Soul's Serenity in the South Bronx

March 3 1992 • Written by David Gonzalez for The New York Times

The delicate jangle of rosary beads breaks the predawn stillness inside St. Crispin's Friary as gray-robed friars pad into the sparsely furnished chapel for morning prayers. One by one, they stop and genuflect before the altar, some kneeling down to kiss the floor.

In the quiet pauses between prayers, the chirping of birds that flit like black dots across the purple sky lends a soft, pastoral touch. But sometimes the heralds of God and nature are drowned out by the sounds of sirens, screeching tires or blaring, percussive music.

St. Crispin's Friary is not nestled in some leafy countryside, but on a side street in the Melrose section of the South Bronx. A small group of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal has lived there for nearly five years, leading a life of prayer, preaching and poverty while ministering to people whose lives can be as broken as the streets and buildings that dot the jumbled landscape.

"This is a community forged through need, pain and suffering, and the most basic human instincts for food, shelter and kids," the Rev. Benedict Groeschel, the group's superior and one of eight founding members, said of the neighborhood. "This is life where it is most real." Work and Prayer

In communities where the social fabric has worn thin, urban missions like St. Crispin's Friary are among the few institutions committed to reclaiming neighborhoods and lives. Some build affordable housing or run AIDS hospices, while others devote themselves to a cloistered life of prayer for the salvation of the souls outside their thick walls.

The friars of St. Crispin's combine a bit of both -- devoting several hours each day to prayer and contemplation while also running a shelter for homeless men, handing out free bags of food to area residents each week and planning to renovate a nearby building into a single-room-occupancy hotel. They have been joined in their mission by a group of like-minded nuns who live in an adjoining convent, and by several dozen lay associates who volunteer with donations and labor.

An alarming decline in the number of men and women entering religious life has left many Roman Catholic orders grappling with an aging membership, yet most Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are under 40. Some abandoned careers in music, journalism or social work to don medieval robes and live a life patterned after that of the 13th century mendicant and church reformer St. Francis of Assisi.

"Our lives should make no sense unless God is real," said Brother Robert Stanion, a plump man whose stubbly pate and warm smile make him look like the quintessential jolly friar. "We are like a flame in a dark world."

The complex of buildings around the friary was largely dark too in 1987 when Father Benedict and seven colleagues moved into what had been the rectory of St. Adalbert's Church. The parish was founded in 1900 to serve a Polish immigrant community, but by 1987 those parishioners had long since moved away.

This neighborhood, ringed by poverty, drugs and death, was perfect for the mission envisioned by the friars, who left the Franciscan Capuchin order to begin their religious community. They were intent on following a tradition of reform that urged a return to spiritual roots and strong support for the Pope. 'A Little Too Worldly'

"We feel the church in society is in lousy shape," said Father Benedict, who is also the director of spiritual development for the Archdiocese of New York. "Christians in general are a little too worldly. A lot of people in the church have grown far from concern for the poor."

The poor, said Father Benedict, tell you the truth, and working with them is his way to return to the ideals of selfless giving outlined in the New Testament.

"The Christian is supposed to follow Jesus crucified," he said. "Where else would you find Jesus crucified but here? You can see God in the mountains or the sea, but if you want to go to Calvary, why not here?" Offering a Haven>

The rundown apartment building next door to the church crystallizes the neighborhood's problems. Several tenants have died of AIDS. Single mothers on welfare and a handful of two-parent families try to keep their households safe, while drug dealers and users roam the building's dark recesses.

The friars have a special relationship with the tenants next door, bringing food and clothing and helping new arrivals with furniture and a friendly ear. Regularly, they take the youngsters on field trips upstate, or open the church basement to give them a safe place to play and exercise without having to worry about the discarded hypodermic needles and armed drug dealers who have made a nearby playground off-limits.

"They do a lot of good," said Auria Torres, the building's superintendent, as she sat in an alleyway hacking up a discarded carpet for the trash. "They treat some people too well." One woman, she said, used to take the food and clothing the friars gave her and sell it for drugs. "I told them not to give her food, but they said no."

At the moment, eight friars are living at St. Crispin's; 10 more, including some of the community's founders, live in Yonkers, where they train novices in the order. Relying on Donations

Their rooms are sparsely furnished: a sleeping bag, a desk and a couple of religious images. In keeping with the teachings of St. Francis, the community owns no real estate, living and working in buildings lent to them by John Cardinal O'Connor. They draw no salary, relying on donations for themselves and for the shelter and food distribution in the neighborhood. They handle most of their own chores, from maintaining their fleet of rickety cars and doing minor construction work to cooking meals and taking turns working in the shelter.

After a one-year novitiate, new members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which they renew annually for three years, after which they take perpetual vows. Brothers and fathers take the same vows, though the brothers are not ordained as priests and do not administer the sacraments. About half remain to take their final vows.

Those who stay say they are attracted by the challenge of the life, likening it to a countercultural movement.

"This is a fresh initiative to satisfy the spiritual needs of young people who come to us," said the Rev. Glenn Sudano, the group's director of vocations. "Young people are looking for a challenge. They don't want the secular life, or a religious life with secular trappings."

But he is quick to add that despite their work with the poor, the friars are not social workers. "Our work with the poor is an expression of our love of God -- it's an overflow," said Father Glenn. "A friar can't come here because he loves only the poor."

Brother Richard Roemer, a boyish Oregonian with an incongruously bushy beard, took his first vows in January and moved into the friary last month. Becoming a friar is not a way to escape from the world, he said, and that is especially true of the vow of chastity.

"In college I dated like anybody else," he said. "It was a time of struggle. I thought maybe I was called to a married life. But I can't choose this life because I don't love a certain person enough.

"In my heart I have to have a strong love for this way of life," he said.

He acknowledges that celibacy is not an easy choice. "Poverty and obedience are hurdles," he said. "Chastity is the high jump."

In a way, the friars see chastity as another form of poverty -- emptying themselves of emotional and material attachments that would hinder their giving freely of themselves through prayer and work. 'I Was Still Hungry'

Although literature is filled with stories of spurned lovers who took up the monastic life, or vagabonds who repented by seeking the sanctuary of a cloister, many of the friars say they turned their backs on uneventful secular lives after a deep religious experience.

Father Stan Fortuna once made his living playing bass with bands in bars and dance clubs. But he felt an emptiness in that existence, and found himself drawn closer to the church. He began to skip band practice for Bible classes, and on his own time he would seek out the homeless and elderly who lived near his cold-water flat in Getty Square in Yonkers.

"Helping people put the taste in my mouth," he said. "But I was still hungry. I wanted more and I had the sense there is more."

A wiry man with piercing dark eyes and a tangle of thick black curls pulled into a ponytail, he is a loose-limbed bundle of energy who is equally gleeful talking about Michael Jordan or the River Jordan. He still has his bass, he said, since the friars are allowed to retain the tools of their trade; he often sings when the friars go on their monthly missions to other Catholic parishes, where they hold weeklong discussions on faith and the religious life. Cole Porter, Mystic?

A large portrait of St. John the Baptist dominates Father Stan's music room -- the former church baptistry, which is now crammed with his bass, a keyboard and copies of his tape "Cry For Shelter," which he sells to finance the friars' work with the homeless. Caressing the bass, he plunks out a jazzy rendition of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To." His version is fraught with meanings Cole Porter never imagined.

"Who is you?" he said, stopping in mid-song. "Where is home?"

Brother Francis Kelly, a new arrival at the friary, wonders who's home whenever he peers out his bedroom window at the slablike housing projects a few blocks away. He looks to the street below just in time to see a neighborhood man selling drugs in plain view of his 11-year-old son. Brother Francis casts his gaze once more to the projects.

"I think about all the people who live there and all their different suffering," he said, noting that he and Brother Richard would like to go door to door in those projects to see if they can help the tenants.

"Just looking at the disheveledness of everything," he said, "it's like an exterior expression of what's going on inside the people in the neighborhood."

NEXT: At the front lines of the friars' fight against a neighborhood's poverty and despair.