart and with conviction about what I believe. What attracted me to the life of St. Francis was the simplicity. The simplicity in that he says our rule is to obey the holy gospels of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s simplicity. But then you have to apply that in your life – it’s very difficult these days. For example, St. Francis wanted us to be without any money or property. Try to do something without money now – you can’t travel, you can’t have insurance! So somehow we need to try to accommodate to the times, even if sometimes we’re going contrary to the original idea.
WHAT LESSON ARE YOU LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE YOU LEARNED RECENTLY?
To be simple in your approach to everything. When I encounter certain difficulties, root canal job, for example, my principle is this: “This too shall pass.” And I have proof because it does pass! And the thing is that this life will pass, and it will. What then? So that you find out in the gospels that is what Jesus said and that will never end. That’s the main thing, that simplicity.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
The greatest gift or blessing is knowing that I’m right with God, but that carries many other things. For example, I’m right with Him because I’ve accepted the gift He has given me. Like baptism. I was just an infant when I was baptized, but I’m very grateful for that baptism. Then, the fact that I’m a friend of God, that is a tremendous gift. I keep on thanking God every morning. I thank God for this day.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
The greatest struggle in my life is trying to be what God wants me to be. St. Paul says that we’re all sinners and we fail a lot of times. I know that. He said that, where sin abounds, grace abounds more. I know that we are all weak and we fail to be exactly what God wants us to be, I’m not referring to very big things, things like wasting time, and yet the hope that God gave us is like a thread that keeps on going. We have faith, hope and love. So I have hope that I’m going in the right direction, and I keep on struggling with trying to overcome some of the things that really seem to be interfering with the way that we should go. I recall a story from an author, about how he was a child and he became very enthused about holiness about God, so he said, “I want to be a saint and he prayed and prayed, saying ‘God I want to be a saint.’” The next day he was very disappointed because he was still not a saint. It’s not that easy. That’s what the struggle means. He has to struggle from day to day with doubt. It’s not our work, it’s the work of God within us and we have to let God do the work with us. We want to be in control and God says no, let me be in control.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
John 3:16: “For God so loved us that he gave us his only son that we will not perish but have light everlasting.” But I have many other passages of scriptures.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
The best moment of every day here, you can look upon it from two viewpoints. One is just simply a natural viewpoint and you can look at it as a supernatural viewpoint. Supernatural viewpoint is when we look at faith and the moment of receiving the grace of God. Specifically during mass and so on. But I find other very great moments, too, like administering the sacraments of reconciliation or confession. Those are tremendous moments of my life. Natural, on the natural level, actually I don’t consider those moments of too much value. They’re passing. I have always been interested in improving myself, from way back when I was a teenager before I got my vocation, I used to lift weights. I bought a guitar and I wanted to be a musician. Then I subscribed to an electronics course by correspondence. In other words, I always wanted to improve. I even took some courses in speed reading, just to improve, then I find out I simply can’t do something by wanting it!