NEWARK — Inside the Jeanne Jugan Residence, two young men who are just beginning their journey as Franciscans are helping bring companionship and the faith to others, many of whom are more than 50 years older than them.
Casey Cole and Dennis Bennett are among five postulants who are in the midst of their formation for the Franciscans’ Holy Name Province. Two others are working at St. Francis Inn Ministries in Philadelphia, which includes a soup kitchen, women’s shelter, thrift store and social services center. The other one is in parish ministry at St. Paul’s in Wilmington, where the five live.
Cole and Bennett have fit in well with the residents at Jeanne Jugan, said Sister Jeanne Ries, a Little Sister of the Poor who is the administrator of the facility. She said this is the first time Franciscan postulants have worked at the home, and it’s been a very positive experience.
“They draw a good group of residents for their Bible studies, and their word games. The residents really respond to the two postulants, and they really enjoy the time spent with them. If there’s a week when they’re not here, the residents miss them. They really have a wonderful interaction with the residents. It’s just a real nice ambience, a real warmth,” Sister Jeanne said.
Other activities organized by Cole and Bennett include bingo, line dancing and individual visits with residents, some of whom do not have family nearby.
“There really isn’t anything that they won’t do,” Sister Jeanne said.
For the young men, the time they are spending at Jeanne Jugan is part of their discernment as Franciscans.
Cole, 22, graduated last spring from Furman University in South Carolina with a degree in religious studies. The Lancaster, Pa., native met a Franciscan who was the pastor of a parish in Greenville, S.C., and a campus chaplain. After Cole’s sophomore year, he stayed in Greenville for the summer, living in community with three others as part of a summer internship organized by the friar. The group prayed, ate and worked together.
“I really enjoyed the community, so I took it a step further,” he said.
He spent time around Franciscans as he progressed through college, and by the time of his graduation, he was ready to join.
Bennett was an adjunct chemistry professor at his alma mater, Rhode Island College, when he began to ask himself if there was supposed to be something more going on in his life.
“It was in graduate school where I just felt like I enjoyed what I was doing, but it wasn’t where I was supposed to be. And that’s when I started my discernment,” said Bennett, 27.
Bennett started at Rhode Island College as a theology major and was thinking of the priesthood, but he wondered what he would do with that degree if he chose not to become a priest. Thus, the switch to chemistry.
He said the variety of ministries and the sense of community offered by the Franciscans were attractive to him.
“Really, there’s something for everybody in the Franciscans. And I already have the beard,” he joked.
Both men could have changed assignments in January, but they decided to stay at the Jeanne Jugan Residence. Bennett said the age difference has not been an obstacle, and he believes he is getting as much out of the experience as the residents.
“They are there to share, and to talk about God and their faith, and the difference in years doesn’t make a difference,” he said.
In addition to the activities, many of the residents also like having someone who will just come and visit and talk with them.
“It’s nice to be able to go in and say hi to them,” he said. “Most of the time they just respond so positively to having somebody come by and just to sit down and talk with them. I think it’s been great that we’ve been here for such an extended period because you really kind of build up trust with the residents.”
The experience at Jeanne Jugan has been something of an eye-opener for Cole, who said in other nursing homes he has visited, “there was this feeling of death everywhere.
“Here, you almost forget that people are in the later stages of life … because there’s this great joy in everything they do. There’s a community here. I don’t think anyone would look at themselves and say that they’re an individual who cohabitates with these people. Everyone kind of sees themselves as part of a larger community,” he said.
Full of fun
Esther Valentino, who has lived at Jeanne Jugan for four years, enjoys the Bible study with the postulants. “Whatever the subject is, they bring it across very clearly. Slowly, but clearly, and everybody’s able to question them. We just have a good time,” she said.
Eileen Devine, a resident for six years, said she likes to play bingo with Cole and Bennett. They are “full of fun and outgoing, so young and so dedicated to God. They’re an example of Catholic spirituality.”