WILMINGTON – The gnarled trunks of two massive, copper beech trees,
one shading a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, reach heavenward along
the drive that leads to an 1886 Victorian mansion on a hillside above
Interstate 95 north of Wilmington.
Next to the estate-house-turned-retreat-house at Silverside and prior
roads, a 1930s addition houses a friary for Franciscan Capuchin friars
and a chapel reminiscent of Franciscan chapels in Europe. Behind the
buildings, a tree-studded, 13 acre tract of land slopes toward the
The buildings and land make up the St. Francis Renewal Center, which
lives up to its self-described building as “a beautiful place to be.” The
center is home to five friars – four priests and one brother – and provides
a spiritual oasis for 20 to 30 people who attend daily Mass and to others
who come to the grounds for retreats and other spiritual programs.
The friary is one of two for Capuchin men in Delaware. Both are part of
the New Jersey Province of Capuchins, officially the Order of Friars
Minor Capuchin, named for "the capuche”, the long, pointed hood that
along with a brown robe makes up their religious habit.
At the heart of the Capuchins’ communal life is the Eucharist. At 5 p.m.
each day, the friars gather for evening prayer in the ”choir”, a room
behind the chapel altar that houses the tabernacle and includes “prayer
stalls” – a railed section where the friars can stand, kneel or sit.
“What else do we need if we have the Blessed Sacrament?” asked
Father Francis Sariego, 63, a Capuchin for 33 years. “I usually get up
early in the morning and go there and talk to God. I stay there until it is
time for morning prayers and daily Mass.”
Brother Jack Boehm, 53, a Capuchin for 28 years, called the chapel and
choir “the center of my life.”
In years past, friars would gather in the choir at different times of the day to chant the liturgy of the hours,
giving rise to the room’s name. ‘We don’t chant anymore,” said Father Cyprian Rosen, 72, a former head of
the New Jersey province who now lives at St/. Francis. “We’ve gotten away from that formal chanting of
the office, with the changes after Vatican II.”
The friars’ lifestyle has changed, too, he said. “In some of our old houses years ago, it was very monastic.”
The friars would awaken at a certain time each day and engage in communal prayer at various times of the
Today, Morning Prayer, once held in the choir, is held in the chapel so lay people can join the friars. “We
maintain a prayerful community because people are coming here for spiritual assistance and guidance,”
said Father Edmund Walker, the friar’s superior.
On a typical weekday, the friars gather in the chapel for Morning Prayer at 7:30, followed by Mass at 8.
Since the priest celebrate Mass for several communities of women religious – including the retirement
home and motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia in Aston, Pa., and the Capuchin Clares
monastery in Wilmington – not all the friars are available on any given day.
During the day the friars tend to their various ministries, primarily as chaplains to communities of women
religious, and to their communal duties, which for each friar include cooking one day a week. They also
study, pray, meditate, and tend to the spiritual needs of those who come to the center.
After evening prayer the friars eat together. If the center is conducting an evening program for the public,
such as biweekly sessions this year on St. Paul and St. Francis, they will attend it; later they usually gather
in a room on the second floor to watch television and talk before bedtime.
Private but accessible, too.
In addition to their duties serving women religious communities, the friars celebrate Mass and hear
confessions at nearby parishes and conduct programs and retreats at the center. Those activities help the
men fulfill and old law of the Capuchins, Father Sariego said, one that calls for the friars “to be far enough
for people to not be disturbed by the world but close enough to be always accessible.”
The Franciscans offer no ser retreat program but can customize a retreat for a group, Father Walker said.
Some groups use their own retreat program.
Most retreats are held during the day, since the retreat house can only accommodate up to 13 people for
overnight stays. Many women and men religious come for several days of quiet, prayerful retreat.
The three-story retreat house, with its large porch, originally was the Van Trump mansion. The Van Trump
family owned the Lockerhan Water Works (now United Water Co), according to a history of the renewal
Irish Capuchins in California purchased the house and about 25 acres of land and moved in on Feb. 2, 1931.
A new wing was added and the novitiate of St. Patrick opened in 1936. The wing, named St. Patrick’s
Monastery, was connected to the mansion by a corridor.
In 1963 the Irish Capuchins decided to move from the East Coast about
the same time the New Jersey Province of Capuchins was looking for
a novitiate site. Also during this time, almost half of the Capuchins’
land was purchased for development of Interstate 95. The New Jersey
Province purchased St. Patrick’s Monastery and 13 acres of land for
$125,000 in 1963. The name was changed to St. Francis Renewal
Center in 1971.
The center is also home to the St. Patrick’s Fraternity of Secular
Franciscans, which has about 20 active members. Father Bill Arlia,
38, is the Secular Franciscans’ spiritual director and also works with a
Padre Pio prayer group that meets at the friary.
John Oscar is a Secular Franciscan officer who attends morning
prayer and is among 20 to 30 laypeople who attend daily Mass at the
Friary. Oscar, 75, lectors at a 6:30 a.m Mass at St. Mary Magdalen
Church at least once a week, then drives about five miles to St.
Francis for morning prayer and another Mass. He began coming to
the center six years ago. His father and bother, were members of the
secular Franciscans and Oscar knew of the friary but had never visited
it. “I thought it was time to go take a look,” he said. “The friars kept
me coming back.”
Curiosity also led Bonnie Corwin of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish
to the center. After she moved to Delaware in 1988, she notices the
center’s sign. “I knocked on the door an asked ‘What is this place?”
she said. A priest showed her around and she was captivated by the
Gothic-style chapel with its stained glass windows depicting saints
with Capuchins ties, the Holy Family, and scenes from the life of St.
Corwin became a regular at daily Mass. “You can feel the peace and
work of Dt. Francis here,” she said.
The center’s facilities and grounds provide a setting conductive to the
friars’ communal religious life. In spring and summer, Father Arlia
likes to sit on the porch of the retreat house to work on his homilies.
“It’s quiet – no phone ringing. I will bring a notebook with me and jot
down some of my inspirations.”
As he stares our over the grounds to “reflect on the Lord’s presence in
all creation,” he feels in harmony with his order’s patron, St. Francis,
who “would see God in everything."
By Jim Grant from "The Dialog"