A community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an order called to serve the materially poor and to evangelize, is taking root in East Oakland.

“It’s been a long journey over many, many years, going three bishops back,” said Father Luke Joseph Leighton, CFR, who is the community’s servant.

The first invitation, from then-Bishop Allen Vigneron, came at a time Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, founded in 1987, had just expanded to Ireland and New Mexico. They needed time for those communities to become established.

A year ago, they were able to accept the invitation of Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, who offered them a former convent at St. Bernard Parish in Oakland.

Bishop Barber named the new friary for San Junipero Serra.

“As Franciscans, we feel we’re coming to a land that’s home for us,” Father Luke said. “The way was forged by our forbearers.”

Franciscans have a long history in the Diocese of Oakland. The first Mass in what would become the diocese was celebrated in 1772 by Father Juan Crespi; a quarter-century later, friars established Mission San Jose.

Today Franciscan friars serve at St. Elizabeth Parish in Oakland and Conventual Franciscans serve at St. Paul Parish in San Pablo, Our Lady of Grace Parish in Castro Valley and St. Jarlath Parish and the chancery in Oakland. Capuchin Franciscan Friars have a house of studies in Berkeley.

Although the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal will make their home at the parish, they do not administer a parish. Their call is to evangelize and serve the materially poor.

The community at San Junipero Serra Friary will number six. The first to arrive was Father Daniel Williamson, CFR, who has a background in church renovation and construction.

Father Williamson, who arrived a year ago, began renovations of the chapel, which needed beautification. Other parts of the building needed extensive electrical and plumbing work to bring it up to code, Father Leighton said. Architects and contractors were called in.

“The diocese has been very generous in providing for that renovation,” Father Leighton said. “We feel that gratitude as we move forward.

“We’re also trying to do some fundraising to help with that.”

Father Williamson was joined in January by Father Leighton and two brothers. The trio left New York City in a car with a U-Haul, provided by benefactors, on Jan. 3. They celebrated Mass on he Feast of the Epiphany, and set out, carrying household items for their new home. They made the trip in 10 days, visiting friends and family, Franciscans and Poor Clares, along the way.

There was one additional traveler.

“We had a little cat that traveled with us,” Father Leighton said.

The story of the little cat tells a story about how the friars serve.

“Three of us had been serving at a homeless shelter,” he said. “A little cat wandered in from the streets into the parking lot of the shelter and made her home in the garden,” he said. “At some point, she gave birth to five kittens.”

The shelter guests in the Bronx, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, found joy in the new life.

“Locked down for four months, they were able to dote over this pregnant mother cat,” he said. “She was precious to us.”

Her kittens were adopted; their mother – dubbed Sam by the friar and Cookie by the shelter guests – came west.

Upon arrival in Oakland, the friars went to meet Bishop Barber. When they met the bishop, he invited them to “go with him and serve in a way he find so joyful and fruitful.”

The friars joined him early on a Sunday morning in February to work with the Catholic Worker in Berkeley to serve breakfast at People’s Park.

The community awaits the arrival of two more members: A priest and a brother who served in South Africa will be joining them.

The friars are discerning what their service will be in Oakland. They know, for example, that they will assist with Pan de Vida Retreats for young people, young adults and married people….

[The Friars were founded in 1987 in the Archdiocese of New York by Father Benedict Groeschel, Father Stan Fortuna, and others.]

The above comes from a March 22 story in the Oakland Catholic Voice.