This band of brothers seeks to defend life, serve the poor

| November 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

The Franciscan Brothers of Peace, who founded Pro-Life Action Ministries, participate in the Good Friday Prayer Service for Life in front of Planned Parenthood in St. Paul in this 2013 file photo. Among those praying silently at the rally are Brother Paul O’Donnell, third from left, Brother Joseph Katzmarek, fourth from left, and Brother Conrad Richardson, right. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A small group of men went to Mass regularly at Assumption in St. Paul back in the early 1980s. The 20-something guys, numbering less than half a dozen, were not trying to draw attention to themselves.

But, they were being noticed by other regular Mass goers at the downtown St. Paul church.

After a short time, they became known as “the brothers.” This, plus the leading of the Holy Spirit, got them to thinking about establishing something more formal.

On Aug. 2, 1982, they did. They became the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. The founder was Brother Michael Gaworski, who died in 2003 after living in a near vegetative state after suffering from bacterial pneumonia in 1991. He was joined by four other men, including Brother Paul O’Donnell, who has been part of the order since its founding and today serves as its leader. He is the only one of the original five still with the order.

“In the beginning, we really didn’t set out to form a religious community,” said Brother Paul, 54. “Brother Michael had been in the seminary, I had been in the seminary. I was at St. John Vianney Seminary, then at St. Paul Seminary for a while.

“We wanted to do something a little bit more radical, live in community and have a solid prayer life,” he said. “We just wanted to take a year or two to discern where the Lord would move us. When we came together to pray and discern, we realized that what we had was something special.”

Brother Michael approached the vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Father Urban Wagner, who instantly was impressed and then went to Archbishop John Roach, who approved the founding of the order nine months later.

At first, the five brothers who joined lived in a rented apartment. In 1989, they moved into the former convent of St. Columba, which they now own. Today, there are 12 brothers, nine of whom live in the 25,000-square-foot building, which also has offices and a year-round food shelf.


One of the most important ministries of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace is pro-life work. Brother Michael and Brother Paul co-founded Pro-Life Action Ministries 28 years ago, and Brother Paul serves as president of the board and works closely with executive director Brian Gibson, whom he and Brother Michael hired.

In fact, the pro-life passion among the brothers was so strong that they contemplated incorporating that into their name. They even came up with one — Franciscan Brothers for Life. But, in the end, they decided to stick with the name that Father Wagner had suggested.

In addition to their pro-life work, which includes attending prayer rallies like the annual Good Friday prayer service in front of Planned Parenthood in St. Paul, they put a lot of effort into caring for the poor by operating their food shelf. They have now entered their busiest time of the year, when they have special food drives for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We help about 650 families at Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Brother Paul. “We also run a food shelf during the year where we help provide food to over 75,000 people a year. This is just in our little friary in the Midway [area of St. Paul]. We know that we can’t ease all people’s burdens. There’s a lot of hardship out there, but we try to do something tangible to help families in need.”

Pulling together

In addition to opening their doors to the poor who need food, they go out on the streets to minister to those who are suffering. They will walk the neighborhood to talk and pray with people they encounter.

One of the men, Brother Joseph Katzmarek, was especially passionate about reaching out to the poor. He would go out looking for those who slept outdoors.

Unfortunately, that led to a tragedy that rocked the brothers. On a misty November afternoon 13 years ago, he fell and severed his spinal cord. He is paralyzed from the waist down and has to minister as a paraplegic.

“He was visiting with some marginalized people under the bridges in Minneapolis,” Brother Paul said. “He would bring them blankets or sandwiches. He’s always had a special ministry. Brother Joseph’s father owned a produce place down in north Minneapolis and would always feed the homeless. So, Brother Joseph grew up with that, befriending these people. So, he was bringing them some food. It must have rained and he slipped and fell off an embankment and severed his spinal column.

“It was hard for him. He was one of our more able-bodied guys. . . . He still continues his ministry, with the brothers’ help, to a lot of the poor, Hispanic, homeless population in West St. Paul.”

Fortunately, the brothers had God’s grace, plus more than a decade of caring for Brother Michael to help them work through Brother Joseph’s tragedy. Brother Paul will never forget the day when Brother Michael, his best friend, fell ill while the two of them were serving at a hospice facility for AIDS patients in1991.

Responding to a request from Archbishop Roach, they had been serving at a home for men with AIDS called Samaritan House.

“In March of 1991, I was over at the house and we actually had three men who were all dying,” Brother Paul said. “Brother Michael came over to help me. About 4 in the morning, he went up to go to bed and I stayed up watching the guys. But, he didn’t come down in the morning. And so, when I went up to find out because I wanted to get some sleep myself, I found him unconscious without a pulse or a heartbeat. I called the paramedics and tried to do CPR. He was clinically dead. He was gray in color. He was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center. He was in a coma for a while in what they called a vegetative state.”

He never came out of that state. He was able to communicate by blinking his eyes when brothers would point to letters of the alphabet. So, they knew his mind was functioning. But, he spent the next 12 1/2 years bedridden before dying on Aug. 28, 2003.

Far from pulling the brothers apart, Brother Michael’s death galvanized them and their ministries, which also includes caring for and housing victims of torture.

“It kind of pulled us together,” Brother Paul said. “He was a visionary type of person, and God used him to a certain point, but it was going to take others to carry [his vision] on. I’m sure it was for his salvation and the good of our community that God allowed this to happen.”

Spiritual rejuvenation

Today, as he looks ahead, Brother Paul is filled with hope and joy. With two men — Brothers Benedict Kelley and Juniper Barlett — having made their first profession last month, he believes the Franciscan Brothers of Peace will continue their important ministry in the archdiocese.

“We have seven men who are lifetime professed. That’s a good, solid number,” Brother Paul said. “And, the fact that our average age is well under 60 is another good thing. There are many religious communities where the youngest members are in their 70s.”

What has helped keep the brothers refreshed and rejuvenated is the construction of a spiritual center in northern Minnesota. The 22 acres, situated about 20 miles north of the North Shore of Lake Superior, give the brothers a place to get away from the hectic pace of urban ministry, plus connect with the spirituality of the saint whose name they have taken.

“This is a busy place,” Brother Paul said of the friary where most of their ministry takes place. “You need to balance that with prayer and solitude and being able to get away.”

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Category: Special Sections, Year of Consecrated Life